A little luxury in Lugano

Gilberto, our extremely talkative guide, points to a house as we arrive in Olinda old town and tells us "all houses in the old town are just a door and two windows". I see his point although this is not quite true as some grander and humbler houses also line the steep cobbled streets. We are here to see a bit of the rest of Brazil after our Pantanal safari. We had heard that this was an interesting and pretty part of the country and also not too big to visit over eight days.

View of Recife from the top of Olinda old town


We have decided to spend three nights in Olinda (above with Recife in the distance), to explore this UNESCO heritage site as well as adjacent Recife, then two nights in Salvador followed by three nights on the beach. We have no idea what to expect having never been to Brazil but we are charmed by Olinda. The old town comprises of cobbled streets of brightly painted houses rising to the "Alta Se" - the high point with a couple of churches, school and square along with street stalls selling popcorn and tapioca. The city was built in the 16th C, burnt by the Dutch in 1631 and rebuilt. Our small hotel, the Pousada do Amparo, is a couple of converted town houses with many old features and furniture. The streets are almost empty of tourists. A lively bar belts out Brazilian music competing with a music school opposite where kids are learning to play the saxophone. We explore several fine churches - some of the oldest in Brazil - with altars decked in gold and Portuguese tiled cloisters. People are friendly despite living what is clearly a tough life for most. There is fantastic graffiti, good restaurants and a very jolly local bar just opposite our hotel (below right)!

San Francisco church and monastery

graffiti and bar

Recife, just next door, is a much larger modern city - with 4 million inhabitants in the "urban aglomeration" and the capital of Pernambuco state. As we drove from the airport along the coast road in the south of the city we passed flashy modern apartment blocks and many of the civic buildings in the centre were built in the 1970s and 80s. There are still some older, historic buildings that were not razed for office blocks, particularly on the oldest of the three islands on which the city is based. We checked out some of these (below top) exploring museums, puppet theatres and coffee shops, along with some of the later 1800s buildings and churches on the second island along with a lively central market. Recife was the capital of Dutch Brazil (New Holland) when it was settled by the West Indies company in 1631. The small Jewish museum describes how life was more tolerant under the Dutch before the Portuguese and their Inquisition took back power in the 1650s. Highlights for us were the market, old restored streets and more spectacular graffiti. Other sights included the British built railway station and the city gaol, now converted to a craft market. One rather grim remaining cell (for 10-15 people) was poignant in a week when 50+ Brazilian prisoners were killed in fighting and fire in a prison in Manaus.

From Recife we fly to 800km south to Salvador - the original capital of Brazil and still its 4th largest city. The city was originally built on two levels with the upper level or Cidada Alta housing the residents and churches and surrounded by walls and cliffs for defence. Much of the Cidada Alta is also now a world heritage site and our fine boutique hotel, the Villa Bahia is situated in one of the pretty old squares next to the very fine San Francisco church and monastery (yellow building on left - top below). This is far more touristy than Olinda and most of the houses in the old streets are now selling clothes and gifts. It also does not take long to explore. The restored area is quite small and we are warned not to venture into the rougher surrounding streets. Another strong example of the gaps between the rich and poor here.

As well as the fine churches in Salvador, there is a lot of evidence of the old Candomblé practices - rituals and beliefs brought by the slaves from West and Central Africa (Angola and Congo). From artifacts in the museum and carvings of gods by the local artist Carybé to the costumes worn by many of the women street vendors. Below the square where slaves were sold after being quarantined on an island across the bay is a church that was built by the slaves themselves. Apparently it took 100 years as they had to work in their spare time and money was scarce! The day we visited a Quilombolas meeting was taking place - the Quilombolas are descendant of African slaves that escaped and went to live in villages in the forest. A statue to the most famous - Zumbi - stands in another of the Cidada Alta squares. Our outings in Salvador were limited by heavy rain showers but a highlight of our last afternoon was a great drum band playing carnival rhythms in the narrow streets. Locals were dancing (some full of beer or cachaca), tourists filming on iPhones and the music was uplifting.

Bahia is famous for its beaches and we fancied a bit of R&R before we got on the plane back to London. Praia do Forte is about 90 minutes drive north of Salvador and a popular resort with the locals. We were surprised to find that it is very developed with roads full of condos and pousadas and a long central street with restaurants and shops selling all the beach brands. However our hotel was very comfortable - the Swiss owned Porto da Lua is a small family friendly hotel with lovely staff and great food. Rooms are simple, clean and prettily furnished. Apart from a few swimming spots the long golden beaches were almost deserted. July is a local holiday period but not high season (Dec/Jan) probably due to the fairly frequent heavy rain showers. In fact a day and a half of our two full days here were dry.

If you have more time you will find more idyllic beaches to the south. The advantages of Praia do Forte is proximity to airport as well as safety - it may be the "Disneyland of Brazil" but we had no problem walking to restaurants at night. A relaxing end to a full three weeks in this huge country.