City Focus - Salvador de Bahia

Alex Benasuli discovers that Brazil’s original capital beats to its own drum whilst embodying the fundamental elements of the nation’s heart and soul that make South America’s largest country such a seductive destination.

For centuries, Brazil was the crown jewel in the Portuguese colonial empire and from 1549 to 1763 Salvador De Bahia was its capital. Blessed by its strategic position on Brazil’s largest bay, facilitating easy trade with Europe, Africa and the Americas, Salvador grew fabulously rich on the back of sugarcane and slavery, quickly becoming the country’s main seaport.

As one of the oldest and wealthiest cities in the Americas, Salvador boasts some of largest and best-preserved colonial neighbourhoods in the new world, a fact long acknowledged by UNESCO, which listed its historic city centre as a World Heritage Site in 1985. Visitors to Portugal will immediately recognise its aesthetic influences on Salvador. Ornate Baroque churches, imposing administrative buildings and blue, pink, and yellow pastel-coloured buildings with wedding cake-style white trims abound, concealing beautifully painted ceramic tiled floors and walls.

Head to Pelourinho in the upper city (Cidade Alta) for the highest concentration of colonial architecture. The steep, cobble-stoned approaches to Pelourinho, dotted with numerous historic, brightly-coloured monuments are enlivened by the exotic and unpredictable street life, giving this part of the city a Wizard of Oz-like quality. To spend time just wandering these streets, enjoying the magnificent 17th and 18th century sherbet coloured buildings at every turn, is to enter another world.

Mornings are quiet in Pelourinho and offer an opportunity to explore its treasures in relatively cooler temperatures with fewer tourists. Salvador’s tropical sun can be punishing and avoiding sight-seeing during the mid-day heat is highly advisable. However, the effect of the abundant sunshine illuminating every nook and cranny of Salvador’s historical city centre is nothing short of breathtaking.

You will of course want to hit the architectural highlights. Stroll down picturesque Cruzeiro de São Francisco towards resplendent São Francisco church and convent of Salvador – one of Brazil’s most important and beautiful historical sites and best remaining examples of Portuguese Baroque architecture on the planet.

Baroque is known for its opulence and over-the-top displays of wealth. São Francisco does not disappoint. Built in the 18th century, detailed wooden carvings adorn the walls of its magnificent interiors, whilst pillars and ceilings are decadently highlighted with gold leaf. An eighty-kilo silver chandelier hangs majestically from the ceiling. The highlight of the convent cloister next door is the extensive classic blue and white Portuguese azulejos (or tiles) that surround it, depicting the life of St. Francis of Assisi. The shady perimeter of the landscaped courtyard is an excellent place to enjoy some moments of contemplation and take a break from the heat. If there’s one church you see in Salvador, São Francisco should be it.

Pelourinho’s historical sites are plentiful and easy to discover. Though rebuilt many times, Palácio Rio Branco, Salvador’s historic seat of government, dates back to 1549. This splendid neoclassical palace boasts grand reception spaces and ornate design detailing which offer further glimpses of Brazil’s wealthy past. However, it is the shaded terrace perched high above the lower city (Cidade Baixa), revealing panoramic vistas of enormous All Saints Bay upon which Salvador de Bahia is located, that makes the visit worthwhile. Not to mention the gentle sea breezes!

Transporting goods and people from the lower city (where the ships docked) to the upper city used to be back breaking work. In the 1600s, the Jesuits designed a rope and pulley system to save time and energy. Over the years, the means of transporting goods and people became more elaborate. Built between 1869 and 1873, Elevador Lacerda was the first ever elevator to open to the public and is one of Salvador’s defining landmarks and most visited attractions. In 1928, steam elevators were replaced by an electric system. Now beautifully restored to its former art deco glory, its four elevators connect the upper city with Salvador’s bay side financial center and municipal transportation hub of Comércio in thirty seconds.

A short walk from the base of the elevator is Mercado Modelo, a replica of Salvador’s original Customs House, through which all goods and slaves passed. Today the Mercado is a popular market, comprising more than 200 stalls brimming with local arts and crafts and typical Bahian souvenirs. Bargaining is de rigueur in Salvador. If shopping is not your thing, many of Comércio’s cafés, bars and restaurants offer vistas of All Saints’ Bay.

There is a dark side to all the faded architectural extravagance and legacy of commercial activity upon which Salvador was built. Slavery was big business in Salvador. Brazil was the last country in the western world to abolish slavery in 1888. Forty percent of the slaves that were brought to the Americas were destined for Brazil, and Salvador was one of the largest slave ports on the continent. The Portuguese word “Pelourinho” literally means a pillory, the like of which was used as a means of punishment and humiliation for slaves who challenged their masters.

To this day, Salvador remains the Brazilian city that has retained the most African influences. With the more sinister legacies of slavery now in the past, Afro-Brazilian culture thrives in Salvador and is a source of vibrancy and joy. Nowhere in Brazil is its unique cultural melting pot more in evidence than in Salvador.

In Pelourinho’s main squares and throughout the city, visitors often chance upon troupes of über fit and mostly black and male capoeira dancers. Capoeira is a Brazilian martial arts-based acrobatic dance style that was developed by enslaved Africans in Brazil in the 16th century. Combining reverence for ancestors and the spirit world with fighting techniques and trickery, it was practiced as a means for slaves to express and defend themselves. Ritualistic moves are accompanied by chanting and the playing of percussion instruments. A highly athletic pursuit that fuses strength, dexterity and grace, watching capoeira dancers is truly mesmerising and the combination of music and dance adds a unique sprit to Salvador’s streets.

For a more authentic capoeira experience, head to Forte de Santo Antônio Além do Carmo, located at the edge of popular Santo Antônio neighbourhood, near Pelourinho. Also known as Forte da Capoeira, this 17th century fort houses various capoeira schools that rehearse in the massive central courtyard. Here, capoeira enthusiasts of all ages, assemble to learn and practice this beautiful art form and keep alive this colourful thread of Brazilian culture. Even if there’s no capoeira happening, the area around the fort is well worth exploring and the views across All Saints’ Bay, particularly at sunset, are spectacular.

Santo Antônio, also known as Carmo, is as picturesque as Pelourinho, minus the grandest of its historical buildings and also devoid of the tourist throngs and street hustlers that can often make Pelourinho a bit hectic and not the safest place to explore at night.

It’s hard not to be seduced by Santo Antônio’s main drag, Rua Direita de Santo Antônio. More residential than Pelourinho, the rainbow-coloured 17th and 18th century former mansions that line this kilometer-long cobbled street positively ooze charm. Many of Salvador’s newest and most inviting bars, restaurants and boutique bed and breakfast lodgings are located here.

Heading from Pelourinho to Forte de Capoeira, along Rua Direita de Santo Antônio, most of the buildings on the right have terraces offering expansive views over the bay and lower city. It’s no surprise that the area has gentrified so quickly and become one the most desirable areas in Salvador to eat, drink and rest one’s head.

At night, the partying literally spills onto the streets with impromptu samba dancing and relaxed socialising. Brazil is a laidback country and Salvador is one of its most easygoing cities. Casual and informal are rules of thumb when going out. Sensual and carefree are the predominant vibes. Very much on the rise, Santo Antônio effortlessly exudes Brazilian joie de vivre and is the place where local residents and intrepid tourists meet in funky bars and restaurants that serve simple yet innovative takes on global and local cuisine.

Salvador’s traditionally bohemian haunt, Rio Vermelho, a twenty-minute taxi ride from Pelourinho and Santo Antônio in the city’s southern zone, is also going more upscale while firmly retaining it artsy and creative roots. Cliffside luxury skyscrapers jostle with cobble stone streets, art galleries, cafés and bars, as well as beaches, resulting in a truly eclectic vibe, both day and night.

Beachfront square Largo de Santana (or Sant’Ana) is a lively social hub that explodes over the weekends. It’s one of the best places to sample acarajé, a mash up of black-eyed beans, shrimp, onion, salt and pepper, fried in palm oil (dendê) and served-up by Afro-Brazilian women attired in traditional a – a curious blend of ancient European Baroque with white lace detailing and multiple layers, accessorised by vibrant tropical jewellery and turban-like headdresses.

Throughout Salvador, in eating establishments catering to all budgets and tastes, you will find moqueca, Bahia’s national dish. This salt water fish stew is infused with a myriad of spices and slow-cooked for hours in terra-cotta pots. In Sant’Ana you will also find countless bars, pubs and street stalls that are the perfect place to sip a cold beer or caipirinha – Brazil’s world-famous national cocktail made with cachaça, sugar and lime. A couple of caipirinhas will more than prepare you for a night of dancing, carousing and joining the tropical flow!

Every February, the beach at Rio Vermelho is the setting for Festa de Yamanjá, the Candomblé religion’s main annual festival, which along with capoeira are the most distinctive Afro-Brazilian and Bahian cultural additions to Brazilian society.

Born in the 16th century, Candomblé is a fusion of West African animist and spirit traditions with Catholic rites. During Festa de Yamanjá, hundreds of white robed women light candles and make offerings to Yamanjá, a sea goddess with parallels to the Virgin Mary. Since Candomblé is a huge part of daily life in Salvador, unsurprisingly the festival becomes an all-night party.

Of course, there is no greater festival on the planet than Brazilian carnival. Salvador vies with Rio as having the biggest, best and wildest carnival in the world. Approaching a staggering two million revelers participate in Salvador’s carnival every year. This bacchanalian orgy of music, dancing, drunkenness and complete lack of inhibitions takes place every February or March in the days that lead up to the onset of Lent. Unlike Rio, where the main events are based around the samba schools and parades, Salvador’s carnival is street party oriented and arguably even crazier than the action in Rio.

The blocos (as the street parties are known) are organised around trio elétricos, which are decorated floats on trucks pumping out high-octane music. These are followed by tens of thousands of wildly gyrating costumed and scantily-clad partygoers. Whilst samba is the dominant beat in Rio, Salvador leans towards axé – a frenetic fusion of different Afro-Caribbean musical genres. Carnival in Salvador is not for the faint hearted and advance planning is essential to secure decent accommodation and tickets to the best blocos and musical acts. Safety is also a concern. It’s vital to get the lay of the land and at least have some strategy on how to tackle such a massive event. The payoff is being part of literally the most hedonistic party in the world.

Whilst Salvador is a steamy, sultry and tropical destination, the sea is never too far way. The beach at Porto de Barra, at the mouth of All Saints’ Bay in the middle of the city, has fine sand fringed by calm, translucent waters. Overlooked by a whitewashed church and bordered on one side by a colonial fort – the site of Salvador’s original European settlement – it’s hard to believe that such a beach exists in a city of three million. Here, in a seamless tapestry that can only be found in Salvador, fishermen, capoeira dancers and candomblé followers mix with families, lovers, beach volley and football players, as well as tourists.

As the sun sets, seductively illuminating this Western facing stretch of urban paradise, it is impossible not to fall in love with this sexy, vibrant, melting pot of a city. Though Salvador’s inimitable charms have evolved over many centuries, there has never been a better time than now to see this authentically seductive, bouncing Brazilian metropolis for yourself.