Time to Paraty

Flee from Rio to a colo­nial back­wa­ter of enor­mous charm and char­ac­ter

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Travel & Indulgence - STAN­LEY STE­WART

IT is easy to overdo things in Rio. A spa treat­ment of mud baths and net­tle­flower face packs might cure me, par­tic­u­larly if it could be ac­com­pa­nied by 24 hours in a hor­i­zon­tal po­si­tion in a dark­ened room. But I haven’t come to Brazil to lie around.

I have wind of a crum­bling colo­nial back­wa­ter, a bay of fab­u­lous beaches and trop­i­cal forests of umbrageous si­lences just down the coast. Paraty seems to of­fer the per­fect rest cure for nights of too many caipir­in­has and too much sweaty samba.

So on a bright Sun­day morn­ing I flee Rio, fol­low­ing the high­way that snakes west along the spec­tac­u­lar Costa Verde. Es­carp­ments of At­lantic rain­for­est rise on myright. Tan­ta­lis­ing bays of scat­tered is­lands ap­pear on my left. One of them is the Baia da Ilha Grande, a vast and daz­zling sweep of At­lantic surf said to con­tain 350 is­lands and more than 600 beaches. The bay is Paraty’s doorstep.

One of the first set­tle­ments in the Amer­i­cas, Paraty was al­ready old when New York­ers were still wad­ing through cow dung on Broad­way. Its grid of cob­bled streets is lined with white-washed man­sions; their open doors pro­vid­ing glimpses of rooms of baroque fur­ni­ture, of plant- filled court­yards, of im­pos­si­bly beau­ti­ful women with ba­bies on their hips. The town is an idler’s dream and, in a re­ces­sion­ary age, of­fers a timely and happy les­son that there is life af­ter eco­nomic col­lapse.

When gold was found in Mi­nas Gerais in the 17th cen­tury, Paraty sprang to life as the ter­mi­nus for Brazil’s first road — the Gold Trail, the Trilha do Ouro — that car­ried the wealth of the mines down to the Por­tuguese car­avels wait­ing on the coast. In dap­pled light, among j un­gles of bam­boo and palms, the moss-cov­ered stones of the Gold Trail are like the wreck­age of an In­can ruin.

Around a cor­ner I meet the self­ap­pointed guardian, an an­cient spec­tral fig­ure, who bat­tles ev­ery day to keep the un­der­growth from over­whelm­ing Paraty’s his­tory. He is a man af­ter my heart — he blames ev­ery­thing on Rio.

In the 18th cen­tury, the Gold Trail was di­verted to Rio, deemed to be a more se­cure an­chor­age, and Paraty went into its first great de­cline. Things perked up again dur­ing the cof­fee boom in the 19th cen­tury. African slaves car­ried the beans down the old Gold Trail past other slaves car­ry­ing French fur­ni­ture, cases of cham­pagne and grand pi­anos up to the man­sions of the cof­fee barons in the high­lands.

But when slav­ery was abol­ished in the 1880s and the soil be­came ex­hausted in the high­lands, the cof­fee plan­ta­tions shifted to eas­ier climes and Paraty was sent spi­ralling into an­other de­cline. It en­tered the 20th cen­tury as a ghost town. And that is the ap­peal of Paraty. The mod­ern world has passed it by. The town is un­scathed by progress. The old cen­tre is in­tact, its streets too nar­row, the cob­bles too un­even to ad­mit cars. The old man­sions are time cap­sules from a slower more el­e­gant age. Such was Paraty’s iso­la­tion that dur­ing the mil­i­tary dic­ta­tor­ship of the 1960s, po­lit­i­cal pris­on­ers were sent into in­ter­nal ex­ile here.

In the 70s, paved roads ar­rived from Rio and from Sao Paulo, both about four hours away, bring­ing a gen­er­a­tion of artists and bo­hemi­ans who found the old town con­ducive to a laid­back and con­tem­pla­tive life­style. Paraty now en­tered a gen­teel re­tire­ment de­voted to boat­ing, beaches, lit­er­a­ture and art. The old jail, which once housed smug­glers and buc­ca­neers, be­came a li­brary. The old man- sions were trans­formed into splen­did pou­sadas, or ho­tels. Gal­leries and bou­tiques, cafes and book­shops sprang up along the old streets. The splen­did schooners of this coast were con­verted into plea­sure boats to trans­port vis­i­tors to the end­less beaches of the Baia de Ilha Grande.

Be­hind the old church the artist, poet and en­graver Pa­trick Al­lien is at work in his stu­dio on his hand­made pa­per and his cop­per plates. A French­man, he ar­rived in Paraty more than 20 years ago, mar­ried a Brazil­ian and never went home, de­vot­ing his life to tech­niques that were in­vented in the time of Goya. Peer­ing over the top of his horn-rimmed spec­ta­cles he says this was the first place that gave him the time and space to ex­plore his pas­sions.

Down along the wa­ter­front, a friend in­tro­duces me to Dom Juan, heir to the royal house of Bra­ganza, rulers of both Por­tu­gal and Brazil un­til the monar­chy busi­ness went tits up. To sig­nal their re­tire­ment from the rul­ing game, the Brazil­ian Bra­gan­zas came to pretty but in­signif­i­cant Paraty. ‘‘It is so much bet­ter than Monaco,’’ he says with a charm­ing smile.

Across town, in the Pou­sada Pa­radeiro, Ar­naldo Dias, once an ac­tor in Sao Paulo, is quot­ing Cer­vantes among the pot­ted palms and the old fam­ily por­traits in a ram­bling man­sion he has helped trans­form into a ram­bling ho­tel. He breaks away from the 16th cen­tury to dis­cuss beaches — some of the most per­fect in Brazil ‘‘and only a boat ride away’’.

When you get tired of what passes for ur­ban life in this sleepy back­wa­ter, it is time to hit the beaches. I stroll down to the quay, hire a boat with a cap­tain and head into the bay, chug­ging across an emer­ald sea, past is­lands of jun­gle and rock. Round­ing the head­land of Ver­melha I en­ter a world of beaches.

Af­ter lunch at a restau­rant on tiny Ca­tim­bau is­land, we head for the string of rav­ish­ing beaches north of Trindade. Cepilho is great for surf­ing, Meio has beau­ti­ful rock for­ma­tions, but Praia do Cachadaco is the pick, with glo­ri­ous sands, a wa­ter­fall in the rain­for­est and a sea pool ideal for snorkelling.

But the best of Paraty is yet to come. I have booked a house out on the bay and the boat­man drops me there on his way back to town. Ac­ces­si­ble only by boat, Casa Cairucu sits on a coast of rain­for­est, tiny fish­ing vil­lages and pris­tine beaches. I feel quite happily ma­rooned. It turns out I have come to Brazil to lie around.

I hang in the ham­mock watch­ing the boats cross­ing the bay, and the chang­ing sil­hou­ette of the moun­tains on the main­land. In the evening, I sit on the dock and watch stars swim across a south­ern night sky. Then I dive into the sea to float among trails of phos­pho­res­cence. This is the rest cure I have been look­ing for.

PIC­TURES: SI­MON HEYES (MAIN); THINKSTOCK (LEFT); ALAMY

Casa Cairucu, main; houses in Paraty, above left; Capela de Santa Rita church on the Baia da Ilha Grande

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