South America has been a special part of my life for four decades. I have lived many years in Brasil and Peru. I am married to an incredible lady from Argentina. I want to share South America with you.
The colonial architecture of central Rio lost much of its splendour to poor urban planning. But now the city’s infrastructure has been improved, the buildings – and their stories – are being brought back to life.
Until a couple of years ago, the drive into Rio de Janeiro from São Paulo followed the Elevado da Perimetral, a shabby, elevated expressway that skirted above the docks of Rio’s centre, or Centro. The road offered intriguing glimpses of fine Portuguese colonial buildings on the old waterfront below before sweeping out towards the fashionable beach districts of Copacabana and Ipanema.
The world under the expressway was one locals wanted to forget – forlorn and abandoned to the homeless – while that of Copacabana was the Rio of popular imagination: golden sands, tans and the modernist chic of the Avenida Atlântica.
Today, thanks to a government project aimed at restoring the old centre in time for the Olympics, the expressway is gone, reuniting one of the most historically important colonial-era cities with its waterfront. Cariocas – the locals – have suddenly been brought closer to their rich past. Indeed, as visitors stream into Rio for the Games, few might realise they are entering a former imperial capital, once the seat of a European empire.
The expressway, now demolished
When I first came to Rio on work trips the only thing I wanted to see after a long day in chaotic traffic was a caipirinha. Eventually, I was lured into exploring the old quarter by the fleeting glimpses I’d caught from the elevated highway. The Rio I discovered was a place very different to the stereotype of a beach with a city attached.
Visiting Centro was somewhat fraught, given its crazy drivers, dark alleys and intimidating atmosphere. Now it is simpler thanks to the waterfront restoration, an increase in security and a light rail service, the VLT, linking the old city and its historic port with the domestic airport, Santos Dumont. While a network is planned, currently only the section between the airport and Parada dos Navios, where the cruise ships dock, is open.
This is enough to see much of the old town. Riding the VLT along Avenida Rio Branco, Rio’s main commercial thoroughfare, the first place to jump off is the Sete de Setembro stop. A short walk down Rua da Assembléia brings you to the Paço Imperial, or Imperial Palace, the hub of Rio’s historical centre. Located off Rio’s oldest street, Rua Primeiro de Março, the Paço is an elegant whitewashed building in colonial style. Together with its waterfront square, Praça XV de Novembro, this was the heart of the old port and city. In the square, it is possible to imagine the old city with the surging waters of Guanabara Bay in front and the jagged mountains on the other side of the harbour visible on a good day.
The royal family’s arrival transformed Brazil from colonial outpost to centre of the Portuguese empire
This square was once lined with buildings that welcomed seaborne visitors like outstretched arms. The curious Chafariz do Mestre Valentim, an 18th-century water fountain shaped like a small church tower, marks the site where stairs descended to the water. The square is still the base for ferries crossing Guanabara Bay to the satellite city of Niteroi. The Paço was the office of Brazil’s viceroy, the representative of the Portuguese crown. But it was converted into the palatial headquarters of the Portuguese Prince Regent João VI, who arrived in 1808 after fleeing Portugal ahead of the invading Napoleonic forces. At the back of the building is the Convento do Carmo, convent home to the Portuguese Queen Maria I, Dom João’s insane mother, now part of a private university.
The royal family’s arrival briefly transformed Brazil from colonial outpost to centre of the Portuguese empire. After Dom João returned to Portugal, his son Dom Pedro I declared Brazil’s independence from Portugal in 1822. The royal family continued to use the palace until 1889.
In the palace, little remains of the days when the emperor held court. Today, it is used mainly as a gallery with some good restaurants and a café. Until the end of the Olympics it is showing photos from Rio’s cultural Instituto Moreira Salles (a must-visit in the neighbourhood of Gávea) that capture the brutal lack of sentimentality Rio can display in pursuit of modernisation.
The photos depict the levelling nearly 100 years ago of the Morro do Castelo, a hill where Rio took root in 1567, as part of a huge construction project to beautify the city ahead of an international exhibition. The disappearance of the hill, which lay just behind the Paço Imperial, kicked off a long wave of modernisation projects that drove many poor people to the surrounding hills, helping to create Rio’s favelas, or out into the periferia, the slums of its vast urban periphery.
Social activists say the Olympics have repeated this pattern, this time displacing people not just in the central areas but out in the periphery itself. “This has been the greatest pogrom, let’s say, of forced removals in the city’s history and that has been primarily to make way for transport and privatisation projects in the port area and Olympics projects,” says Christopher Gaffney, a senior research fellow at the University of Zurich whose work has focused on the effects of both the 2014 football World Cup and the 2016 Olympics on Brazil. The city government insists people have been relocated to sites near their old homes.
Controversy has also swirled around the Porto Maravilha development at Praça Mauá, or Mauá Square, a short VLT ride away from Paço Imperial. This square once lay under the elevated highway. Beyond it lie renovated warehouses that were also derelict. The highlight of the square is the Museu de Arte do Rio, the Rio Museum of Art, a combination of a classical building built in 1910 linked to a modern former bus station by a wavy elevated roof. It is a masterpiece of urban renewal – old and new under the same roof. On the other side, beyond a display saying Cidade Olimpica, or Olympic City, extending into the sea is the monolithic new Museu do Amanhã, a science museum in a building that looks like a fish skeleton.
The project’s ambitions of bringing major commercial and residential developments to the surrounding area has worried some conservationists. The district is one of the city’s most historically important for African-Brazilian heritage. A couple of blocks away in Avenida Barão de Tefé are the Valongo quays where, from the early 19th century, more than half a million African slaves arrived in Rio. The wharves were rediscovered during the restoration and today the granite slabs of the stairs rise out of grass, not water – the land around here has long been reclaimed.
The quays are poignant but even more so is the Memorial dos Pretos Novos in Rua Pedro Ernesto, Gamboa, a few blocks away. The museum lies above a former graveyard where those slaves who did not survive the journey were buried in mass graves. Their bones and some of their artefacts can be seen through the transparent floor of the museum, which estimates that 20,000-30,000 slaves were buried there. The simplicity of the religious icons they managed to cling to on their long journeys hints at the loneliness of their ordeal.
From Gamboa, it is a short VLT ride to Avenida Rio Branco, with its monuments of Belle Epoque Brasileira – the coffee-baron era of the first republic between the end of the monarchy in 1889 and the rule of the dictator Getúlio Vargas in 1930. Many of these buildings, inspired by Haussmann’s Paris, are well-flagged in guides. But one, the Confeitaria Colombo, is worth battling through the narrow side streets to find. Located on Rua Gonçalves Dias, its extraordinarily well-preserved two-storey high baroque mirrors are a sight to behold. Its cakes, such as the mil folhas de creme, a fancy vanilla slice, are among the city’s best.
Confeitaria Colombo serves the best pastries
Roberto Assis, co-owner of the Confeitaria, said the café, like much of Centro, was suffering from acute neglect when he bought it with his brother in 1999. “With this revitalisation, I think all Centro will benefit. There are a large number of historical buildings here, and they are all close together.” He recommends visitingConvento de Santo Antônio, a 17th-century convent perched on the remainder of one of the erased hills, a few minutes from the Confeitaria. While only the main church and the chapels with their gilded rococo altars are open to the public, the convent gives a feeling for the old Rio, with its open courtyard that provides a relaxed viewing point over the city below.
From the convent, it is a block away to the bondinho or tram linking Centro to the bohemian district of Santa Teresa in the shadows of the Corcovado, the mountain-top perch of Christ the Redeemer. Santa Teresa is known for its hostels, rustic bars and restaurants, such as the laid-back Bar do Mineiro. But it also has some green spots from which to enjoy stunning views. One of the best is Parque das Ruínas, a ruined mansion turned into a look-out. The coffee shop serves great empanadas, Brazil’s version of the pasty. Also at the foot of Corcovado, Parque Lage, a former mansion and grounds, is now a public park.
As an adopted carioca, I welcome the changes to Centro, in spite of the criticism. The authorities have been accused of creating two cities. One of five-star hotels, tourist areas and European-style light-rail transit, the other the “real” Rio of poverty, crime and failing public services. True, the money could have been better spent. The light railway is an extravagance in a city that does not have good hospitals or proper rail links to its outer suburbs. But Centro’s improvements have followed a more enlightened path than the wholesale destruction of the past. Here is a project that reunites people with the narrative of their city, that gives them back their common past. That is difficult to put a price on.