Arriving in BRASÍLIA, especially at its futuristic airport, is like falling into a science-fiction novel. The entire city, and especially the central area, has a startlingly space-age feel and look, albeit with a decidedly retro twist. Originally intended for a population of half a million by the year 2000, Brasília and the area around it today has close to five million people and is the only one of Brazil’s major metropolitan areas still growing quickly. Looking at the gleaming government buildings or zooming down the city’s excellent roads, it really can seem Brasília is the modern heart of a new world superpower. The illusion is rapidly dispelled: drive ten minutes out of the city in any direction and you’ll hit the cidades satélites, poorer satellite cities that house Brasília’s low-income workers, who commute into town to serve the needs of the government-employed elite. As well as being the national capital, Brasília is also the capital of its own state, the Distrito Federal, the Federal District, which also includes the satellite cities. The whole Federal District is in fact the perfect symbol of modern Brazil, though not in the way its creators intended: affluence close to but segregated from poverty, favelas over the horizon, and poor newcomers invading the countryside where the nation’s elite have their walled-off weekend retreats.

Brasília’s highlights are all fairly obvious architectural ones. Anyone with a taste for the best of 1950s and 1960s architecture will think they have died and gone to heaven, but there are other attractions, too. Nightlife is energetic, revolving around huge numbers of bars and restaurants that benefit from the city’s marvellous nocturnal climate, fresh and pleasant all year round. Cinema is especially good here, patronized by a large local middle-class with an appetite for foreign films, and one side-benefit of the presence of the elite is the regular appearance of top-level performing arts.

There is a distinct New Age feel to parts of the city and environs; it has a special attraction for the wacky religious cults and UFO enthusiasts in which Brazil abounds. Some visitors find Brasília alienating, and the central part of the city can certainly seem that way, with its jumble of undistinguished skyscrapers, malls and massive empty spaces – the absence of planned gardens and parks is the centre’s major design flaw. At night the centre is deserted and dead, even at weekends, thanks to the city’s rigid zoning laws, which have put all its hotels there. The popular image of Brasília as a concrete jungle comes from visitors who never leave the centre; in fact, no other Brazilian city has as many trees and parks, and the older residential areas are very pleasant to walk in, with the trees so dense it often seems the housing blocks have been built in the middle of a wood. The real life of the city, especially at night, can be found in the asas, the residential wings that swing north and south of the centre, where all the restaurants, clubs and bar life are to be found. At night, the outdoor bars and restaurants can make parts of it seem positively Parisian.

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