Rio de Janeiro is iconised by Carnival, recognised by the Christ the Redeemer statue and famous as a plastic surgery capital of the world, but it would be a mistake to ignore the historical role it played in Brazil’s modern history. If you have a few days in Rio, here are some suggestions on how you might spend them:
Rio’s Historical Centre
It’s the mid-1800s and the harbour of Rio de Janeiro is bustling and humming with activity. The coffee boom has revitalized the Brazilian economy giving Rio’s port a new importance and financing the modernization of the colonial city. Travellers are coming and going, sailing the now regular passenger ships to London and Paris. They rush to and fro the ferry service to Niteroí across the bay. They slog through the muddy harbour streets below the overpasses that run from the Emperor’s palace to the convent to the royal chapel keeping the monarch family’s shoes clean and dry, but soon the streets will be paved. A telegraph system and gas streetlights have already been installed. Houses, convents, churches and public buildings, a sewage system and the first railway station are all under construction. Business is booming, immigration is rampant, prosperity rises each day with the sun. This city is thriving.
The excitement of this period can still be felt today in Rio’s historical centre. Though the port has been relocated, most of the city’s important museums and colonial buildings still exist interspersed in what is now the city’s centre of finance and commerce. The hustle and bustle of daily life continues in and amongst these impressive, handsome buildings.
Standing on the small island only a five-minute boat ride from the old port at Praça 15 de Novembro, Dom Pedro II beheld his capital. It was 1881. Surrounded by mountains, over-looking the city and harbour, and watchful of the entrance to Guanabara Bay, this is where he decided to build his customs house, in Neogothic style modeled after a 14th-century castle in France. Seven and a half years later, the castle was completed and no expense had been spared. With hand-carved native stone, stained and painted glass fired in England, a mosaic wooden floor, gold stars painted on arched ceilings, crystal chandeliers, wrought iron work and a German clock on top, meticulous attention was given to every detail. Regal enough to hold a ball in, perhaps? That is exactly what Fiscal Island is now famous for: The Last Ball.
Dom Pedro held the soirée in November 1889, a dazzling, red-carpet affair with 2,000 guests. When he arrived at the island with his family, he stumbled while disembarking. Rejecting help from bystanders, Dom Pedro said, “The Emperor may fall, but not the Empire.” Ironically, six days later he and his family were evicted and Brazil became a republic.
Besides a tour of Fiscal Island, which includes the history and legends, a walk through the castle and around displays of the Navy’s activities in South America, there is a small museum at the mainland port and a short, one-hour tour of the bay on the Navy’s tugboat, Laurindo Pitta, from 1910.
Longer tours on various other crafts take guests out into the bay, into the inlets along the coast, and past moored sailboats as scores of tainha fish leap into the air and smack back into the water. Passengers can absorb the landscape from an offshore perspective, getting the sense of a time long ago when whales once came here to birth in safety. It’s the view that led Gaspar de Lemos to believe that he had entered a river instead of a bay (thus naming it Rio de Janeiro – January River). It’s a place where many battles were fought from these forts and strategic points, and where an unlikely colony of less than 1,000 found beauty and riches too tempting to leave, developing it into the “cidade maravilhosa” that it is today.
Santa Teresa is a charming, picturesque district that appeals to all senses. In the 1800s, Rio’s rich and sophisticated lived up here along the narrow, tree-lined streets that snaked through the hilly suburb, taking the tram downtown to work. As the hills below began to fill with favelas (slums), the mansions were abandoned. In the 60s and 70s, attracted to the rich colours, luscious gardens, and houses and castles from various periods, hippies infiltrated the area. Today the neighbourhood houses artists, handicraftsmen and intellectuals.
The streetcars still operate in Santa Teresa, leaving the station every half-hour, the best way to view the area. First crossing the aqueduct, the tram winds its way up through the historic streets. An entire day can be spent wandering this quaint, village-like quarter absorbing the sites, smells and sounds: scenic residences, gardens, curvy streets and secret alleys, views of Guanabara Bay down below, parks and museums, galleries and workshops, convents and temples, cafes and restaurants.
Abundant, rich and steeping in history, rediscover Rio de Janeiro’s last royal century.