Salvador: Rhythm and religion in Brazil

Bahia's vibrant coastal capital moves to a different beat, as David J Constable discovers

Salvador was the first capital of Brazil, founded by the Portuguese in the 16th century. While that title now belongs to Brasilia, Salvador remains the capital of the vast coastal state of Bahia and is also the nation's Afro-Brazilian hub, a relic of its days as a centre of the slave trade; it was here that captives would arrive from West Africa. The city juts out to sea, protecting the waters of All Saints' Bay (Todos os Santos) from the Atlantic Ocean. It's flanked on both sides by golden coasts and three lighthouses pinpoint the land's outer-reaches; at its most southerly point, Farol da Barra is a prime spot to watch the sunset with views across the bay. It's just a shame that when I arrive there, it's raining.

Housed within the ancient Portuguese Forte de Santo Antonio da Barra, built in 1534 to defend the capital from indigenous and Dutch advances, Barra lighthouse today houses maps, charts and artefacts, many of which were recovered from sunken European galleons that transported goods and slaves during the colonial era.

Following the coast east along Avenida Oceanica, I pass a line of coconut stalls; I'm informed that coconut water is the perfect tonic for a hangover. I stroll past a line of high-rise, beach-front hotels and Restaurant Barravento (00 55 71 3245 5916; restaurantebarravento.com.br), which serves traditional Bahian cuisine such as acaraje (a fritter made from black-eye peas, stuffed with shrimp and deep fried in palm oil). After a left-turn up Rua Marques de Caravelas, I walk past Barra Mall on Avenida Centenario and head for the multicoloured new-builds which introduce me to the vibrancy and energy of Salvador. Red, blue, pink, orange and yellow houses contain shops that open out on to the pavement and botequins selling cheap snacks and drinks, such as Brahma beers and caipirinhas.

Continuing along Rua Marques de Caravelas I follow the road for five minutes and take a right to cross Avenida Princessa Isabel where I reach a wall of green forestry; Praca Santo Antonio da Barra. Following the circumference of the park, I return to the coast, only this time on the upper west-side by Yacht Club de Bahia (00 55 71 2105 9111; icb.com.br). Tourists can enter the club for a daily fee but prices vary depending on the season (between R$70/£20 and R$200/£56).

From the Yacht Club I take a taxi to the newly renovated Itaipava Arena Fonte Nova (itaipavafontenova.com.br). The stadium is the beating heart of Salvador and is home to Bahia football club; it will feature in next year's World Cup and will host games during the 2016 Olympics. Opposite is the Dique do Tororo lake with its circle of bronze sculptures of orixas – spirits of the local Afro-Brazilian Candomble religion that originated here during the slave trade and is still practised today.

It's a short walk north-west, along Ladeira Fonte das Pedras and left up Rua da Poeira, from the stadium to the Unesco-protected historic neighbourhood of Pelourinho – nicknamed Pelo. The word Pelourinho means "whipping-post" and marks the place where slaves were bought, sold and beaten. While the district is undoubtedly touristy, it's also the most idiosyncratic with religious and colonial architecture such as the convents of St Francis, St Dominic and St Anthony, amid the ornate mansions.

It's still raining as I walk up Rua Santa Clara, past Colegio Franciscano Santa Clara (00 55 71 2203 4000; www.franciscanascj.com.br), an old Franciscan college, to the crossroads at Avenida Jose Joaquim Seabra. Opposite is Sao Francisco Church (00 55 71 3322 6430), an important colonial monument due to its expository of Baroque art, showcasing the exaggerated illusionistic paintings by Jose Joaquim da Rocha and exuberant shiny decor.

Down Rua Maciel de Cima, a cobblestone alley leading away from the church, I reach Largo do Pelourinho, the square immortalised in Michael Jackson's video for "They Don't Care About Us" and am surrounded by colourful baroque architecture. I can hear the rising boom-da-boom-cha drum beats of the unmistakable Olodum. The name is African, short for Oludumare, which in the religious ritual of Candomble means "god of gods". The band – a cultural and civil rights group that also featured in the Michael Jackson video – stands at the top of Pelourinho Square and beats large drums which hang from their waists, each moving rhythmically on the spot.

Towards the foot of the Pelourinho is The Church Our Lady of the Rosary of the Blacks, built by slaves in the early 18th century with a baby-blue façade and dark green doors. It's a Sunday morning and I can hear the songs of the congregation inside.

I hail a taxi and head about 10km south, back to the Atlantic waterfront to the bohemian Rio Vermelho district, once home to renowned local writer Jorge Amado, where today you'll find some of the city's most popular bars and restaurants. It's here where the Festa da Yemanja takes place in February, an important celebration in the Camdomble religion, celebrating Yemenja, goddess of the sea.

As the afternoon creeps on, an oily aroma fills the air. The women in traditional Bahian dress are out frying balls of dough into acaraje. The area is filling up; happy hour is early and long-running in Rio Vermelho. I make for Casa de Tereza (00 55 71 3329 3016; terezapaim.com.br) on Rue Odilon Santos, where I'm treated to delicious mix se fritinhos (shrimp and black bean croquettes), moqueca (a Brazilian seafood stew) and more than a few caipirinhas. As I leave, three local men sit on crates playing the berimbau (a single-string musical bow) and an old, wiry woman raises her skirt and struts, splashing through the puddles. It may be raining, but spirits are not dampened in Salvador.

Fresh cuts

Restaurante Amado (00 55 71 3322 3520; amadobahia.com.br) is a new restaurant on Avenida Lafayete Coutinho, built within an old cargo warehouse. It has spectacular views overlooking Todos os Santos bay and serves elegant Brazilian cuisine with "soul". Head chef Edinho Engel also runs Manaca Restaurant in Sao Paulo.

Travel essentials

Getting there

David J Constable flew with TAP Portugal (0845 601 0932; flytap.com), which operates flights from Heathrow to Salvador via Lisbon or Porto. Fares start at £543 return.

Staying There

Pestana Convento do Carmo, 1 Rua do Carmo, Pelourinho (00 55 71 3327 8400; pestana.com). Doubles start at US$303 (£202), including breakfast.

Zank Boutique Hotel, 161 Rua Almirante Barroso, Rio Vermelho (00 55 71 3083 4000; zankbrasil.com.br). Doubles start at R$407 (£115), room only.

 

More information

Bahia Tourism Board: bahia.com.br

VBRATA (Visit Brazil Travel Association): vbrata.org

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