Cirio climaxes on the second Sunday of October, but for weeks beforehand the city is preparing itself for what in Belém is by far the most important time of year, easily outstripping secular rituals like Carnaval. The centre is swept and cleaned, houses and buildings on the image’s route (much of the centre of town) are decorated and festooned with bunting and posters in the saint’s yellow and white colours, and hotels fill up while anticipation builds. On the Friday night before the climax hundreds of thousands of people accompany a cortege with the image borne aloft on a flower-covered palanque down Avenida Nazaré from the Basílica, through Praça da República to a chapel where it spends the night. It is something to see; hundreds of thousands of people quietly and in perfect order walking along with the image, residents of buildings applauding and throwing flowers as it passes, with choirs stationed at improvised stages en route serenading it with hymns. Saturday morning is, in some ways, the visual highlight of the entire period. The image is put onto a decorated boat for the procissão fluvial and sailed around the riverfront, accompanied by dozens of boats full of devotees, so the sailors and riverboats so central to the life of the city get a chance to show their devotion too. This is best seen from the battlements of the fort or the walkway next to it, but get there no later than 10am or the places will be taken. The next part of the festivities is secular; around 1pm a riotous procession dominated by young people, with bands and drummers, wends its way through the Praça da Sé, down Rua Siqueira Mendes and ends up at the Largo do Carmo, where groups set up on stage and entertain the multitude with excellent regional music until the evening. Sunday morning is the climax, when the decorated palanque makes its way back through the centre of town and up Avenida Nazaré to the Basílica. The crowd tops a million, but is very non-intimidating: the atmosphere is saturated with devotion and everyone is very orderly – at least away from the cortege. The self-flagellating side of Catholicism is much in evidence: the image is protected on its travels by a thick anchor rope snaking around the cortege, and those with sins to pay for or favours to ask help carry the rope, where the squeeze of bodies is intense – at the end of the day the rope is stained red with blood from the hands of devotees. The especially devout follow the cortege on their hands and knees, with equally bloodstained results after several miles of crawling on asphalt. The image is usually back at the Basílica by noon, when families unite for the paraense equivalent of a Thanksgiving or Christmas dinner, with turkey being substituted with pato no tucupí, duck in tucupí sauce, and maniçoba, a fatty, smoky-tasting stew of pork and manioc leaves, which takes days to prepare. All in all, the largest and most spectacular religious festival in Brazil is worth going to some trouble to catch – but be sure to book your hotel well in advance.

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