O come, all ye faithful

Bahia is Brazil's frontier territory - wild, dusty and mystical. But at Easter it attracts pilgrims from throughout the country. Lucy Gillmore joins the throng

They weren't on their knees. The grainy black and white photos I'd seen of Monte Santo, or Holy Mountain, had shown streams of pilgrims crawling the two tortuous miles up the jagged slopes in the skin-searing heat of Brazil's sertao, or dry lands. But then, it was 5am and the going was tough enough on two feet. The priest, flanked by two candle-bearers, heaved a huge wooden cross on to his shoulders and led the shuffling procession out of the church into the half-light. Old men with cracked leather shoes, mothers shepherding sleepy children and teenagers in Brazil football shirts, quavering voices reciting the rosary, trooped up the rough track towards Brazil's very own Calvary. Just as they have been doing every Friday in Lent for more than two centuries, thanks to an Italian missionary.

They weren't on their knees. The grainy black and white photos I'd seen of Monte Santo, or Holy Mountain, had shown streams of pilgrims crawling the two tortuous miles up the jagged slopes in the skin-searing heat of Brazil's sertao, or dry lands. But then, it was 5am and the going was tough enough on two feet. The priest, flanked by two candle-bearers, heaved a huge wooden cross on to his shoulders and led the shuffling procession out of the church into the half-light. Old men with cracked leather shoes, mothers shepherding sleepy children and teenagers in Brazil football shirts, quavering voices reciting the rosary, trooped up the rough track towards Brazil's very own Calvary. Just as they have been doing every Friday in Lent for more than two centuries, thanks to an Italian missionary.

In 1765 Apollonio de Todi, known as the apostle of the north, had a vision of the cross on the solitary Mt Piquaraca in the state of Bahia in north-east Brazil. Its steep slopes dominate the landscape, rising out of the parched, thorn-pierced plains. In this wild frontier land, he instructed the sertanejos to carve a via sacra, or sacred path, out of the ragged rock. Along the way they erected 25 tiny white chapels, each containing a wooden cross, and, at the summit, a shrine. He then renamed the mountain Monte Santo. Today, Catholics from all over Brazil – the largest Catholic country in the world – journey here to make the Stations of the Cross in the run-up to Easter.

The little market town of Monte Santo, sprawling at the foot of the mountain, lies about 250 miles inland from Salvador, the original capital of Brazil and a current tourist hot spot. It is not so much off the beaten track as completely off the map. Most travellers head for the caipirinha-soaked and capoeira-themed (a combination of martial arts and dance) destinations along the lush sliver of Brazil's northern coastline, about 1,300 miles of almost unbroken palm-fringed sand. However, a journey inland offers a window on to a different world: one of wide open spaces and raw, untamed beauty where legends spring up more readily than the native caatinga vegetation.

Bahia is roughly the same size as France, and is one of the nine states that make up Brazil's north-east. Its largest feature is the sertao, the vast, unforgiving interior with its poor, stony soil and sketchy rainfall. The sertao is Brazil's Wild West: a land of cacti and bleached salt flats where distances are still measured in leagues and the vaquieros (cowboys) dressed in dust-caked leather herd their scrawny cattle. There's a local saying that describes the isolation perfectly; the sertao is where the wind goes to turn round. This is a place where you need to believe in something. And where the thirst for spiritual succour has been quenched over the centuries by a handful of mystics and fanatics, as well as the "official" church. The most infamous of these was Antonio Conselheiro – the Counsellor.

At the bottom of the via sacra in Monte Santo, the small Museo de Sertao, in a pretty colonial building, is dedicated to the rebellion he led against the newly formed republic at the end of the 19th century. The government was trying to levy taxes against the already drought- and poverty-plagued sertanejos. The museum contains a harrowing exhibition of what became known as the Canudos war, complete with rusty rifles and large copies of sepia photographs of soldiers and corpses.

The definitive Brazilian tome, Os Sertoes (Our Sertao, or Rebellion in the Backlands), written by Euclides da Cunha in 1902, documents the strange story of the messianic leader. The Counsellor had "hair down to his shoulders, a long tangled beard, an emaciated face and a piercing eye, a monstrous being clad in a blue canvas garment and leaning on the classic staff." In the translation I was flicking through, the book was described as the Brazilian bible. It is still a set text for schoolchildren.

Antonio Conselheiro wandered the sertao's badlands for years, gradually joined by a growing band of disciples. While in Monte Santo, legend has it, he climbed the mountain to the shrine. There, as he stood in front of the statue of the Virgin Mary, two bloody tears fell from her eyes. Eventually he established a settlement, a kind of Utopia, at Canudos, 60 miles from Monte Santo. However, the new republic threatened by this growing band of religious outcasts sent the army to crush them. The counsellor's followers fought off three attacks before they were slaughtered and the entire settlement burnt to the ground.

The remains of Canudos were submerged under a reservoir in the 1950s. However, you can visit the area, now a state park called the Parque Estadual de Canudos. It is special-interest tourism, but it is worth a detour if you're in the area for the grandeur and stillness of the scarred landscape. There is a memorial to Antonio Conselheiro in Nova Canudos just down the road (a place that makes Monte Santo look like a buzzing metropolis).

Back on the coast, life is decidedly cushier. In Salvador they put cushions on the window-ledges so they don't hurt their elbows while they watch the world go by. Of course, it wasn't always like this. The Portuguese first dropped anchor in 1501, returning to build their settlement on the wide sweeping bay, Bahia de Todos os Santos, in 1549. The city was the capital of Brazil for 200 years until Rio de Janeiro usurped the title; it was also the centre of the country's slave trade. (Brazil was the last country in the world to abolish slavery.) The Pelourinho district is now a pretty pastel tourist trap, the colonial buildings housing restaurants, art galleries and handicraft stalls, but this is where slaves were once flogged on the main square, Largo do Pelourinho. Pelourinho means pillory.

Today Salvador is where Brazilians come on holiday; its rich African heritage makes it exotic. African influences can be seen in the cuisine (the scent of palm oil wafts through the winding streets), the music (Olodum drummers and dancers, made famous by Paul Simon, parade through the streets) and the rhythm of life. This is a party city where there are street festivals throughout the year, and its carnival is said to be bigger and better than Rio's.

The city beaches, such as Barra, are packed. However, to the north you've also got the coconut coast and the resort of Costa do Sauipe, and at the other end of the spectrum, Praia do Forte, an eco-resort in the fishing village of the same name. Heading south, a short hop by air taxi takes you to the little island of Tinhare where no cars are allowed and the atmosphere in the village of Morro de Sao Paulo is one of tropical torpor.

Religion also plays a big part in everyday life in Salvador, although here it's more celebration than self-flagellation. It's often said that Salvador has a church for every day of the year: in fact there are 166 – plus 1,000 Candomble temples. Banned from worshipping their own gods, the African slaves disguised them as Catholic saints: Oxum, the god of war, became St George, and Yemanja, the goddess of the sea, was turned into the Virgin Mary. Known as Candomble, it is the second most popular religion here after Catholicism. Likened to voodoo, its ceremonies involve wild dancing and singing inducing a trance in the worshipper.

Salvador's cathedral, and a handful of other ornate baroque confections, can be found dominating the square of Terreiro de Jesus in Pelourinho. However, the most famous church in the city, if not Brazil, is the Church of Nosso Senhor do Bonfim, renowned for its miracle cures. This is the church most closely linked with Candomble. Outside hawkers sell ribbons that you tie to the railings – or to your wrist – so that your prayers will be answered. Afterwards you bring an offering to the chapel at the side of the main altar. The little museum's ceiling and walls are covered with pasty wax limbs, a curious selection of old wooden limbs, photos, tennis rackets, motorcycle helmets and diplomas.

Wandering down to Rio Vermelho, once a bohemian quarter by the sea, I went in search of the tiny temple to Yemanja, on the quay. The pretty blue and white building contains a little chapel with a statue on an altar portraying Yemanja as Our Lady of Conception, dressed in a flowing blue gown; a mural on the wall, however, shows her with a fish tail. Locals pray to her for a good catch.

Twice a year the local fishermen send miniature boats out to sea laden with gifts for the goddess. Walking on the path between the chapel and the sea wall I watched an old woman throwing lavender water into the waves. In her arms she held a bouquet of roses from which she was plucking the thorns before tossing them into the salty waters. As I rounded the corner the smell of fish was overpowering, and I saw that the building was in fact half temple and half fishmarket: the supernatural woven effortlessly into the everyday.

As the sun started to set, the fishermen in their dug-out canoes returned to shore. Sitting on the sea wall I watched the men hauling their catch up the steps: men who still use the traditional methods, who believe in their heritage and their gods. Behind me tables on the square were filling with people enjoying an early evening beer. Breathing deeply, the pungent aroma of palm oil from the street stalls mingling with the salty aroma of fish on a balmy Brazilian evening, it was easy to believe in Bahia.

Traveller's guide

Lucy Gillmore was the joint winner of the Latin American Travel Association (LATA) Travel Writer of the Year 2002, winning a return flight with Varig (0845 6037601, www.varig.com), Brazil's national airline. She flew from London Heathrow to Sao Paulo with onward connection to Salvador. Return flights currently cost from around £668.

The LATA publishes a useful free Guide to Latin America, available free on request from 020-8715 2913 or www.lata.org which features information on 25 Latin American destinations.

The writer's trip in Brazil was organised by Last Frontiers (01296-653000, www.lastfrontiers.com) which offers tailor-made trips all over Brazil.

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