Salvador de Bahia must be one of the most energising cities out there – packed with streetlife, colour, rivetting sound and salivating flavours. You leave it with regret, though sometimes that d-d-d-drumming gets a bit much.
Most visitors end up staying in the old colonial quarter of Pelourinho or down by the beach at Barra. I followed the pattern, holed up in a very comfortable pousada full of artworks, the Casa do Amarelindo, bang in the heart of the action between the much photographed Largo do Pelourinho and the stunning square of Terreiro de Jesus. Incidentally the pousada roof bar is a great spot for a drink while watching the sun sink over the bay in front.
What you can’t miss are Pelourinho’s churches; the entire area is chockablock with them (at least 20 of Salvador’s total of 166) Nobody should skip dazzling Sao Francisco (above) a baroque jewel plastered in gold (they say 800 kg of it), with cloisters blanketed in azulejos and a chilling ossuary. Next door, in the less visited but rather moving Ordem Terceira, saints’ statues include a black Antonio de Loures (below).
Three centuries of atrocious slave trade ironically made Salvador Brazil’s (and South America’s) most African, most pulsating city. You can’t escape that African-ness on the streets, above all after nightfall when inhabitants eat and drink in street bars, and the batucadas (percussion bands) set off rhythmically and audibly. Over the years, their mesmerising sound has inspired world musicians from Michael Jackson to Paul Simon.
Olodum is the group that adopted a kind of ban-the-bomb logo in Brazilian colours, and which since the 1980s has helped hundreds of young Salvadoreans find an identity and purpose through music. A younger generation continues, above. Apparently the Japanese are the only foreigners to join in – I saw a couple of them playing, a pretty odd cultural contrast.
I also witnessed rehearsals for the upcoming Carnival – Brazil’s largest. One minute we were calmly sipping caipirinhas in an upstairs restaurant, the next a decibel-rich procession and band was cavorting along the street below. I’m not sure if I could take the wild partying for the entire Carnival week, though a few days’ taster, definitely.
The restaurant in question was one of the best we found in touristy Pelourinho. Known more by locals, as it’s hidden away upstairs, Axeco (rua Joao de Deus 01, almost on the corner of Terreiro de Jesus) is run by welcoming husband and wife, Manoel and Lia. It’s more a lunch place, closing at 9pm, serving well priced specials from carne do sol to excellent moqueca de camarao. As elsewhere, portions are generous, so two people can easily share a dish for around 50-60 reais (£13 – 16). And sides of sustaining rice and beans help.
Across the elegant, palm-studded Terreiro de Jesus, at no. 3, is a landmark watering-hole: O Cravinho (above). This unique bar with a small restaurant at the back is always heaving – from late afternoon long into the night. The reason? Its aromatic infusoes made from a cachaça base mixed with weird and wonderful spices, roots and fruits – all very Amazonian, though the shelves of containers look more like an apothecary. Western mixologists – wake up! For the less adventurous, beer and other drinks are served too.
From the square it’s an easy walk down the cobbled hill to Nossa Senhora do Rosario dos Pretos – the blue church above which dominates Largo do Pelourinho. It was built by freed slaves for their community in a much more sober style than the opulent colonial wedding-cakes. Every Tuesday mass is held at 6pm – supposedly for the Afro-Brazilians, though we weren’t the only foreigners to squeeze in. Portuguese not being one of my fortes, nor their gospel-style singing & happy-clapping… out we soon went.
Opposite, the steep rua do Carmo winds its way into the residential barrio of Santo Antonio. Infinitely calmer than Pelourinho, it is full of zingy coloured houses, stuccoed details and a bulky convent that is now a luxury hotel. En route, two more addresses: Cafélier, (above) rua do Carmo 50, is a narrow-fronted shop sliced by a dark passage. Blazing sunshine – usually – and a sweeping view over the Bahia de Todos os Santos greet you at the back. It’s utterly charming in spirit and execution, and the little terrace is perfect for a salad, sandwich or pasta with good coffee.
Several doors further is a local institution – Cruz do Pascoal, at Rua Direita do Santo Antonio 3. It doesn’t look much – more like a grocery shop. It opens at 3pm but leave it till later and you can watch the sunset from the terrace. Negotiate your way round the back of the counter past fridges and freezers to reach it. All very quirky, and massively popular with locals.
On our way back, we popped into another church – the Ordem Terceira do Carmo. Although less spectacular than others, it’s home to one of Salvador’s strangest religious icons: a supine sculpture of Christ (1730) by the slave Francisco Xaveir Chagas – aka ‘O Cabra’, or ‘the goat’. It’s exquisitely carved and, above all, incorporates hundreds of tiny rubies in a mix of whale oil, ox blood and banana resin, to represent drops of blood. As exotic a mix as the infusions at O Cravino, and perhaps the perfect metaphor for this beguiling city, packed with infinite riches.