The SambaMaster’s Rio de Janeiro

I’m gonna cheat again. I want to add some additional thoughts on Rio and Italy soon. I have to bring my Italian sojourn up to the end, from Montalcino to Alba, via the amazing butcher shop of Dario Cecchini in Panzano north of Siena, the crazy, Dante-spouting butcher. But that will be a few more days.

In the meantime, I am posting a piece I wrote in 1986 for the Austin American-Statesman, back when they had a reasonable travel section. This was a “service piece” in part because it has, at the end, specific recommendations for restaurants, bars and clubs. Some of these are now out of date, but I may leave them in. Or not. Always check before traveling or venturing out. The Internet is your friend.

So, here is my still timely take on one of the greatest cities in the known universe. Rio de Janeiro.

***************

My soul is singing,
I see Rio de Janeiro,
I am dying of homesickness.
Rio, your sea, your beaches
All in all, Rio, you were made for me.
[With] Christ the Redeemer,
Arms open over Guanabara Bay,
This samba was written just for you,
Rio, because I like you!

—Antonio Carlos Jobim, Samba from the Plane

Rio de Janeiro

    Unfortunately, the international traveler no longer flies into Rio as described in this Jobim classic.  Instead of gliding into the tiny downtown airport nestled snugly between Sugarloaf Mountain and the ever-present Christ the Redeemer on top of Corcovado, today’s 747s and DC-10s land at an old air force base about 15 miles out of town. 

    Perhaps the romantic drama is gone, but the excitement can never be dissipated—a viscous vitality peculiar to this city of eleven million still permeates the air.  Undulating samba blaring from the cab on the ride into town, towering palms lining the road, motorists ignoring traffic lights and lane markings, the ever-present Christ on Corcovado, a noise level above normally tolerable limits, these signs could indicate one place, and one one place only—Rio de Janeiro, one of the most beautiful and fascinating cities in the world!

Brazilian flag, Cinelândia, Rio de Janeiro

    Rio, situated on Brazil’s east coast, with the Atlantic on one side, and the more tranquil Guanabara Bay on the other, is scattered among numerous verdant hills, better described as stubby, overgrown obelisks.  It is the compartmentalization of the city by these rather imposing, at times sheer rock peaks, combined with the contrasting openness created by the sea and the resulting beaches which gives Rio its unique physical character.

    And its unique cultural character?  That is not quite so well defined or explained.  But the carioca, as anything from Rio is called, is clearly a world apart from fellow Brazilians:  the speech is different, the food is different, the pace is different, the music is different and the party, the party, like the Christ on Corcovado, is, in some form or another, ever-present.  If the Paulista in São Paulo dedicates the day to work and business, then the carioca dedicates the day to living life to the fullest and sucking every drop of enjoyment from the daily grind whether it be work or play.

Carioca spirit in action

    A few observations of regularly recurring events reveal much about the city and it inhabitants:  the daily procession to the beach between 8 and 10 a.m.; the voracious consumption of quick snacks on the run, especially tiny cups of very strong and sweet coffee, the ubiquitous cafezinho; driving habits which appear to be anarchical and self-centered and in total disregard of anyone’s personal safety; a helpful and courteous smile for the tourist (Rio has yet to be truly discovered as the tourist mecca it could be); a healthy disregard for the clock resulting in one to two hour delays for any marked encounter (remember that when setting social meetings); and a profusion of ceremony and social grace never imagined in the the U.S.A.

    All this and more is typical of the carioca.  One could safely summarize the resulting whole as r-e-l-a-x-e-d

    It all works, but in a way that can sometimes be mystifying and frustrating to the ever-efficient and organized North American tourist.  Rio forces you into a very different approach to the rest of the world, somehow illogically logical.  You soon get used to the mayhem in the streets where red lights are mere suggestions, and pedestrians targets.  Walking to the beach, you find yourself stopping for a steaming hot cafezinho and a fried something or other in 95 degree weather.  Lyrical and strongly rhythmic music pervades the night, much like the constant ocean breeze as you show up for an 8:30 p.m. dinner at 10.  Before you go into the restaurant, look up and you’ll see the ever-present Christ atop Corcovado, now illuminated.

    Welcome to Rio, now you’ve arrived!

********

The Arcos da Lapa, the old aquaduct, Rio de Janeiro

    The history of Rio and its people is a long and complicated one.  The site, thought to be the mouth of a large river, was discovered on January 1, 1501, thus the name, River of January.  First settled by the French, Rio was won by the Portuguese in 1567 and grew in importance as gold and other riches passed through its port on the way to the crown in Lisbon. 

    By 1763 the seat of government was transferred to Rio, and as the city grew, spreading among the hills, Europe began to boil and the Portuguese Empire transferred its center to Rio de Janeiro, an event that would cast a behavioral influence well beyond the pure historical and political aspects of the move.

    Eventually the Portuguese throne returned to Lisbon leaving remnants which were soon transformed into the independent Empire of Brazil.  The fact that Brazil was ruled by a royal family with its ceremony, formalities and ensuing bureaucracy can still be felt in day-to-day life throughout the country. 

    As a result of the abolition of slavery, in 1889 the Empire fell.  By that time several million blacks had entered the country, greatly influencing the cultural makeup of the nation in such basic areas as food, language, music and religion.  Africanisms are much more obvious in Brazilian culture than ours owing to the attitude of the Catholic Church which was more tolerant than the repressive puritanism of our South’s Anglo forefathers.  By the turn of the century, cosmopolitan Rio was a fantastic racial and cultural mix, brimming with a Paris-like exuberance which spawned the samba, Carmen Miranda, the bikini, and eventually bossa nova.

    In the early 1960’s, the capital of Brazil was moved once again, this time from Rio to the newly constructed city of Brasília.  With the government out of the way, Rio could get on with its job as the cultural heart of the world’s fifth largest nation.  
     
     Early in 1986, the Brazilian government instituted a tough series of economic reforms to fight the 300 percent inflation of previous years.  A new monetary unit, the cruzado, and frozen prices for everything, have so far produced the desired results:  inflation is down and buying power is up.  More importantly, the morale of the people has skyrocketed from rock bottom to a new high, returning the general atmosphere to its former optimism.  [The money is now the real, and the economy is booming and most folks are much better off. China, USA, look out!]

Cold Brazilian “chopp”, tap beer

     The carioca’s pace and zest for life creates an ability to appreciate the mundane as well as the spectacular.  The merits of a particular street snack and a cold Antarctica beer are argued as hotly as those of a tender cut of expertly grilled beef and cold Antarctica.  For, in addition to great coffee, Brazil is a beer lover’s paradise boasting some very fine German-style lager delivered up in icy twenty-ounce bottles, just perfect for a hot day in Rio.

    And yes, there are plenty of those in this Cidade Maravilhosa (Marvelous City).  The daytime high averages around 80, climbing past the 100 degree mark in the summer (remember our seasons are reversed) and plummeting into the upper 60’s in July!  Nights can be cool from May to October, so a light jacket or sweater is recommended. 

Rio juice bar

    Other drinks to beat the heat in Rio are not to be overlooked.  An amazing variety of fresh tropical fruit juices can be found literally on every street corner:  try the refreshingly different maracujá (passion fruit), the peculiarly delicious cajú (cashew—the nuts we know are seeds from this fruit) or the strange, but tasty abacate (basically an avocado milkshake!). 

    Brazil has its own national soft drink, guaraná, originally an Amazonian Indian refreshment.  It is highly carbonated and satisfying without the overpowering sweetness of our sodas. 

Cachaças

    And if the beer didn’t offer enough of a kick, sample one of the several concoctions based on cachaça, basically a Brazilian rum.  The simplest and most potent is the caipirinha, nothing more than crushed lime, cachaça, sugar and ice.  It packs a punch, but one simply does not go to Rio without trying one.  The batida, usually served “up,” is cachaça blended with any available fruit juice.  Standouts are the batida de côco (coconut milk) and the batida de maracujá (passion fruit).

Caipirinha

     One of the great bargains of Rio is the food which can be had in great quantity and great variety for very little money.  Rio, remember, is a very sensual city, so the attention to food is legendary.  Every restaurant features an army of helpful, white jacketed waiters, laden with tray upon tray of gastronomic and olfactory delights.  It seems as though, no matter what kind of place you eat in, the tantalizing aroma of sauteing garlic wafts through the air every five minutes or so.  Luckily, “mouth watering” is translatable into Portuguese! Dar aqua na boca!!!!!!!!

    The average tourist, for some reason, does not think of pizza while in Rio which is a mistake.  Many pizzerias still utilize wood burning ovens and the pizza is excellent and very different; much lighter than we are used to eating, often dotted with sliced tomatoes instead of a heavy sauce.  The calabresa sausage pizza and the pizza portuguesa (sliced onions and tomatoes, crumbled boiled eggs and ham) are not to be missed. 

Churrascaria Majórica

    Another culinary highpoint in Rio is the churrascaria, or Brazilian barbecue.  With all due respect to the great BBQ chefs of Texas, the Brazilians really know how to cook meat (their beef is world famous also) and serve it in portions that would choke the average Texan.  Meat is grilled quickly over white-hot coals without losing its tenderness or one drop of flavorful juice.  And no dry brisket or chewy fajitas are to be found.  Brazilians prefer filet mignon, tenderloin and other substantial cuts of beef about which the average American can only dream.

    But the crowning glory of the carioca kitchen is the feijoada.  The best insight into the lifestyle of Rio is to experience this traditional Saturday lunchtime feast.  The way to do it is to spend the morning at the beach, returning about 1 p.m. to locate a busy restaurant serving feijoada (hotel employees can recommend a good one since there is no bad feijoada in Rio).  Be prepared for a leisurely three hour meal which will transform anyone into a Carioca with a capital CEEE.

Feijoada Completa

    Feijoada is a dish built around black beans (feijão) and rice originated by slaves to take advantage of whatever scraps of meat they were allowed.  Today it is a hearty mix of beans stewed with dried beef, ribs, sausage, bacon and other cured and smoked meats.  Accompanied by rice, tender collard greens heavy with garlic, manioc flour toasted in butter, and mountains of orange slices (included to help digestion), the meal should under no circumstances be rushed, but slowly absorbed along with the passing carnaval of life and ice cold Antarctica (estupidamente gelada, stupidly cold!) or the more traditional caipirinha.  Anyway, speeding through a feijoada can be potentially dangerous, leading to a blimp-like feeling for several days following.

    Though the temptation exists to spend an entire vacation eating one’s way through Rio, the city is rich with other attractions ranging from its natural features and colonial churches to quaint, historic streets and stark contemporary edifices, in sum, much more than a two-week stretch can safely contain.

Corcovado

    To understand the lay of the land, the first half-day should be dedicated to visiting the ever-present Christ atop Corcovado.  From this vantage point, the entire city of Rio can be seen and, with the aid of a map,  understood, at least in geographic terms; your mileage will vary on understanding anything else!!!!  Sugarloaf (Pão de Açúcar), the many beaches including Copacabana, Ipanema and Leblon—Rio’s crown jewels, the crisscross of streets through plush vegetation, the gigantic lake almost pushing Ipanema into the sea, the somehow optimistic favelas—Rio’s ubiquitous slums, it can all be taken in from Corcovado.  No better orientation could ever be devised. 

    The trip to the summit should be made not by auto, but by the charming cogwheel train (the trenzinho) which cuts through thick jungle on its way to the top.  Once there it will be impossible to believe Rio could be a city of eleven million, it’s simply too beautiful.  Before or after the climb, investigate the Largo do Boticário, just up the street from the station.  It is a small square surrounded by charmingly restored colonial homes, a world unto itself only one block off the busy street.  If you are lucky, the woman responsible for the restorations will come out and give you a little tour in English. 

Largo do Boticário

    The complementary peak on the other side of the city, Sugarloaf (Pão de Açúcar), should be done in the afternoon, say, taking off in the cable car from the Urca station at the bottom at about 2 p.m.  The trick is to be at the top of Sugarloaf as Rio, just across the yacht basin, turns on its lights for the evening.  A lovelier, more enchanting sight would be hard to imagine.

    Rio’s downtown (Centro) is dotted with colonial churches, traversed by charming narrow streets lined with 18th century architecture and studded with history.  This is where the city started; wandering a bit in this area, it is easy to imagine the city as it once was.  Investigating its mysteries for a few hours would be time well spent.

Ipanema, Spring 2010, Rio de Janeiro

    Beaches are the reason many people travel to Rio, and with great reason.  Rio is practically surrounded by some of the best beaches in the world, they seem to be endless and the show available at the beach is like no other anywhere.  The growth of the city in the the last thirty or forty years has followed the beach, forcing the reigning trendy stretch further and further out. 

    First there is Copacabana, the widest and still most crowded section.  It remains Rio’s quintessential beach.  Around the point from Copacabana are Ipanema and Leblon which appear to be one beach, but are very definitely two, each with its own particular character.  Ipanema continues to set the trends in beach fashion while Leblon tends to serve as a “neighborhood” beach, attracting few outsiders which is just fine with the area’s celebrity population.  Several miles down the road is the current “in” place to build a home, the Barra da Tijuca.  This beach is over nine miles long, starting out residential like the others, it becomes progressively more and more deserted. 

Ipanema Beach

    Going to the beach is a carioca specialty.  It is done about 9 or 10 a.m., but not at all if there is more than one cloud in the sky!  Another secret to a happy vacation in Rio is to leave everything in the hotel when going to the beach.  Don’t take anything to the beach you wouldn’t want to give away to a perfect stranger.  (In fact, generally speaking it is a good idea to always leave valuables and excess money in the hotel safe.  Be sensible.)  A morning at the beach can be an incredibly effective universal cure, both spiritually and physically healing, and relaxing beyond one’s greatest expectations.

    Still, the best thing to do in Rio is hang out in sidewalk cafes and watch the world go by—cheap, unbeatable entertainment.  But some people still want to sightsee.  

Rio sidewalk cafe, Bar Picote, Flamengo

    The Jardim Botânico (Botanical Garden) was founded in 1808 by the Emperor of Portugal, at that time, himself a carioca.  Its collection of flora from all over the world is unbeatable.  The Imperial Palms alone make the visit worthwhile. 

    The Carmen Miranda Museum offers a fascinating view of this legend of the stage and screen.  Oddly enough, she spent most of her career in Los Angeles.  The entry fee is twelve cents.

     If it can be arranged, a soccer (fútbol) game at the gigantic Maracaná Stadium, where crowds of 100,000 are common, should not be missed, especially on Sunday.  Dozens of drum-based samba bands and spontaneous fireworks punctuate the game in a rhythmic and driving way that Dallas cheerleaders will never achieve.  The game is more than exciting; exciting is the trip out of the stadium!

    And every traveler is interested in bargains and shopping.  Brazil has plenty and the current exchange situation puts the visitor with American dollars at a real advantage.  The aforementioned economic reforms included a freeze of the official exchange rate at13.77 cruzados to the dollar.  For one reason or another, there is a “parallel” rate which offers an advantage of about 35-45%, or Cz$18-21 to the dollar, depending on current conditions. [This is not the case in 2010…the dollar has crashed and the real is hot…prices, in ten years, have doubled for gringos bearing the almighty (!) dollar!)

    Hotels will usually exchange close to the “parallel” rate as will many businesses, but the best rate is usually found in travel agencies.  Newspapers quote the current rate in the financial section and, as long as you can get within one or two cruzados, don’t fret and waste time running around the city looking for a better exchange.  Brazil is already a bargain.  But the best arrangement is to use credit cards only in emergencies and take advantage of the “paralelo.” [Brazil ain’t no bargain any longer, but…you still can’t beat if for it’s beauty, complexity, music and people.]

    Aside from several pounds gained from eating, what does one take back from Brazil?  Leather goods, anything from shoes to bags, are very affordable, as are precious and semi-precious stones.  Brazil’s rich musical resources offer an endless variety of recordings and fine, very stylish clothing can be a very good buy.  For those interested in visual arts, the Galeria Jean-Jacques (Rua Ramon Franco, 49, two blocks from the Sugar Loaf lift) offers unique, high quality Brazilian naive paintings and prints at reasonable prices ($20 for prints,  paintings range from $50 to over $1000). [I think they are now out of business.]

Afro-Brazilian Folk Art, Pei de Boi Gallery, Rio de Janeiro

    Combined, Rio’s treasures create an irresistible magnet the attraction of which very few can overcome.  Although the city can present what seems to be an insurmountable series of frustrations and a division between rich and poor capable of pulling at the toughest heartstrings, visitors to Rio fall in love with its romantic charm and addicting daily rhythm.  The contrasting, multiple layers of its culture never cease to amaze foreigners.  An example:  Brazil is the world’s largest Catholic country, yet a very large percentage of the population lends some form of credence to the religious beliefs brought from Africa by the slaves.

    Rio is its own city; world-class in its sophistication and manner, yet timeless and singular in the character it has developed over the last 400 years.  A classic great escape, Rio, you were made, not just for Antonio Carlos Jobim, but surely for tourists as well!
                                      

-30-

SIDEBAR 1:  RIO’S NIGHTLIFE
   
    The first-time visitor to the Cidade Maravilhosa with a desire to experience the “real Brazil” in Rio is faced with a very difficult task.  Places offering Brazilian food or Brazilian music or both can be quite evasive.  Afterall, the upper class Brazilian who regularly frequents the better restaurants and clubs wants continental cuisine and American music.  So why wouldn’t the American tourist, obviously wealthy with dollars, want the same?

    But the charms of Brazilian cuisine and music can be uncovered with a little patience.

Casa Rui Barbosa, Botafogo, Rio de Janeiro

    The mid-town neighborhood of Botafogo is jammed with little restaurants and bars, many of which dedicate themselves to preserving the Brazilian-ness of Rio.   For a good introduction to home-style cooking try the daily special offered by the charming Botiquim (Rua Visconde de Caravelas, 184 in Botafogo).  A restored 19th century home, the specials, served on rustic, heavy clay plates, feature such treats as carne de sol, sun dried beef served with black-eyed peas and greens, and cozido, a hearty stew chocked with every imaginable vegetable as well as meat and sausage.

Acarajé, Yoruba, Rio de Janeiro

    Also in Botafogo is the very handsome Chale Brasileiro (Rua da Matriz, 54) where one can sample a variety of very well-prepared Brazilian dishes.  The Chale specializes in the unique food of Bahia, Brazil’s original capital, which emphasizes seafood and the African ingredients found in the region.  Try muqueca, a pungent stew featuring fish, shrimp, lobster or other seafood in a sauce of coconut milk, tomatoes, cilantro, peppers and palm oil; its rich flavor will never be forgotten.  Carurú is shrimp, okra and tomatoes: gumbo with a Bahian flair.  [This place is gone, but search out a place called Yoruba, also in Botafogo…it is great!]

    For churrasco (barbecue), there are two methods:  a la carte or more-than-you-can-eat.  Very high quality meat can be had from the menu at the Churrascaria Leblon (Rua Adalberto Ferreira, 32 in Leblon) while the adventurous might want to try the rodizio (translate as “never ending parade of every grilled meat imaginable) at Máriu’s (Avenida Atlântica, 290 in Copacabana) or the Porcão (Rua Barao da Torre, 218 in Ipanema).  Brisket will never taste the same.

    On the exotic side, experiment with the Amazonian food at Arataca (Rua Figueiredo Magalhaes, 28 in Copacabana).  Pato No Tucupí (duck simmered in a unique broth) is the regional specialty, but also try the great variety of fresh water fish from the Amazon.  Arataca also serves a variety of very exotic fruit juices from the region and uses them as a base for the famous batida, a drink fired by cachaça, Brazilian rum.

Cafe Lamas

    A better feel for the Rio Thing can be had at Café Lamas (Rua Márques de Abarantes, 18 in Flamengo) or Amarelinho (on the Cinelandia plaza, Centro).  Lamas is a hangout for bohemians and journalists and features the best filets in town; the Filet á Oswaldo Aranha is covered with crisp bits of garlic and thinly sliced fried potatoes.  The Amarelinho (Little Yellow Joint) is a sidewalk cafe where the passing parade of life is utterly fascinating and the food is very good.  Snack on the Frango a Passarinho, chicken cut into bite-sized pieces and fried crisp with, that’s right, bits of garlic.

Amarelinho, Cinelândia, Rio de Janeiro

    For a mix of food and (usually) Brazilian music try a late dinner at one of Botafogo’s new bars:  Barbas (Rua Alvaro Ramos, 408),  Beco da Pimenta (Rua Real Grandeza, 176) or Bambino D’Oro (Rua Real Grandeza, 238).

    Brazilian music can best be located by combing through the “Show” pages of the daily papers, Jornal do Brasil and O Globo.  But a few places that usually have quality acts are Canecão, and the Circo Voador whose Sunday night program with the Orquestra Tabajára should not be missed. (Sadly, the wonderful Tabajára no longer does the Sunday thing, but the Circo continues!)

    It is worth planning a day’s activities around the remarkable programming of the two “Six-Thirty Projects.”  Referred to as the “Seis e Meia,” these are government or corporate sponsored shows downtown, Monday through Friday, at the Teatro Carlos Gomes and the Sala Sidney Miller which feature the best of Brazilian music at 6:30 p.m. for the very reasonable price of a buck. (These are few and far between these days, but still exist at times.)

Forró in Catete, Rio de Janeiro

    Several working-class nightspots have recently become fashionable and are worth investigating for their down to earth ambience and dance-provoking music.  The Gafiera Elite (Rua Frei Caneca, 4) and the Gafiera Estudantina (Praça Tiradentes, 79) are downtown dance clubs dating back at least fifty years.  They are both legendary and national treasures.  Forró Forrado (Rua do Catete, 235) offers regional music from Brazil’s Northeast which will sound very familiar to Cajuns traveling in Brazil.  These three places tend to operate weekends only, though Forró Forrado gets started on Thursday nights. (FF is gone, but there is forró in Catete on Sunday nights at a local dance studio…check the newspapers.)

Samba at Beco do Rato, Lapa, Rio de Janeiro

    For samba, the only sure thing is the Clube do Samba (Estrada da Barra, 65 in Barra da Tijuca).  It is a long cab ride and the headliner will not take the stage until 1:30 or 2 a.m., but it is well worth the trouble for a real taste of Rio’s most famous musical form.  If possible, stick it out to the end at 4:30 a.m.; the rhythms and excitement will be an unforgettable remembrance of Rio to take back home and savor for years to come.  (Clube do Samba is a thing of the distant past. However, there is samba galore in the revitalized Lapa neighborhood…check the papers, or ask around, or just wander after 10…you will hear the music pouring out of every other window for many blocks around…)

2 comments on “The SambaMaster’s Rio de Janeiro

  1. Thanks for you great article. As the owner of 2 websites http://www.brazilcarnival.com.br and http://www.belavista-rio.com, it was a pleasure to read your article. I sent to all my friends in facebook. Obrigada amigo!!

    Like

  2. Ms Anonymous,
    De nada! Prazer meu!

    You might want to see my own website:
    http://www.SambaParty.com We have the largest carnaval de salão no mundo (7,000 pessoas…inside, not outside) in Austin, Texas….

    Abraços

    Like

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