One visit to Brazil’s lively city of Salvador was not enough for Anna Hyman and Jackie Marriott, so they returned for a second visit a few months later.
A grubby, somewhat dilapidated hotel on the edge of Salvador’s historic district in a run-down street with not particularly welcoming staff was enough to put anybody off. It was such a contrast to the lovely places where we had had been staying during our travels across Brazil.
Salvador – a captivating city
It had indeed been a bad introduction to Salvador, but after three days we were captivated by this lively, fun-loving, sometimes chaotic city; so much so that within a few weeks of being back in the UK we were in touch with tour operator Bespoke Brazil and TAP Airlines booking a return visit.
We were lucky on both visits that we had a super guide. J-L, who knowing we were unhappy with our accommodation, pulled out all stops to show us his adopted city; a city he loved with a passion.
J-L hailed from Portugal, which was perhaps fitting as Salvador (or Sâo Salvidor, or Salvador da Bahia de Todos os Santos as it is also known) was founded by the Portuguese way back in 1549 as Brazil’s first capital, a position it held until 1763. Today it is the capital of the Bahia state.
Overlooking the second largest bay in the world
The city sits looking out over the second largest bay in the world and the Atlantic Ocean. It’s on two levels - the upper and lower, conveniently linked by a lift (the Elevado Lacerda), which we used several times as it took us conveniently close to the port and the lively Mercado Modelo where somewhat touristy handicrafts were on sale.
On one of our visits we came across a troupe of dancers whirling around outside the building doing the Capoeira , an acrobatic dance devised so they could practice fighting without its being too obvious.
The glittering church of Sâo Francisco
Salvador became a major trading port thanks to the sugar cane industry and, more unfortunately, because of the slave trade, and later, in the 19th century, from whaling.
That resulting wealth from such activities brought about some magnificent colonial buildings and it was to one of these, the Convent and Church of Sâo Francisco, that J-L first took us. He said it was spectacular and he was right; spectacularly baroque and glitteringly gold, with a wealth of tiles, carvings and statues. Next door to the convent with its charming blue and white tiled cloisters.
Hotel Villa Bahia
A few yards away in the Largo do Cruzeiro he introduced us to the Hotel Villa Bahia as J-L knew that on a wall behind the Reception desk there was a large map that he wanted us to see which depicted the early maritime routes. The map was indeed interesting and the reception staff charming, encouraging us to have a look round. For both of us the hotel was love at first sight, and it was indeed to the Hotel Villa Bahia that we returned seven months later.
The Pelourinho district
Down a steep hill leading away from the Largo do Cruzeiro J-L led us to a smaller, sloping, triangular square which has also given its name to the historic centre of Salvador – Pelourinho, a name derived from the pillory on which the slaves were whipped.
The Pelourinho, a UNESCO Heritage site, is a fascinating district - a muddle of colourful homes and buildings on narrow cobbled streets spread over steep slopes where lots of small shops, restaurants and bars ply their trade. But be warned both it and Salvador have a reputation for street crime so leave valuables back in hotel safes and keep as we did to the main streets and squares.
It was the slaves - some five million West Africans - who provided the work force for the sugar cane plantations. And even to this day their culture plays a prominent role in the Bahia region in religion, music and food.
Salvador with its Portuguese and West African influences is a great foody destination and, to give us an idea of some of the unusual ingredients that go into the Bahian cuisine, we called in to one of the local food markets.
Later that day we saw some of the ingredients being put to good use by Bahian chef Tereza Paim. Indeed after showing us round her Café de Tereza, where we admired the arts and crafts depicting examples of Brazilian culture, Tereza set to cooking us lunch – a delicious moqueca full of seafood in a subtle spicy broth. www.terezapaim.com.br
…and local specialities
We were to eat more examples of Bahian cuisine that night when J-L escorted us to the ‘bohemian quarter’ (the Bairro Boemio), Rio Vermelho. With its many bars, restaurants and street food vendors - this is one of the places to party till the early hours.
Don’t leave without trying the acarajé and abará; both are doughs based on soaked, skinned and mashed black-eyed peas. Acarajé evidently involves forming the dough into balls, and deep frying them in palm oil (dendê); whilst abará, a spicy dough sometimes with added shrimp, is wrapped in banana leaves and steamed. One of us could have become addicted.
And we could also have become addicted to eating at Paraiso Tropical. It’s a highly-acclaimed rustic restaurant set in pretty surroundings located in a residential district of Salvador. Chef Beto Pimentel specialises, amongst other Bahain dishes, in delicious and large bowls of seafood moquecas.
Also try their fruit juices and the fruit dessert prepared from fruit from their own trees. Delightful service – but good food takes time – so be prepared to wait a little.
We also had a good lunch at the Restaurant Uauá. This attractive, small first floor restaurant overlooks the bustling street and once again the seafood moqueca was delicious. Language was a slight problem but the menu is partly in English.
A mix of Catholic and African religions
On the outskirts of Salvador’s lower town on the Itapagipe Peninsular we visited the Catholic church of Nosso Senhor do Bonfim (Our Lord of a Good End) with its lovely painted wooden ceiling.
Over the years aspects of Catholic and African (Candomblé) religions have become amalgamated. The latter is associated with Oxala, creator of mankind and the Orishas, divinities who control the forces of nature and who work either for or against humanity. Large statues of the Orishas stand in one of the Salvador lakes.
Outside the church the railings are festooned with thousands of colourful Bonfim Ribbons – Nosso Senhor do Bonfim is thought to grant miracles. Consequently the ribbons are associated with good luck.
Who were we to argue? We bought the ribbons which were solemnly wrapped round our wrists and tied with three knots; with each knot we made a wish. The idea is that when the bracelet eventually falls off the wrist the three wishes will come true.
They stayed on our wrists for several days after we were back in the UK before we carefully slid them off (bad luck to cut them off). We might have cheated a little but at least one of our wishes was granted – we did return to Brazil.
Fishermen mending their nets
On the outskirts of Salvador on one of our outings we called in at the Casa de Yemanja (House of the Virgin Mary) and the Casa do Peso (the fishermen’s weighing house). Outside the little building the fishermen chatted whilst mending their nets or working on their boats pulled up on the sand.
On the return journey J-L stopped the car close to the Forte de Santo Antonio for us to watch the sun set over the bay; a magical end to the day.
We were to see much more of that beautiful bay in the following days as J-L drove us to places he felt we must see. It is a spectacularly glorious coast line where white sand beaches and dunes fringed with palm trees meet a blue, blue sea.
Tourism in the shape of purpose-built resorts is beginning to appear but there are still miles and miles of those glorious beaches interspersed with occasional lagoons and unspoiled small towns to be explored.
…small towns, cigars…
Away from the coast on a headland we explored the ruins of Castelo do Garcia d’Avila, with more glimpses of the bay through the trees, before heading for Cachoera and Sâo Félix. Cachoera, sits on the banks of the Paraguaçu river and harks back to colonial days. At its heart a delightful historic centre with a lively local market.
Across the river, linked by the British built steel Dom Pedro II bridge, is Sâo Félix famous for its fine cigars. We visited the Dannemann cigar factory and watched cigars being made; and highly skilled work it is too.
We had both wanted to see the turtle sanctuary. There are seven species of sea turtle, five of them found in Brazil’s waters. However, because of pollution and over fishing they have been brought perilously close to extinction.
But their survival is being helped by the TAMAR Project which has successfully released several million hatched baby turtles back into the ocean. One of the sanctuary branches is on the beach at Praia do Forte, but we found it a rather sad experience, in spite of the excellent work that the project is undeniably doing. We watched some of the creatures swimming - for their own protection in their somewhat confined watery enclosures.
Women in traditional costumes
But for us it was back to the Pelourinho and our hotel.
Many of the local women (baianas) were in the square dressed in their traditional turbans and huge skirted colourful outfits. The noise from a marching drum band parading up and down the streets, their music reverberating off the buildings was deafening. Locals and visitors alike piled onto the streets to follow them or sit at pavement bars to watch and listen.
Salvador was having fun.
Bespoke Brazil: Tel: 01603 340680; www.bespokebrazil.com
TAP Portugal: TAP Portugal flies from London Heathrow, Gatwick & Manchester to Salvador via Lisbon six times a week, prices start at £504 return including all taxes and surcharges.
For further information, visit www.flytap.com or call 0345 601 0932.
Hotel Villa Bahia: www.lavillabahia.com - reviewed in Foody Travellers Recommend
Café de Tereza: www.terezapaim.com.br
Paraiso Tropical: Edgar Loureiro Street, 98-B, Resgate, Cabula, Salvador. www.restauranteparaisotropical.com.br
Restaurante Uauá: Rua Gregório de Matos, 36 Pelourinho, Salvador.
Incidentally look out for buffet-style restaurants. They offer good value as many of them charge by the weight of the food-topped plate.