One day two friends were discussing holidays. “I’ve always wanted to go to Brazil” said one. “Me too”, said the other. Plans were made and Jackie Marriott and Anna Hyman headed for Brazil, their first stop Rio de Janeiro. In fact they loved the city so much they returned six months later.
We had to time our Brazil visit carefully – long enough for football fever following the World Cup to have died down and before the Olympics.
It was quite an ambitious trip as each of us wanted to see different things and we must have given our poor tour operator Bespoke Brazil quite a difficult time dovetailing in our respective choices with flights and accommodation. Full credit to Bespoke’s Simon Williams - he managed it.
We knew that Brazil was a vast country but what neither of us had fully appreciated was the vast distances we would have to fly to achieve our goals.
It was a long flight from the UK to Rio, made slightly longer because TAP’s flights to Rio are via Lisbon. Nevertheless, thanks to our lovely TAP cabin crew the flight was a pleasant one.
As arranged we were met by a driver and guide at Rio’s airport and were soon on the road into the city. It has to be said that one of us was initially disappointed with what she saw, the outskirts looked rundown and somehow devoid of life, the other found it fascinating.
Why, we had asked on that first visit was the city named Rio de Janeiro, the River of January? It is simply because the early Portuguese navigators in January 1502 had mistaken the entrance of Guanabara Bay for the mouth of a river.
We walked along Copacabana beach
That first trip in August 2014 found us staying in the Leme district of Rio, actually at the Golden Tulip Continental hotel, a couple of streets back from the Copacabana beach. We were out of season and the next morning we walked down a near deserted beach and promenade stopping at a bar for a caipirinha pinching ourselves, not quite believing we were in a city that we had for so long wanted to visit.
Bespoke Brazil had organised excursions for us to the two most iconic images of Rio – one so we could stand at the feet of Christ the Redeemer and the other to experience Sugar Loaf Mountain.
Christ the Redeemer gazes out over Rio
Christ the Redeemer stands atop the Corcovada Mountain, arms outstretched, overlooking and encompassing the sprawling city some 700m below.
The approach to the statue is through the Tijuca rain forest, either driving up the winding road to the carpark, then mounting the final few yards by a broad stairway.
Or, as we did, you can ride the cog railway through the forest catching glimpses of the city beyond as we struggled to keep our seats on the very steep journey.
On reaching the terminus of the railway the final part of the ascent is by lift and escalators.
The statue was unveiled in 1931 and is said to be the largest art deco statue in the world. At 39m tall, and with arms 30m across, it probably is.
To stand beneath it gazing up into Christ’s face was an awe-inspiring moment even with crowds of excited, chattering tourists around us.
A cathedral and Sugar Loaf Mountain
The next day we headed for Sugar Loaf Mountain, but not before the coach had pulled into the carpark of the Metropolitan Cathedral of Rio dedicated to St Sebastian.
Our initial thoughts were that it was an exceedingly unprepossessing building. Closer inspection however revealed a building of remarkable architecture, based on a Mayan style of pyramid, striking in its originality.
Inside we discovered that the design ensures that the temperature is always five degrees cooler than that of the outside.
We were both stunned by the beauty and serenity of this vast building with its four magnificent stained glass windows each soaring 64m high from floor to ceiling.
The sun shone as we began our ascent of Sugar Loaf Mountain overlooking Guanabara Bay where the sailing events in the 2016 Olympics will take place.
It is a journey that requires two cable cars and a short walk on a raised pathway through the trees, keeping our eyes open for birds and maybe monkeys.
The views from the top of the city, sea, beaches and mountains are beautiful. Unlike the summit of Corcovada Mountain there are a number of bars, cafes and souvenir shops to while away the time before the cable cars swing visitors down to street level.
Two days were not enough
We quickly realised that two days was not nearly long enough to fully appreciate Rio properly.
One of us now admitting that they found Rio fascinating – and it wasn’t just the effect of the caipirinhas.
So six months later we were back in this vibrant, cosmopolitan city staying in the Hotel South American located between the Ipanema and Copacabana beaches.
In fact we were not far away from the bar, which Antonio Carlos Jobim and his friend Vinícius de Moraes frequented, when a certain girl from Ipanema walked past them on her way to the beach and inspired them to write a song about her.
With its wide variety of restaurants, shops, the interesting H Stern gem workshop and sales point, plus a close-by lively Sunday market selling anything from art to leather goods the district proved to be a good choice of location for us too.
Our own city guide and driver took us out of the city centre
This time we had requested our own guide and driver to take us on a tour of Rio. It was money well spent – as the car enabled us to see the likes of the Botanical Garden, the Maracana football stadium and where the samba schools with their dancers clad in exotic and gaudy costumes compete annually at Carnival time and the Leblon district.
We were particularly pleased to have a car take us out to the hilly, bohemian-styled district of Santa Teresa because the tram, that guide books mention, was no longer in service. (There is, however, talk of reintroducing it.)
Santa Teresa is named after a Carmelite convent that once existed there. The area became fashionable in the late 19th century when the coffee barons built their mansions on the heights above the city. Some of the old homes are still in evidence, some of them beautifully restored, others dilapidated.
One ruin that fascinated us was a few minutes’ walk away from the main Santa Teresa district. Perched higher up the hill is the shell of a mansion destroyed by fire but once owned by Laurinda Santos Lobo, a wealthy Brazilian. Her home was once a fashionable salon for artists and intellectuals in the 1920s and ‘30s. It has been left as a ruin, but with proper walkways up to a cupola from which there are glorious views out over Guanabara Bay and the city. Next door to it is the small, but delightful Museu Chacara do Ceu exhibiting artwork and furniture.
On the way to Santa Teresa we had stopped for a few minute to admire the Escadaraia Selarón, its flight of 250 multi-coloured steps covered in tiles, ceramics and mirrors a highly original form of street art, which connects the Lapa district to Santa Teresa.
Rio’s historic and commercial heart
Back in the centre of Rio we continued our tour on foot through Rio’s historic and commercial heart. But not before we had called into the city’ original cathedral, the Candelária Church and wandered round the stalls of the close by Saturday morning flea market. The sight of the sugar cane stall reminded us it had been several hours since lunch.
Unfortunately, however, because it was a Saturday it proved to be something of a challenge to find somewhere in the commercial district suitable for a light lunch. We called in at the gloriously art nouveau Colombo Café. But it was packed and the noise was deafening. It was too much for us. But we lingered long enough to admire its mirrors, stained glass and Portuguese tiles, and to admire with envy its savoury snacks and scrumptious looking pastries.
As we walked our guide pointed out distinctive historic buildings showing their Portuguese origins in juxtaposition with modern glass office blocks. She also showed us the house where the dancer and singer Carmen Miranda lived.
There were also the ubiquitous Rio pavements: mosaics of black, red and white denoting the three races – African, Indian and European which make up the population of Brazil. Sadly these pavements are not always in the best state of repair. Rio is a remarkably green city, many pavements are lined with big old trees whose roots have further caused damage: it is easy to trip and fall, as one of us discovered that evening.
There are some 1000 favelas in Rio
No visit to Rio is complete without a favela visit. There are some 1000 favelas in Rio. For safety’s sake this is a trip which should only be taken within an authorised tour group. We had hoped to see a little more of the life of the favela, eg, a school or medical facilities, but this did not happen on the tour we were on.
We were, though, welcomed and gained some idea of the life and vibrancy within the commune. We certainly got to realise just how steep and how many were the steps leading up and down the hills.
The Rio beaches are legendary and we loved to walk along Copacabana beach watching the clear green surf break on the white sand (the beach promenade is four kilometres ) long or admire the sand sculptures on Ipanema.
Almost linking the two is Fort Copacabana, a military base with a wartime museum (open to the public) and where we used to stop and watch the young soldiers changing the guard.
On our first visit to Rio when we had stayed in the Leme district, we ate chiefly in local neighbourhood restaurants.
We seriously rated the caipirinhas in Restaurante Shirley, R. Gustavo Sampaio, 610, Leme, and also enjoyed a vegetarian lunch at Gaia Art & Café in the same street - opposite the Golden Tulip Continental.
On our second visit we frequented various beach-side restaurants, but our favourite was away from the ocean -Nomangue in Sá Ferreira www.nomangue.com.br.
Look out for Por Kilo restaurants – a great idea for tourists who can’t manage Portuguese let alone Brazilian Portuguese - as they charge for the buffet food by weight.
Rio pulses with the sound and rhythm of bossa nova and samba, but it also has a vibrant rhythm all of its own. A rhythm which gets under your skin, which makes you want to be a part of it. We’ll let the excitement of the Olympics die down but we have a strange feeling that before not too long we’ll be back in Rio de Janeiro.
Bespoke Brazil: Bespoke Brazil are specialists in Brazilian holidays, covering flights, tailor-made tours which can include the Amazon Clipper Cruises, adventure holidays, wine tours and events like the famous Rio Carnival. www.bespokebrazil.com
TAP Portgal: TAP Portugal flies from London Heathrow, Gatwick and Manchester to Rio de Janeiro 16 times a week, via Lisbon, prices start at £684 return including all taxes and surcharges. www.flytap.com.