SALVADOR, Bahia—I’m asleep in a restored colonial mansion turned bed-and-breakfast, deep in the city’s historic center, when a cacophony of joyous rhythms startles me awake. Drums, trumpets, maracas, metal bells.
It’s well into the dawn hours, or so I think. There is no clock or television in my room. I brought no watch on this trip, and the cellphone is stashed away in my suitcase as it (thankfully) doesn’t work here.
As the music gets louder and louder, I bolt from bed, fling open the French doors of my roof-top balcony, and dash outside.
What a sight.
Shimmying down the narrow street lined with brightly painted colonial homes and a blue church is a mass of the merriest people I’ve ever seen. They chant, dance and raise their hands in celebration, trailing behind a pack of musicians and dancers dressed in white and gold.
Had I not been warned against cavorting by myself at night into the neighborhood where the party’s headed, I would have sprinted down the two flights of stairs (no elevators here either) and joined the revelers in their samba line.
But savoring the surreal vision from my balcony, the caressing breezes of Bahia refreshing the night, is enough to feel their joy and make it mine. Now I understand why this funky, Bohemian city, where the Portuguese claimed Brazil as their own, is nicknamed “Capital da Alegria.”
The immersion into the effusive culture—a unique blend of African, Portuguese and indigenous influences—is instantaneous. During a six-day stay, I get to sample plenty of it, from the cuisine permeated by the scent of palm oil to the mysteries of “candomble,” the African religion similar to Cuban “santeria,” to churches that are architectural jewels, hubs of history and repositories of cultural treasures.
Salvador, in colonial times Brazil’s capital and now a UNESCO heritage site, is divided into two sectors: Cidade Baixa, the costal Lower City, and Cidade Alta, the hilltop historic center—and that’s how I arrange my stay.
I spend three days beach-hopping along Bahia’s coast and relaxing at Bahia Othon Palace with a spectacular view of the waves crashing on the rocky coast, the lighthouse at Barra Beach in the distance. Then, I move uphill for my last three days to Pousada Redfish, a typical Brazilian bed-and-breakfast in Centro Historico, and I explore the winding cobblestone streets, the wide open squares, and the striking architecture of colonial churches and old mansions, so much of it sadly decaying like Havana’s, despite restoration efforts.
In a city that is said to have one church for every day of the year, it’s quite a task to decide which one to visit, but three are a must: Nossa Senhora do Carmo, which houses a huge sculpture of the crucified Christ, his blood sculpted from 2,000 rubies; Rosario dos Pretos, built by the slaves for the slaves; and the baroque/rococo Igreja Sao Francisco awash in 1,900 pounds of gold.
People use euphemisms to describe Salvador’s uniqueness, among them “the most authentic part of Brazil,” and “the real Brazil.” But all of Brazil is authentic, of course. What they mean is that this region on the tropical northeastern coast packs all that is Brazil, virtue and vice, in a thick dose.
Salvador is both a magical escape of sea and sun and a gritty city where the stench in the air is sometimes overwhelming, and where there is a serious concern about crime, albeit petty crimes. It is not a destination for the acrylic nails crowd, although the luxury resorts of Praia do Forte some 50 miles north of the city, where one can vacation among rich Brazilians in $400-a-night rooms or in luxury rental homes by the beach, would qualify as a “haute” playground.
But Salvador and its surrounding beaches are extreme-casual, rustic, urban rough. What appear to be the infamous “favelas,” slums, are part of the skyline, although here they are pastel, white and earth-toned, and somehow gentler than portrayed in the movies, or seen in Rio de Janeiro.
The “candomble” rituals packaged for tourist consumption take place at night in similarly crude parts of town and require the services of a guide. They’re not worth the 50-reals per person (about $25 U.S.), except for the hilariously unscripted things that might happen along the way, like when our tour bus got stuck in a narrow street and a flood of locals came to hoist the other cars so we could pass. And who can forget the bad theatrics of some pretending to be possessed by an “orixa” amid a cloud of stogie smoke and drumming?
Traveling to the beaches or in town, bus and taxi drivers will caution a passenger about getting off at certain spots or visiting a particular beach. I take their advice and experience no trouble. I am, however, scammed by taxi drivers at night who double their fares to travel short distances, or take tourists in loops to run up their meter.
Some of the grittiness has nothing to do with crime, but with sex.
Along the seawall embracing the city center and on Barra Beach, male and female prostitutes work the crowds packed chair-to-chair on the oatmeal-colored sand. They move matter of factly, like the vendors, from group to group, asking if anyone is interested in cheap, fast sex. They do not solicit families or couples, as they seem to target only groups of singles. Some walk away with the prostitutes and come back a little later.
The scene takes on an even more surreal hue when I am in the water and spot a plaque on the seawall that says that this is the very spot where the Portuguese disembarked to colonize Brazil in the 1500s.
A couple of miles north, in the Ondina district, where my hotel is located next to a tiny beach, the scene is more PG-rated. I arrive after a long, overnight Miami-Sao Paolo-Salvador flight (you travel south, then back up north), and when I step out to find a place to eat, I’m introduced to the Brazilian concept of “barracas.”
These humble food and beverage thatch-roofed shacks are a staple in every sandy spot of beach. The people who run them supply everything one needs: table, umbrella, food and drink.
“Bahianas,” native women who wear all-white cotton dresses, fry “bolinhos” (fritters) stuffed with cheese, codfish, shrimp in huge pots. Vendors come by the beachside tables often, selling cheese on a stick for one “real.” They sprinkle oregano on the cheese and roast it right in front of you on a portable coal stove. It’s delicious and addictive.
The “barraca” next to the Othon is named “la barraca do gordo” (fatso’s hut), and it’s run by a perennially smiling native who tells us he’s the “gordo” featured in the name. He brings our party of five one cold beer after another. Think not Miller Light, but humongous bottles of sturdy “Cerveja Pilsen.” We sink our feet into the sand, and drink, eat our first afternoon away.
It’ll be the same on every beach we visit by bus farther out from the city center: The minute we arrive, someone introduces themselves to us and becomes a host who gets us whatever we require. The vendors get more and more interesting as we explore more beaches. One works the tanning crowds on the seashore on horseback. Another braids my hair.
Three days later, a cab ride uphill, past neighborhoods of modern luxury high rises and poor ones crowded with shanties, I check into Pousada Redfish in the city’s historic center for a totally different experience. From here we will explore Pelourinho, which is packed with mansions, townhouses, churches and monasteries built between the 16th and 18th centuries.
Painted a bright vintage green and accented by red ironwork in the shape of fish, Pousada Redfish is a typical colonial-era mansion. It has been turned into a bed-and-breakfast by a young British artist who vacationed here, fell in love with a Bahian woman, and stayed, a story I will hear often from resident Europeans.
What’s best about staying in this area of narrow, cobblestone streets is the sense of living in a homey neighborhood among Brazilians of all means. They live above or next door to their small antique and souvenir stores, restaurants and bars, or run the quaint “pousadas” that dot the neighborhood.
And so it is that I come to meet one of the best known locals, Pascoal, when I run out of “reales” and a friendly shopkeeper tells me in Portuguese, “Go see Pascoal down the street.” (Since I speak Spanish, I get along fine; most Brazilians understand basic Spanish, and I can guess the Portuguese).
Pascoal turns out to be the owner of one of the bars, a white-and-blue tiled nook wide open to the street. When I tell him that I want to change dollars, before I register what’s going on, the bar doors are shuttered behind me, and my 25-year-old daughter and I are enclosed in a dark small space. Pascoal disappears into the back with my $100.
I am not afraid, as I know the female shopkeeper would not have sent me into a dangerous situation, but there are two men hunched over early afternoon beers, and they are leering at us.
Pascoal returns and hands me several big bills. I tell him I need smaller change. He grunts and scolds me for not being specific before, and disappears again.
One of the men asks where we are from.
I say “Cuba,” as by now I know that Americans are thought to be wealthy and ripe for rip off, and Spaniards, not far behind.
“Then you are like us!” the man beams, and I smile and nod.
Pascoal returns with smaller bills, we thank him, and once again, the doors are slid open and his bar becomes an airy outdoor space.
“Now THAT was an experience,” Tanya says the minute we’re out of there.
And that’s why we’ve come to Salvador, to experience the one-of-a-kind city that inspired the literature of Jorge Amado and the music of Vinicio de Moraes. On our daily jaunts to Pelourinho to shop for art, leather sandals, and oils and soaps from the Amazon, we run into Pascoal and his regulars, and day and night, they always wave hello.
IF YOU GO:
WHERE TO STAY:
Othon Palace is an ocean-front high-rise; doubles from $93. Ave. Oceanica 2294, Salvador; (011-55-71) 2106-0200; www.othonhotels.com.
Redfish is a three-story colonial-styled bed-and-breakfast in the historic center. From $126 a night. Ladeira do Boqueirao 1, San Antonio Centro Historico; (011-55-71) 3243-8473; www.hotelredfish.com.
Convento Do Carmo is a former 16th century convent turned luxury hotel in the historic district and the most expensive and upscale accommodation in town. Rooms are about $370. Rua do Carmo, 1 Pelourinho; (011-55-71) 3327-8400; www.lhw.com/conventodocarmo.
WHERE TO EAT:
Mama Bahia offers international fare in the historic center, upscale by Bahian standards and frequented by Europeans, good for meats and seafood. Rua das Portas dos Carmo, 21, Pelourinho; (011-55-71) 3322-4397; www.mamabahia.com.br.
Jardim das Delicias has a cozy patio with live bossa music and makes a great “muquecca” (seafood stew). Rua Joao de Deus, 12, Pelourinho; (011-55-71) 3321-1449.
SENAC, (National Service of Commercial Apprenticeship), is the city’s culinary institute and a great place to sample Bahian specialties like “acaraje” (bean fritters), “feijoard” (bean stew), “xinxim de galinha” (chicken stewed in palm oil) and a variety of desserts. Daily lunch and dinner buffet at 25 “reales” (about $12) a person; Largo do Pelourinho, 13-19 second floor; (011-55-71) 3324-4550.
WHAT TO DO:
Shop for a Brazilian bikini ensemble at the modern mall, Barra Shopping, then beach-hop by bus or taxi along Salvador’s coast line.
Take a day tour to Praia do Forte and visit the turtle preserve, the Tamar Project, www.tamar.com.
Tour Rosario Dos Pretos, the church built by slaves for slaves. Located in the main Pelourinho square, where slaves were traded and sold. Hear the history from one of the keepers and let him take you to the entrance to the underground tunnels the slaves built to escape. www.bahia-online.net/sites.htm.
Sample the music: Parties abound every night, so ask around or just follow the music. Best bet is the Rio Vermelho district, which has bossa nova clubs.
Brazilian consulate: 80 SW Eighth St., 26th floor, Miami; 305-285-6200; www.brazilmiami.org.
“Salvador For Partiers” (Solcat Publishing, $13.95) is a concise, useful guide written with humor and flair, available at amazon.com or www.salvadorforpartiers.com.