Second only to Rio in the magnificence of its natural setting, on the mouth of the enormous bay of Todos os Santos (All Saints), SALVADOR is one of that select band of cities that has an electric feel from the moment you arrive. The modern cloud-scraping skyline has a distinct beauty of its own, poised as it is on an undulating headland at the mouth of a deep-blue ocean bay.
Fantastic swimming beaches, the largest collection of colonial architecture in Latin America, and a vibrant modern culture – perhaps the richest living cultural mix in the country, with its multitide of Afro-Caribbean bands and performers – all combine to help make Salvador the most popular destination in the Northeast, even if it considers itself distinct from the rest of this region.
The Pelourinho district is now an attractive and much visited area, but it wasn’t always this way. In the early 1990s the area was virtually derelict, with many of the colonial buildings falling to pieces and tourism in decline. The neighborhood’s makeover is thanks to Bahia’s most famous – and controversial – politician, Antônio Carlos Magalhães. Widely disliked elsewhere in Brazil as an unreconstructed representative of the country’s landed elite, the silver-haired ACM (as he’s known) is popular in Bahia because of his tireless campaigns on behalf of his home state; you’ll see his picture hanging up in many of the city’s bars. Pelourinho’s revival, which he undertook as state governor, was certainly impressive. Some of the most important colonial architecture has been restored to its original glory, the pastel pinks and blues creating a wonderfully gaudy effect. Critics point out many local residents had to be moved out and complain the area has become dominated by tourism. There is some truth to this, but you’ll still see plenty of locals enjoying themselves alongside the tourists, and the economy is clearly thriving; on the whole, it’s hard to argue that Pelourinho was better off as a decaying shadow of its former self. Furthermore, you only have to wander fifty metres off the beaten Pelhourinho path to find yourself in dark and sometimes dodgy backstreets.
The two main popular festivals of the year, besides Carnaval, take place either in or near the Igreja do Bonfim. On New Year’s Day the Procissão no Mar, the “Sea Procession”, sees statues of the seafarers’ protectors, Nosso Senhor dos Navegantes and Nossa Senhora da Conceição, carried in a decorated nineteenth-century boat across the bay from the old harbour to the church of Boa Viagem, on the shore down from Bonfim. The boat leaves at around 9am from Praça Cairú, next to the Mercado Modelo in Cidade Baixa, and hundreds of schooners and fishing boats wait to join the procession as the statues’ boat passes: you can buy a place on the phalanx of boats that leaves with the statues, but the crowds are thick and if you want to go by sea you should get there early. On the shores of Boa Viagem, thousands wait to greet the holy images, after which there’s a packed Mass in the church, and then Nossa Senhora da Conçeicão is taken back by land in another procession to her church near the foot of the Lacerda elevator. The celebrations around both churches go on for hours, with thousands drinking and dancing the night away. The spectacle, with the bay as an enormous backdrop, is impressive enough – participating in it is exhilarating.
Soon afterwards, on the second Thursday of January, comes the Lavagem do Bonfim, “the washing of Bonfim”, second only to Carnaval in scale. Hundreds of baianas, women in the traditional all-white costume of turban, lace blouse and a billowing long skirt, gather in front of the Igreja de Nossa Senhora da Conceição, and a procession follows them the 12km along the seafront to the Igreja do Bonfim, with tens of thousands more lining the route; the pace is slow, and there is no shortage of beer and music while you wait. At the church, everyone sets to scrubbing the square spotless, cleaning the church and decorating the exterior with flowers and strings of coloured lights. That evening, and every evening until Sunday, raucous celebrations go on into the wee hours, and the square is crowded with people. If you have the stamina, the focus switches on Monday to Ribeira, the headland beyond Bonfim, for a completely secular preview of Carnaval; you can freshen up after dancing in the hot sun by swimming at the excellent beaches.
Salvador looks onto the Baía de Todos os Santos, a bay ringed with beaches and dotted with tropical islands. To the northeast of the city a string of fishing villages lies along a beautiful coastline – in short, there’s no lack of places to explore.
The secret of Bahian cooking is twofold: a rich seafood base, and the abundance of traditional West African ingredients like palm oil, nuts, coconut and ferociously strong peppers. Many ingredients and dishes have African names. Most famous of all is vatapá, a bright yellow porridge of palm oil, coconut, shrimp and garlic, which looks vaguely unappetizing but is delicious. Other dishes to look out for are moqueca, seafood cooked in the inevitable palm-oil-based sauce; caruru, with many of the same ingredients as vatapá but with the vital addition of loads of okra; and acarajé, deep-fried bean cake stuffed with vatapá, salad and (optional) hot pepper. Bahian cuisine also has good desserts, less stickily sweet than elsewhere: quindim is a delicious small cake of coconut flavoured with vanilla, which often comes with a prune in the middle.
Some of the best food is also the cheapest, and even gourmets could do a lot worse than start with the street-corner baianas, women in traditional white dress. Be careful of the pimenta, the very hot pepper sauce, which newcomers should treat with respect, taking only a few drops. The baianas serve quindim, vatapá, slabs of maize pudding wrapped in banana leaves, fried bananas dusted with icing sugar, and fried sticks of sweet batter covered with sugar and cinnamon – all absolutely wonderful.
Candomblé, a popular Afro-Brazilian religious cult, permeates Salvador. Its followers often dress in white and worship together in ecstatic dance rituals accompanied by lots of drumming and singing, or otherwise communicate with and make offerings to the Orixás spirits – personal protectors, guides and go-betweens for people and their creator-god Olorum.
A candomblé cult house, or terreiro, is headed by a mãe do santo (woman) or pai do santo (man), who directs the operations of dozens of novices and initiates. The usual object is to persuade the spirits to descend into the bodies of worshippers, which is achieved by sacrifices (animals are killed outside public view and usually during the day), offerings of food and drink, and above all by drumming, dancing and the invocations of the mãe or pai do santo. In a central dance area, devotees dance for hours to induce the trance that allows the spirits to enter them. Witnessing a possession can be quite frightening: sometimes people whoop and shudder, their eyes roll up, and they whirl around the floor, bouncing off the walls while other cult members try to make sure they come to no harm. The mãe or pai do santo then calms them, blows tobacco smoke over them, identifies the spirit, gives them the insignia of the deity – a pipe or a candle, for example – and lets them dance on. Each deity has its own songs, animals, colours, qualities, powers and holy day; there are different types of candomblé, as well as other related Afro-Brazilian religions like umbanda.
Many travel agencies offer tours of the city that include a visit to a terreiro, but no self-respecting cult house would allow itself to be used in this way – those which do are to be avoided. The best alternative is to go to the main Bahiatursa office, which has a list of less commercialized terreiros, all fairly far out in the suburbs and best reached by taxi. Make sure the terreiro is open first; they only have ceremonies on certain days sacred to one of the pantheon of gods and goddesses, and you just have to hope you’re lucky – though fortunately there’s no shortage of deities.
If you go to a terreiro, there are certain rules you must observe. A terreiro should be respected and treated for the church it is. Clothes should be smart and modest: long trousers and a clean shirt for men, non-revealing blouse and trousers or long skirt for women. The dancing area is a sacred space and no matter how infectious you find the rhythms you should do no more than stand or sit around its edges. Don’t take photographs without asking permission from the mãe or pai do santo first, or you will give offence. You may find people coming round offering drinks from jars, or items of food: it’s impolite to refuse, but watch what everyone else does first – sometimes food is not for eating but for throwing over dancers, and the story of the gringos who ate the popcorn intended as a sacred offering to the spirits is guaranteed to bring a smile to any Brazilian face.
Having steadfastly resisted commercialization, Carnaval in Salvador has remained a street event of mass participation. The main hubs of activity are Cidade Alta, especially the area around Praça Castro Alves – which turns into a seething mass of people that, once joined, is almost impossible to get out of – and, in recent years, Porto da Barra, equally crowded and just as enjoyable. The other focal point of Carnaval is the northern beaches, especially around the hotels in Rio Vermelho and Ondina, but here it’s more touristy and lacks the energy of the centre. This is an expensive and very hectic time to stay in Salvador; all accommodation more than doubles in price and with added costs like paying to join a bloco or participate in a camarote (a venue with good views over the carnaval route and an organized party thrown in for the duration), you are likely to be spending in excess of R$500–600 a day.
From December onwards Carnaval groups hold public rehearsals and dances all over the city. The most famous are Grupo Cultural Oludum, who rehearse on Sunday nights from 6.30pm onwards in the Largo do Pelourinho itself and on Tuesdays from 7.30pm in the Teatro Miguel Santana on Rua Gregório de Mattos. On Friday night, it’s the turn of Ara Ketu, who start their show at 7pm in Rua Chile, while Ilê Aiyê rehearse on Saturdays from 8pm near the fort of Santo Antônio Além do Carmo. These rehearsals get very crowded, so be careful with your belongings. One of the oldest and best loved of the afoxés is Filhos de Gandhi (“Sons of Gandhi”), founded in the 1940s, who have a clubhouse in Rua Gregório de Mattos, near Largo do Pelourinho, easily recognized by the large papier-mâché white elephant in the hall.
Information about Carnaval is published in special supplements in the local papers on Thursday and Saturday. Again, w www.bahia-online.net is great for information on and contacts for Carnaval. Bahiatursa offices also have schedules, route maps, and sometimes sell tickets for the Campo Grande grandstands. Bear in mind all-black blocos may be black culture groups who won’t appreciate being joined by non-black Brazilians, let alone gringos, so look to see who’s dancing before leaping in.
Terreiro de Jesus has more than its fair share of churches; there are two more fine sixteenth-century examples on the square itself. Outshining them both, however, on nearby Largo do Cruzeiro de São Francisco (an extension of Terreiro de Jesus sometimes known as Praça Anchieta), are the superb, carved stone facades of two ornate Baroque buildings, set in a single, large complex dedicated to St Francis: the Igreja de São Francisco and the Igreja da Ordem Terceira de São Francisco. Of the two the latter has the edge: it’s covered with a wild profusion of saints, virgins, angels and abstract patterns. Remarkably, the facade was hidden for 150 years, until in 1936 a painter knocked off a chunk of plaster by mistake and revealed the original frontage, Brazil’s only example of high-relief facade carved in ashlar (square-cut stones). It took nine years of careful chipping before the facade was returned to its original glory, and today the whole church is a strong contender for the most beautiful single building in the city. Its reliquary, or ossuário, is extraordinary; the entire room is redecorated in 1940s Art Deco style, one of the most unusual examples you’re ever likely to come across. From here, there’s a door onto a pleasant garden at the back.
To get into the complex, you have to go via the Igreja de São Francisco (the entrance is by a door to the right of the main doors). The small cloister in this church is decorated with one of the finest single pieces of azulejo (decorative glazed tiling) work in Brazil. Running the entire length of the cloister, a tiled wall tells the story of the marriage of the son of the king of Portugal to an Austrian princess; beginning with the panel to the right of the church entrance, which shows the princess being ferried ashore to the reception committee, it continues with the procession of the happy couple in carriages through Lisbon, passing under a series of commemorative arches set up by the city guilds, whose names you can still just read, including “The Royal Company of Bakers” and “The Worshipful Company of Sweetmakers”. The vigour and realism of the incidental detail in the street scenes is remarkable: beggars and cripples display their wounds, dogs skulk, children play in the gutter; and the panoramic view of Lisbon it displays is an important historical record of how the city looked before the calamitous earthquake of 1755.