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Flying down to Rio and Buzzing Over to Buzios

Sugarloaf as seen from Porcoa Restaurant, Rio de Janeiro
Credit: Edwin C. Fancher

In Rio sensuousness, glamour, and excitement saturate the air giving the beaches, the bars, the music as well as the sports—indeed, every part of everyday life--an irresistible appeal. Even the geography—the sun rising over the city from across Guanabara Bay, undulating mountains, curving beaches, waves crashing against steep sea beds, shadows of puffy clouds wandering across granite hills--appears heavy with sensuality. The vital force of the Cariocas, the warm-hearted sobriquet for the residents, seems to be sensuality. Young couples, who appear to be going nowhere, pause in the streets for interminable intervals to kiss and caress. Woman with svelte figures in skimpy skirts and bikini tops and well tanned and toned men in tight trousers swing their hips to the ubiquitous sounds of samba.

The smooth sea pats the rugged mountains to show that nature like life is full of contrasts, Eleven million people dwell on top of each other and extreme poverty exists side by side with ostentatious wealth. A thick rain forest carpets the crest of Tijuca National Park located downtown and many-storied buildings rise on the city's western fringes in the environs of Barra Da Tijuca and Jacarepagua.

Men and women come in all colors—black and white and every indeterminable shade in between--and seem to mix freely within the three pillars of social life: the beach, soccer (o jogo bonito-the beautiful game) and music.

Rio is one of the great experiences of travel, a ravishing city no one ever quite expects.
The citizens call it Cidade Marvilhosa, the marvelous city, whose history began when a Portuguese captain steered his craft up the main channel, Guanabara Bay, on January 1, 1502. Hence, the name: “River of January.” As the glistening harbor and radiant peaks came into view, it had to have been a glorious sight.

Today the adventurous arrive on planes and are greeted by twin municipal logos:
brown and barren looking Sugarloaf, an elongated rock appearing like a haystack, but named Pao de Acucar, Portuguese for a loaf of sugar; and Corcovado (hunchback) Mountain dramatically topped by the soaring statue of Christ the Redeemer standing with outstretched arms and blessing the city.

As your vehicle exits one of Rio’s 25 auto tunnels connecting its distinct districts, or swings around another bend that edges the city’s scalloped shores these double icons pop up again and again.

Samba City, Rio De Janeiro
Credit: Edwin C. Fancher

Cariocas love parties and throw two monster ones each year. The city rides high on December 31 when the festivities start early in the day and continue until deep into the dawn. Two million participants dressed in white bend to their superstitions and gather at Copacabana. The beach becomes a stage of bonfires; of religious Umbanda circles, combining elements of Indian, African, and European practices; and of invocations with candle and flower offerings to Saint Yemanja (Goddess of the Ocean). At the stroke of midnight fireworks explode in the shadows of Sugarloaf.

Fueled by the open-house Samba School rehearsals, the city then begins to rev up its engines for Carnival, the most extravagant costume pageant on earth. Samba Schools are volunteer clubs that build the rolling stage sets, sew the costumes, and samba during the parade. From their beginnings in makeshift workshops the schools have graduated to their own permanent headquarters, Samba City. In addition to functioning as a giant arena for construction, the “city” is a tourist attraction, open from July through October, where singers, dancers, and musicians perform.

Carnival (from carne vale, meaning farewell to meat) is a citywide celebration that lasts from the Saturday before Lent to Shrove Tuesday. Over two dozen Samba Schools each assemble several thousand dancers parading in ornate costumes, which manage despite beads, feathers, and glitter to show as much skin as possible. Rio becomes a fairyland of erotic dance and music-filled exuberant hours of abandonment accompanied by the hypnotic beat of the drum. On Sunday and Monday the celebrations go on from 9 p.m. until 7 a.m. In 1984 the schools began parading down Avenida Dos Desfiles, the Sambadrome, a wide half-mile long runway open to the sky and flanked by bleachers and boxes. The 14 leading Escolas de Samba vie fiercely for top honors and are judged for music, costumes, and theme.

If you’ve ever hankered to lose your inhibitions and sashay in public in an outrageously wild outfit, Carnival is your chance. You can buy a costume and become a participant to the fun. For your efforts you’ll surely win a chorus of cheers.

Although samba, a mixture of African and Portuguese rhythms, was officially born in the early 1900s in the favelas (slums) that lace the hills of Rio’s hinterland, its earliest sounds were heard in the drum beats and chants of black slaves. Brazilians want their music in the foreground, everywhere and anywhere, taking precedence over all other sound. Bossa nova, an invention of the 60s, along with samba, is internationally known, possibly because both got their start in Rio.

Hang-gliding, Rio de Janeiro
Credit: Edwin C. Fancher

North Rio is the industrial side of town and the home of the poor. The beautiful beaches and the residential sections are on the south side. Centro or downtown is a commercial and historical district. Copacabana with its six-kilometer-long and very wide beach is the neighborhood where most tourists bed down. Seventy per cent of the city’s hotels are located there. Leme at the far end of an arc-shaped beach is really just an extension of Copacabana. Ipanema and Leblon on the other side of the isthmus (Ponte de Copacabana) are the fashionable beaches, magnets for the young and beautiful. Ipanema and Lebron are separated by a channel flowing from the shimmering Rodrigo de Freitas Lagoon.

Spending at least part of one’s leisure time at the beach walking, picnicking, jogging, socializing, bike riding, and sunbathing is the Carioca way of life. Postos (numbered stations) are set along the beaches: one to six are in Copacabana and seven to 12 are positioned in Ipanema and Lebron. Officially they are places to change and shower, but groups with similar interests—soccer players, singles, intellectuals, families, actors, and surfers--have claimed the spaces and gravitated to them. Numbered postos also stretch along the 18-kilometer beach of Barra do Tijuca. One of them is the province of hang-gliders

The city roads that edge the beaches are marked with statues of famous Cariocas. A monument to Leblon Zozimo, a revered journalist, stands at the head of Oscar Niemeyer Boulevard. Although not born in Rio, Carlos Drummond, who merits a bronze statute, adopted the Carioca culture and penned the words, “In the ocean is written a city.” Among other pieces of statuary is a model of Princess Isabel of Portugal who in 1880 granted the slaves their freedom.

Tributes to “The Girl from Ipanema,” Helo Pinheiro, a real person who still lives, deck the walls of “A Garota de Ipanema,” the bar where the song was written and which now bears its name. Vinicius de Morais, lyricist, saw Helo, a teenage beauty, going to and from the beach each day and asked his friend, the well-known composer, Tom Jobim, to set his verse about her to music. Recorded in English by Frank Sinatra, the hit became the most famous of all Brazilian popular songs.

The trendy fashions originate in this neighborhood. Elegant clothing shops are located on Ataulfo de Paiva in Leblon and in Visconde de Piraja in Ipanema, where preeminent jeweler H. Stern is headquartered. The company has a representative in every major hotel and will shuttle you to and from its museum-like emporium and workshop. While listening to descriptions of the process, you can watch skilled gem cutters, polishers, and setters ply their trade

Rio’s earlier public buildings show the influence of Portuguese design. However, at the beginning of the 20th century, the mayor, who was a great admirer of Parisian architecture copied the style of some of their edifices. Thirties and 40s Art Deco buildings appear on the cityscape, too. Ipanema is a mixed use neighborhood with commercial tenants on the street level and attractive apartments above the stores.

Atmospheric Santa Teresa, a hilly once grand, later marginalized, now bohemianized neighborhood sprinkled with colonial houses is a tiny nexus of bars, cafes, galleries,
and crafts shops. In the district, populated by artists, the houses open once a year to showcase and sell creative works. After screening applications of tourists, a local association of B and Bs finds good matches and arranges stays in artists’ homes.

Christ the Redeemer, Rio de Janeiro
Credit: Edwin C. Fancher

Adjacent Lapa, near Centro, is an area whose streets are lined with balconied buildings, lit with tall gaslight-style street lamps, and paved with cobblestones. Young patrons crowd its bars to listen to traditional Brazilian music. Rio Scenarium, perhaps the liveliest spot, and the funkiest, too, enjoys great popularity. The former three-story warehouse closed for a private party, which we attended. Filled with old curiosities like radios, clocks, apothecary jars, bikes, and wrought iron fences, you might just find something you’d like to ship home. How about a dentist’s or boot black’s chair or a brass cash register?

Urca Hill, the midpoint of Sugarloaf, and the scene of another welcome reception, is reached by a three-minute cable car ride. A second three-minute ride whisks you to the top where you find a series of viewing decks from which you can drink in the 360-degree panorama of harbor, beaches, city skyscrapers and lights, and the verdant mountains. Sugarloaf turns out not to be the barren lump—it is covered with trees--that it seems from a distance. A theater and restaurant are located on the first summit, the best outdoor setting in Rio for sipping caipirinhas, the national cocktail made from cachaca (sugarcane liquor) and lime juice.

To reach Corcovado, the other high point in Rio’s skyline, take the Green Line tram from Cosme Velho Station. The ride is as much of a kick as the close-up view of Christ the Redeemer. Hidden among the gardens and woods are colorful and imaginative sculptures of forest animals. So delightful are these creatures that they look as though they might have been lifted from illustations in children’s books.

Other attractions worth visiting include the Botanical Gardens, more wild than cultivated; Maracana Stadium, where the country’s true greats of soccer have left their footprints in the cement; Sao Bento Monastery, a repository of mid-17th-century artistic works; and modernistic San Sebastian Cathedral, whose tower is so tall that it stands apart from the cone-shaped church.

But is Rio safe? The question was posed at a press meeting of Destination Brazil Showcase, an event for travel professionals. The answer: a conditional “yes” proffered by Eduardo Sanovicz, president of Embratur, Brazilian Tourist Board—“As an individual be cautious” and apply the same street smarts you would anyplace. We, in fact, walked after dark, which comes early in the fall in the Southern Hemisphere, took public transportation without concern, but left our valuables and telltale clothes back in the U.S. At the conference it was suggested that Rudy Guiliani be employed as a safety consultant, an idea already under consideration. Since night lighting and open kiosks at the beaches were implemented, the city’s reputation as dangerous is abating.

Once you’ve done Rio and gotten that glittering extravaganza out of your system, if indeed you ever can, you’re ready to appreciate another destination. We had never heard of Buzios, a small paradise lying on a peninsula some 125 miles northeast of Rio, until we found it on our itinerary. To reach the town reserve space on the shuttle van, which calls for you at your hotel.

Buzios is to Rio what the Hamptons are to New York City, a weekend and vacation haunt for the wealthy, famous, and young. In season the populace swells from 20,000 to 80,000.
Designer boutiques, candlelit restaurants, and lovely low homes with red-tiled roofs and extravagant foliage are signs that moneyed people come here.

Statue of Brigitte Bardot, Buzios
Credit: Edwin C. Fancher

Although Buzios was founded in 1620, it had a sleepy start until 1790 when its port became the site for disembarking slaves who were sold at auction. The town was named for the currency used in the slave trade, shells called buzios. Brigitte Bardot vacationed here with her Brazilian boyfriend in 1964 and some say that the town’s history dates from that year. Overnight the little hamlet became an international resort in the making. The surrounding hilly landscape and narrow cobbled streets appear more like the Riviera than Brazil.

The ragged-edge shore with its 26 beaches and many coves make the peninsula look like several pieces of a crossword puzzle. One road, Armacao de Buzios, spans the entire peninsula. If you’re not staying in the village you’ll want to rent an open bugri, also known as a beach buggy. For an overview of 12 of the beaches take the trolley, actually a jeep, tour. The wonderful smell of salt water fills your nostrils at every stop. Or hire a pedalo, water taxi, to travel from one sun spot to the next.

Quiet Praia da Ferradura (Horseshoe) a short quarter-moon of sand, has no waves.
Rocks and flowering trees encircle isolated Ferradurinha. Forno (Oven) has the hottest sand. Praia de Geriba, a long sweeping arc of sugary sand lapped by big waves, attracts a hip group who windsurf and kayak. The highest point is found at Praia Brava. Azeda Azedinha, Olha do Boim, Joao Fernandes—everyone has his favorite place to plunk down a towel near the crystal blue waters.

Like Rio, Buzios’ main street is lined with statues. Tourists pose for photographs with their arms wrapped around the likeness of Bardot. Copies of parrots (maitacas) that swarm the area sit on the heads of sculptures of fishermen anchored in the sea.

After dark the main streets and square in Centro, the most developed section on the peninsula, become a lively pedestrian mall where the fancy shops and the bars remain open until 4 a.m. Some of the chic restaurants on Rua das Pedras and Orla Bardot front the sea.

More than 200 registered pousadas ranging from modest to very deluxe offer accommodations at the resort. Many are owned and run by Argentines whose numbers among the locals and tourists are significant. Reservations are a must in season. On a hospitality tour we inspected some impressive inns like Martin Pescador, decorated with quirky antiques; Ferradura Private, whose rooms all face the bay; Le Relais La Borie, which has a spa; and colonial-styled Pedra da Laguna, one of town’s two members of the prestigious “Associacao dos Roteiros de Charme.” We stayed at Galapagos Inn, the area’s other pousada with the same distinction. It fell short of our expectations and was at most mediocre.

For a country as big as Brazil, four days each in Rio and at a resort town hardly constitutes a proper visit. The six other persons with whom we traveled were all seasoned adventurers and had previously visited the country. Each one acclaimed Brazil as their very favorite place. We easily understand their enthusiasm.

Where to Dine

Fishbone Restaurant, Buzios
Credit: Edwin C. Fancher

Porcao means pork, but the ticket at the famous churrascurio is beef, 10 cuts of it in fact. Who knows, maybe the name comes from pig out, an act that’s difficult to refrain from at this all you can eat barbecue and buffet. Food is rodizio style, a Brazilian term for a restaurant where the price is fixed and waiters serve dishes of hot food and large cuts of meat on spears, which they carve onto diners’ plates. The meal begins at the giant help-yourself table laden with salads, soup, grilled fish, cheese, and sushi. But eat sparingly as the best is yet to come—tenderloin, sirloin, t-bone, rump and unbelievably delicious filet mignon crusted with Parmesan cheese. Oh, why did they bring out this one out last?

The restaurant is part of a chain. You can eat at any of the branches in Rio and the food will be plentiful and great, but for atmosphere choose the one at Aterro do Flamengo overlooking the bay and Sugarloaf.

Porcao, Av. Infante Dom Henrique, s/numero, Attero Do Flamengo, Rio de Janeiro. Tel. 21 3389-8989.

Azul Marinho on Praia do Arpoador, the east corner of Ipanema, is known for its Brazilian seafood dishes, particularly moquecas (fish stews). Create an entrée according to your own tastes by selecting among local fish or shellfish and pair those ingredients with one of four sauces, complemented with rice and three kinds of manioc flour. To satisfy larger appetites start with an hors d’oeuvres plate filled with cheeses and spreads. Finish off with a unique dessert of three kinds of candy-like sweets flavored with pumpkin, coconut, and banana. The big glass windows on several sides afford views of the ocean and of surfers. The nautical décor would not be out of place on the shores of New England.

Azul Marinho, Arproador Inn, Av. Francisco Bhering, s/n. Rio de Janeiro.Tel. 21 3813-4228.

When it comes to feijoada, hold my portion. Feijoada means black beans, one of the ingredients in this stew. The classical Brazilian dish is served family-style in bowls filled with rice, manioc, manioc flour, steamed kale, mandarin oranges, pork rinds and pork parts. Invented when slaves were fed the less desirable parts of the pig, such as ears and feet, tastier cuts of pork are now substituted. I’m probably the one that’s out of step since my dining companions helped themselves to seconds and were practically licking their fingers after each bite. However, all was well, since chef prepared a very tasty local fish for me.

Casa de feijoada is housed in charming quarters that look more like a café than a restaurant.

Casa de feijoada, R. Prudente de Moraes, 10-B/ Ipanema, Rio de Janeiro. Tel. 21 2247-2776, 2523-4994.

Ipanema Beach, Rio De Janeiro
Credit: RC&VB, Eric Barros Pinto

Founded in 1894, Confeitaria Colombo, a coffee house, bakery, and restaurant, seems as though it was transplanted from Vienna or Budapest. Just as cafes in those cities played a vital part in Eastern European social life, the Colombo is intertwined with Rio’s history. The two-floor establishment offers several kinds of service. Snackers in a hurry can stand in the front room and select from a great variety of sweet and savory pastries to pair with coffee. You can have a proper cha de tarde (afternoon tea) at a table at the back of the salon. To feast on a serious lunch go upstairs and partake of a scrumptious buffet offering salads, entrees and yummy desserts.

The old Rio landmark building is part of the draw—Art Noveau and Carioca Belle Epoque architecture and décor. The impressive interior has high ceilings, chandeliers, and marble floors. Some furnishings are imported--stained glass from France, tile from Portugal, and ornate jacaranda-framed mirrors from Belgium.

Cafeitaria Colombo, Rua Goncalves 13, Centro, Rio de Janeiro

Fishbone Cafe, an open-air restaurant, bar, and pizzeria made from bamboo and straw faces the action on Geriba Beach. A fish dish that the chef prepared for us was tasty. The sandwiches looked good, as did the pizza. You’ve got to understand Portuguese to read the Café’s website, but from the many photographs, one can figure out that this is a happening place, which attracts young people to its club and events, including pig roasts and disco nights.

Fishbone Café, Av. Gravatas, 1196, Praia de Geriba, Buzios, Tel. 22-2623-7348.

Columbo Coffeehouse, Rio de Janeiro
Credit: RC&VB, Eric Barros Pinto

Bar do Ze, an exquisite candlelit restaurant with white walls and blue and white tablecloths, faces the water and reminded me of similar eateries on the Riviera offering continental menus. The service was attentive, but not intrusive, with several waiters taking care of our small group. My companions and I sent bites of our choices around the table for sampling. Everything—salmon carpaccio, brie and asparagus risotto, the house’s special lobster, filet au poivre, and fettucini with mushrooms—was sublime. The wine list was extraordinary. Perhaps the many patrons are Brazilian, but the kitchen seems bent on attracting the internationals.

Bar do Ze, Orla Bardot, 382, Buzios. Tel. 22-2634-4986.

Enter Cigalon on Rua dos Pedras and you can exit at the back to sit on the veranda and stare at the sea. Sonia Persiani, chef/proprieteria is Argentinean, but she cooks Gallic food, offering stalwarts of that cuisine—fish soup, codfish brandade de morue, puff pastry stuffed with veal ragout, beef au poivre, profiteroles, and warm chocolate cake. Even the menu is written French. Persiani’s credentials are impressive. She studied in Piedmont, Italy; in France under the tutelage of Joel Robuchon; and is a member of the Association of Brazilian sommeliers. A three-course special menu is served nightly at this decidedly unstuffy restaurant.

Cigalon, Rua das Pedras, 199, Buzios. Tel. 22 2623-0932/6284.

Boom is a “gastronomia a kilo,” (pay by weight) restaurant, which is commonplace in Brazil. However, Boom is almost, but not quite, a bust. There were many choices of cold foods in open platters sitting unrefrigerated while a few flies buzzed around. The plates of hot food were less of a problem as they were replenished more frequently. Sushi, ice cream, pastries, and barbecue were handled with care. Choose carefully and you might put together a satisfactory meal.

Boom, Rua Manoel Turiobio de Farias 110 Centro, Buzios. Tel. 5522 2623 6254.




Summer, 2006