Sunday, April 5, 2009

Salvador da Bahia: Gem of Brazil

The province of Bahia in Brazil contains some of the most idyllic scenery in the country and consistently fascinates visitors with a fusion-like blend of native, African and colonial heritage and culture. All in all, from the beachfront at Itacaré, Chapada Diamantina National Park, glorious Fumaça Waterfall and the sunny town of Jequié, Bahia is a wonderful destination. First and foremost however, the province is home to a formidable capital city: São Salvador da Baía de Todos os Santos, or simply Salvador.

The magnificent city is home to close to 3 million people and a cultural scene that is more rich and sumptuous than any in Brazil. Without a doubt, this “capital of happiness” and the first colonial capital of the country is the place to be for tourists in the know. Rio may have Ipanema and Copacabana beach and Sao Paulo is a massive metropolis but Salvador, as the epicenter of Afro-Brazilian culture, is singularly special. The city’s food, music and architecture cannot be beat.

With that in mind, here’s a rundown of some Salvador highlights.

When most of us think of Carnaval, our thoughts understandably stray toward Rio de Janeiro. But in all honesty, Salvador’s Carnaval celebrations are where the real action is. Not only is the city’s Carnival number one in size in Brazil, it consistently breaks the world record for a street party every year, with more than 2 million people spread out over 25 km for one entire week. Incredible!

The colossal party kicks off the week before Mardi Gras as the Campo Grande neighborhood fills up with grandstands that offer ideal views of the street revelry: traditional dancers, music and famous city performers on flat-bed trucks all parade past. Other major Carnival “circuits” take place in the Salvador districts of Barra-Ondina and Pelourinho.

One of Brazil’s most notable UNESCO World Heritage Sites, Salvador’s Pelourinho neighborhood is also the historic heart of the city. As such, it remains ground zero for tourist delight and represents a veritable link with what was one of the first settlements in the New World, now frozen in time. Early Portuguese colonial leaders made Pelourinho a virtual base camp for the country’s burgeoning interests in the African slave trade.

Ignominious beginnings to be sure, yet from the mid-16th century onward, the city increased in importance. Early colonial government landmarks like the Governor’s House to City Hall, in addition to cathedrals and other splendid houses of worship, merchant manors and palaces, all mark Salvador’s Historic Centre as exceptional.

Many international visitors come to Salvador and indeed, the province of Bahia, expressly to eat. A distinct and soulful cuisine, with heavy influences from West Africa as a result of the colonial slave trade, still permeates from kitchens throughout the city. Typical ingredients include palm oil, coconut, manioc flour, molasses and a treasure trove of seafood.

When in Salvador, definitely try to sample as many local dishes as possible. Caruru is a tasty condiment made with okra, shrimp and peanuts typically eaten with black-eyed peas, formed into a ball and deep-fried. Moqueca is a succulent spicy stew of seafood, often with coconut milk, that is endemic to the province of Bahia. Desserts feature coconuts, peanuts and cashews prominently.

From the martial art capoeira to the musical genre axé, Salvador is the creative birthplace of many important movements. For a taste of the city’s cultural vitality, visit the Arte Sacra Museum, Museu de Arte da Bahia and Museu da Cidade. These landmark museums tell the story of Salvador and Bahia as a whole, through a variety of methods.

Another way to experience the culture of Salvador is to take in the city’s fabulous theatre scene. From pristine park amphitheatres to exquisite, historic venues festooned with remarkable design details; there are always stellar performances in and around town. There’s simply no better way to witness the veritable potpourri of cultural tendrils that penetrate Salvador’s very soul.

Source: Ian Harrison

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