Rio, which has become one of my adopted homes for four or five weeks of the year, is quite simply the most beautiful city I have every visited. Undoubtedly it has many problems, but a walk along the Copacabana as the morning sun is rising is enough to make you forget about anything bad. From the crashing waves, to the vista of rocky mountain outcrops port and sideboard, and rain-forest behind, Rio is a reminder that it is possible for nature and urbanism to live happily side by side.
The city is about to celebrate its 450th anniversary of European colonisation, following the Portuguese explorer, Pedro Álvares Cabral’s, accidental discovery of Brazil when his ship blew off course on its way to India. Two years later, a Florentine boat mistook Guanabara bay as an estuary, and the city of ‘January River’ (Rio de Janeiro) was born.
Later, taking over from Salvador, Rio became both Brazil’s capital and the administrative centre of the Portuguese government in exile in the early nineteenth century, when King João VI and his entire court were forced to flee their homeland by Napoleon Bonaparte.
A major slave port, in the mid nineteenth century Rio had the largest concentration of African and African descended people in the Americas, and Afro-Brazilians still form the majority of the city’s population today 120 years after slavery was abolished.
I have somewhat put off writing up a markontour guide to Rio, because I am conscious that I have only had the chance to see a tiny fraction of the city. But having now experienced my first Rio Carnival and worked out the purchasing system at the Bip Bip I think I may be entitled to call myself at least one percent carioaca, and so can justify writing a lines about some of the places I have come to love in my third home.
Bars and music
The Bip Bip bar is an idiosyncratic live music bar just off the Copacabana. Get a beer from the fridge, give your name to the gruff, but ultimately friendly, owner sitting at a table by the entrance, join the crowds spilling outside and pay when you leave after a few hours of wonderful music. Find me somewhere more perfect and I’ll eat my favourite hat.
The little roadside place overlooking Ipanema
Just down the hill from the Sheraton, and overlooking Ipanema beach on a bend in the road, are two mobile cafes serving chilled Brahma beer and fried food. Nearby, young men spend the evening fishing, their rods perched precariously on the precipitious rocks that slant down to the sea. The views of Ipanema are fantastic and the atmosphere friendly, although the walk in the dark from the hotel may not be for everyone.
Bossa Nova and Companhia, near Copacabana
A little record (well, cd) shop just back from the beach, blessed by an owner who really loves the music he sells and is more than happy to impart his knowledge and recommendations to his customers. My kind of place.
If you like to start your morning with exercise then there is simply nothing better than a barefoot run on Copacobana beach at sunrise. A few hours later and the beach will be jammed with sunbathers, beach football and volleyball games, hemmed in by trestle tables stocked with cold beer and caipirinhas, and roaming traders shouting ‘coco frio’ (chilled coconut milk). It’s an irrepresibly lively and friendly place during the day and yet at night you can stop at one of the many beachside bars and enjoy the sound of the waves in relative tranquility, as life moves to the bars and hotels beyond.
A little more brash than Copacobana, there is more edge to Ipanema but it is still a wonderful expanse of sand and sea.
Restaurants and cafes
Vegan Vegan, Voluntarios Da Patria
A little gem of a place a short walk from the Palacio De Cidade, from where I work when in Rio, Vegan Vegan does what it says on the tin and provides fine meat-free fare on a daily basis, including the best vegan ice-cream I have ever tasted (ginger and cacao flavoured). If you need something before your dessert then I can also recommend the black bean and tofu, washed down with a non-alcoholic caipirinha. The waiter there also tried to explain to me how to make banana ice-cream simply by freezing a banana and then whacking it in the food mixer, but my many experiements at home since have ended up in the compost, so I think there is really a missing secret ingredient.
Vegana Chacara, Rua Hans Staden, Botafogo
Vegana Chacara is the family home of the owners of Vegan Vegan (see above) and offers the same wonderful menu with outdoor eating thrown in. It is simply beautiful. I enjoyed a cracking chocolate mousse made from rice milk and cacao and would have taken a nap afterwards in the proferred hammock, slung between a couple of trees, if I’d had time. Payment is via an honesty box, perched on the remnants of an old Singer sewing machine.
I believe that I may now have visited all three of Rio’s three vegatarian restaurants, but in which case it is quality over quantity as this tiny eaterie in Leblon served a great riosotto with pumpkin sauce. The busy street location puts Social Clube a rank behind the Vegan Vegan sisters, however.
Restaurante Adriano, Rua Real Grandeza, Botafoga
A jovial, inexpensive Portuguese restaurant close to Palacio de Cidade, where affable waiters serve great lunchtime pasta.
Based purely on name-prejudice, I wouldn’t have expected like this large, bustling eaterie close to City Hall, where you choose your own meal from a massive buffet and prices are based on the weight of your plate, but it’s great and I go every time I am in Rio.
Museums and galleries
Palacio de Cidade, Rua Sao Clemente, Botafogo
The former British embassy that now serves as an office for the International Relations team of Rio Prefeitura and a fabulous venue for official functions. Nestled at the base of the rainforest that spreads into the city of Rio, monkeys on the prowl for unattended lunches are regular visitors. It’s not really a museum or a gallery, but it is very impressive!
Daros Latin America, Rua Gen. Severiano
Apparently the Swiss owners of this fantastic modern art gallery are threatening to leave Rio. That would be a shame based on my brief visit. I loved Jose Damasceno’s trumpets fused together as “Can You Hear Me”, and Vik Muniz’s reimagining of the classic Che Guevera portrait using that favourite Cuban fare, black bean soup. However, I really didn’t understand the room where animal bones hung from the celing and silver coins flashed on the floor.
Museu do Indio, Rua das Palmeiras
The main exhibition space was being refurbished when I turned up, but a striking temporary show about the Ashaninka indians made the half hour walk here worthwhile. All the information was in Portuguese, but I gathered that the remaining 2,000 of this tribe live up near the Peruvian border, and are a handsome judging by the arresting portraits on display. Housed in a former colonial mansion, the Museu do Indio celebrates the history of Brazil’s indigenous population, most of which was wiped out by that infamous combination of guns, germs and steel.