Walk­ing the length and breadth of Rio

All eyes are on brazil, es­pe­cially af­ter last weekend’s World cup draw. this writer walks the streets, beaches, moun­tains and fave­las of rio de Janeiro — and bumps into a foot­ball leg­end along the way.

The Star Malaysia - Star2 - - TRAVEL - By GAVIN MCOWAN

I’D spent all day walk­ing in the heat and hu­mid­ity of Rio, and my first beer didn’t touch the sides. I was about to dis­patch my sec­ond when a grey­ing, pot-bel­lied man ap­peared next to me at the bar. I froze. He no longer looked any­thing like the pow­er­ful Brazil­ian striker who had torn de­fences to shreds in the 1970 World Cup, one of the stars of the great­est foot­ball team of all time. But there was lit­tle doubt who he was.

“Is that Jairz­inho?” I mouthed to the barman. He nod­ded with a smile. A mem­ber of the glo­ri­ous, beau­ti­ful team that lit up the World Cup like none since, Jairz­inho was its un­stop­pable goal ma­chine – the “Hur­ri­cane”, the only player in his­tory to score in ev­ery round of the tour­na­ment, a feat not even pele, his team­mate, got close to.

And there he was – no longer look­ing much like a hur­ri­cane – but stand­ing next to me at the bar. starstruck, I blurted out the first thing that came into my head: “Hi! You’re a leg­end!”

“Yeah, I know that,” he replied, as if it was the most ob­vi­ous thing he’d heard all day.

I man­aged to com­pose my­self enough to of­fer him a beer (he had one, but paid for his own) and talk about the foot­ball coach­ing pro­grammes he runs in the city’s fave­las, but in­side I was aglow. (If you’re not a foot­ball fan, this was like hav­ing a chat with Jean-paul sartre over a pastis in a parisian cafe.)

I was look­ing for­ward to many things on my four-day walk across Rio de Janeiro. thanks to its unique to­pog­ra­phy and gob­s­mack­ing nat­u­ral beauty, it of­fers a city walk like nowhere else on earth – tak­ing in a lake, moun­tains, two of the world’s most fa­mous beaches and some of Brazil’s last re­main­ing vir­gin At­lantic rain­for­est, not to men­tion colo­nial vil­lages and the big­gest favela in Latin Amer­ica – all within the city lim­its. But I’d never dreamed of shar­ing a beer with a liv­ing leg­end in a scruffy lit­tle bar in the @#$* end of Copaca­bana.

I’d be­gun my walk eight hours ear­lier in the spot where Brazil it­self had started, or at least came of age and shook off its colo­nial past. In 1889, at the Im­pe­rial palace in praca XV, the heart of old Rio, a group of army of­fi­cers de­liv­ered a let­ter to Dom pe­dro II, the em­peror of Brazil de­scended from por­tuguese roy­alty, with words to the ef­fect: “You know what, mate, I think we can man­age our own coun­try on our own from now on. pack your bags and head back to europe.”

some of Rio’s most im­pres­sive ar­chi­tec­ture can still be found in and around praca XV, but it has been throt­tled by moder­nity, its colo­nial charm oblit­er­ated by a con­crete fly­over, now black and de­crepit, built di­rectly over the top of it. In the morn­ing rush hour, I got off a bus in a tun­nel un­der­neath the square with dozens of com­muters, and within sec­onds was en­gulfed by thou­sands more pour­ing out the fer­ries from niteroi, the satel­lite city across Gua­n­abara Bay, and planes com­ing in to land at the nearby do­mes­tic air­port al­most grazed the tops of the boats in the har­bour.

the only per­son not rush­ing to work in the com­mer­cial dis­trict was a home­less man stand­ing next to an old dis­used foun­tain in the mid­dle of the square. When I asked him about the foun­tain’s his­tory he said: “It’s never worked; it’s just for tourists to come and take pic­tures.”

But there are no tourists around and the palace was yet to open, so in­stead I ducked un­der an arch, Arco do teles, to a nar­row cob­ble­stone street, where, as a child, samba singer/dancer/ac­tress Car­men Mi­randa lived at no 13.

If I were true to the spirit of megac­ity walks, I should have headed north from here, through the end­less gritty sub­urbs and poor fave­las that are homes to mil­lions in the ur­banised and in­dus­trial stretch of Rio. In­stead, I headed south through old Rio, to­wards the nat­u­ral play­grounds of Copaca­bana and Ipanema, pao de Acu­car, Cor­co­v­ado, Cristo and other places that slip off the tongue like a silky bossa nova melody.

Al­though it was still morn­ing, the air was al­ready thick with the meaty, gar­licky whiff of sim­mer­ing fei­jao (black beans), the sta­ple that would feed the army of of­fice work­ers at lunch-time. And by 10am, it was soupy with hu­mid­ity, too, so I headed for the cool and calm of the Met­ro­pol­i­tan Cathe­dral. From the out­side, it looks like an enor­mous up­turned con­crete bucket, an ex­am­ple of grace­less 1970s ar­chi­tec­ture. But this just made the spec­tac­u­lar in­te­rior of as­cend­ing stained-glass win­dows all the more breath­tak­ing. the ef­fect is as awe-in­spir­ing as the grand me­dieval cathe­drals of europe.

slip­ping out through the back door, I felt as though I’d walked into a dif­fer­ent city. the of­fice work­ers had van­ished, and the empty, ram­shackle streets of Lapa, Rio’s bo­hemian quar­ter, were still asleep in the late morn­ing.

Lapa has been the home of Brazil­ian artists for two cen­turies, but no one con­trib­uted more to the area than Chilean-born Jorge se­laron, whose one-man project, the es­cadaria se­laron, a flight of 215 mo­saic steps, has be­come a fo­cal point of the neigh­bour­hood. the artist cov­ered ev­ery inch of the steps in front of his house in tiles, ceram­ics and mir­rors – orig­i­nally in the green, yel­low, blue and white of the Brazil­ian flag, later adding tiles in other colours brought by visi­tors.

At the top of the steps, I turned left and headed to santa teresa, a sleepy hill­side vil­lage of cob­ble­stone streets, colo­nial houses and artists’ stu­dios that feels cut off from the rest of the city. this was the first of sev­eral oc­ca­sions on the walk when I didn’t feel I was in a big city at all.

Head­ing back down the hill, I got my first “wow” mo­ment as I gazed at Botafogo beach on the edge of Gua­n­abara Bay, with su­gar­loaf

moun­tain be­yond, like a gran­ite space­ship ready for lift-off. This is where the Por­tuguese fleet ar­rived on Jan 1, 1502, hence Rio de Janeiro (Jan­uary River) – they mis­took the huge bay for a river delta. Even laced with roads and build­ings, it’s a jaw-drop­ping vista, but I tried to pic­ture it 500 years ago, with the moun­tains swathed in emer­ald for­est, the beaches ring­ing to noth­ing but the sounds of the jun­gle. It must have been like sail­ing into Eden.

Five min­utes later, all no­tions of trop­i­cal par­adise van­ished as I was con­fronted by a mash-up of fly­overs, tun­nels, deaf­en­ing traf­fic and pol­lu­tion – a nat­u­ral bot­tle­neck re­sult­ing from the gran­ite mor­ros that shoot into the sky all over Rio. There’s no easy way to walk from Botafogo to Zona Sul, the area of Rio with all the fa­mous bits. Un­til the early 20th cen­tury, Rio ended here; Copaca­bana was an iso­lated At­lantic fish­ing vil­lage. Once the Tunel En­gen­heiro Coelho Cin­tra opened in 1906, the Brazil­ian mid­dle class started mov­ing south, fol­lowed by the rich and fa­mous, who turned the Copaca­bana Palace into one of the world’s most glam­orous ho­tels.

I took the nar­row foot­path through the six-lane tun­nel and saw Copaca­bana beach beck­on­ing at the other end, but I opted for that cool­ing beer with Jairz­inho rather than a swim. I made my way to the beach af­ter­wards, ex­hausted but ec­static, my head full of beer and Brazil­ian foot­ball, and prac­ti­cally danced the two miles back to my ho­tel, cool­ing my sore feet in the crash­ing waves.

Copaca­bana’s star has long since faded – it is now one of the most densely pop­u­lated neigh­bour­hoods in the world, tightly packed high-rise blocks squeezed be­tween the moun­tains and the sea, beer-bel­lied blokes drink­ing their pen­sions away, and women with small dogs and bad facelifts. Yet the 4km arc of the beach still has an ir­re­sistible shim­mer, a cres­cent of white sand 100m deep from the wa­ter’s edge to the fa­mous wave mo­tif on the black-and-white mo­saic pave­ment.

And it’s still where Brazil shows off to the world. When Usain Bolt ran an ex­hi­bi­tion race ear­lier this year, when the Rolling Stones played a free gig, and the new Pope ad­dressed the city, they did it on this beach in front of mil­lions.

My ho­tel, the Sof­i­tel, was at the far, western end of Copaca­bana, in front of the neigh­bour­hood’s tiny fish­ing com­mu­nity, a ves­tige of when this was an iso­lated ham­let rather than the most fa­mous beach in the world.

The next morn­ing, I walked round the cor­ner to the city’s sec­ond most fa­mous beach, Ipanema, which was grey and moody, the pointed peaks of the Dois Ir­maos moun­tains loom­ing over the far end of the beach, shrouded in heavy cloud.

I went back with friends a few days later, when the sun was out, and Ipanema was at its sul­try best. Hun­dreds of peo­ple were med­i­tat­ing on the rocks, legs crossed, eyes closed. On the pave­ment nearby, a busker was play­ing the sax­o­phone, his hat con­tain­ing a not in­con­sid­er­able amount of cash. This might sound like an ev­ery­day scene for a hip city beach, but when I lived in Brazil 20 years ago, peo­ple in Rio seemed al­most scared to blink lest their bags were snatched from their hands; and the busker’s hat would have been nicked by hood­lums, along with his sax.

It’s still not the safest city in the world – I was warned to stay away from Copaca­bana and Santa Teresa at night – but, boosted by the boom­ing econ­omy and dou­ble feel-good fac­tor of host­ing the World Cup Fi­nals and the Olympics – Rio feels a far hap­pier, more con­fi­dent place.

I still had half the city to walk, so I tore my­self away from watch­ing lo­cals play­ing the in­cred­i­bly skil­ful hy­brid of footvol­ley on Ipanema, and headed down Rua Vini­cius de Mo­raes, named af­ter the lyri­cist and bossa nova com­poser. On the left is Garota de Ipanema (the Girl from Ipanema), the bar where de Mo­raes wrote the clas­sic song with Tom Jo­bim in 1962. De­spite chang­ing its name (it used to be called Bar Veloso) and be­ing just one block back from the beach, the bar still at­tracts lo­cals as well as visi­tors, and does a great steak (go for the pi­canha, rump cap: it’s the most ex­pen­sive thing on the menu – £24/ RM127 – but will serve three peo­ple).

At the end of the street is the Lagoa, or Lake, which will host the row­ing in the 2016 Olympics. It is a beau­ti­ful lake, ringed with im­pos­ing black moun­tains. From the tallest, 710m Cor­co­v­ado, straight ahead of me the statue of Christ the Redeemer sur­veyed the city.

Af­ter a mile, I turned west through the pleas­ant but un­event­ful mid­dle-class sub­urbs of Le­blon and Gavea. It was a quiet, easy day’s stroll which I cut short to plan the most chal­leng­ing sec­tion of this walk, through Rocinha, one of the big­gest fave­las in Latin Amer­ica. Many of the city’s fave­las have been “paci­fied” in re­cent years and small com­pa­nies have sprung up of­fer­ing tours. But when I rang a cou­ple to ask if they had a guide for the long and wind­ing road through Rocinha, they re­acted as if I was slightly mad. So I asked for help at the com­mu­nity cen­tre on the main road just out­side the favela. There Dil­mar Borges called her grand­son Roge­rio, who came to meet me and agreed to be my guide the fol­low­ing day.

So, on day three, I started at sea level and walked back up to where I’d stopped the day be­fore. “A favela is like a moun­tain: you need to climb it from the bot­tom,” said Roge­rio.

At first, it felt like any other work­ing-class Brazil­ian street, full of nail bars and mo­bile phone shops, banks and restau­rants.

But as soon as we hit the dank al­ley­ways off the main drag, the place felt Dick­en­sian. Ev­ery thor­ough­fare was over­hung with a black plas­tic spaghetti of hun­dreds of In­ter­net, tele­phone and elec­tric­ity ca­bles. This is how at least 12 mil­lion Brazil­ians live, most in far poorer fave­las than Rocinha.

It felt oth­er­worldly, but also wel­com­ing and com­pletely safe. This was partly thanks to Roge­rio, who seemed to know ev­ery­one we met on the long, slow climb to the top of the favela. He proudly showed me the new, sadly un­der-used, eco­log­i­cal park, and a pris­tine clay ten­nis court funded, with lit­tle fan­fare, by No­vak Djokovic.

At the top of the morro, we had a drink at Laje Car­lin­hos (www.ter­race­tourist.com), a friendly bar on the roof of a small house, with a sweep­ing view of the whole favela – a moun­tain dot­ted with tens of thou­sands of tiny houses made of cheap red bricks. Be­yond lay the At­lantic, to the right was Pe­dra da Gavea, the im­pos­ing moun­tain I was plan­ning to climb the fol­low­ing day. Up a floor, from another im­pro­vised rooftop, we looked in the op­po­site di­rec­tion to where the Ti­juca rain­for­est climbs up the hill­side in a car­pet of dark vel­vety green.

I said farewell to Roge­rio at the sum­mit of Rocinha, and in less than five min­utes I was walk­ing back down through Alto Gavea, Rio’s most salu­bri­ous sub­urb. Within touch­ing dis­tance of the favela is the Es­cola Amer­i­cana, the most ex­pen­sive school in town, land­scaped into the hill­side. Stand­ing on top of a favela full of peo­ple liv­ing in poverty and look­ing down on a school that charges day fees of over £2,000 (RM10,550) a month, it felt like a mad world, but my God, what a beau­ti­ful one.

On the fi­nal day of my walk, I climbed another moun­tain, but un­like Rocinha, where ev­ery crevasse is crammed with hu­man­ity, the 844m Pe­dra da Gavea, about 3km (two miles) to the west, is stark, empty and cov­ered in some of Brazil’s last re­main­ing At­lantic rain­for­est, in­side the Ti­juca na­tional park. I was ac­com­pa­nied by Rob, a Scot­tish friend who has lived in Rio for nearly 20 years. He misses the High­lands but hav­ing moun­tains like this on your doorstep – which you can climb in the morn­ing and then be back down on the beach in the af­ter­noon – is am­ple com­pen­sa­tion.

There are dozens of hik­ing trails in Rio but only in re­cent years, as a re­sult of greater af­flu­ence and ex­pand­ing hori­zons, have lo­cals re­ally started tak­ing ad­van­tage of them. The ranger at the start of the trail told us, with some pride, that 200 peo­ple had come through al­ready that day. Per­haps be­cause it’s so close to the city, many were woe­fully un­pre­pared for the hike, wear­ing cheap train­ers and even flip-flops. I was cer­tainly sur­prised at the level of fit­ness re­quired to tackle the ver­ti­cal rock faces, and wouldn’t have made the top with­out Rob there to chivvy me along.

Luck­ily, the moun­tain was cov­ered in mist for much of the as­sent, pro­tect­ing us from the sun. But as we reached the sum­mit, the clouds lifted, re­veal­ing the city be­low bathed in sun­light.

To the west was the mod­ern sub­urb of Barra da Ti­juca, Rio’s fu­ture, full of shop­ping malls and Florida-style con­dos – and home to many of the venues for the 2016 Olympics – fringed with sand and sparkling blue sea. To the east, I looked back to the city I’d spent the last four days walk­ing across: the white apart­ment blocks and fave­las seemed tiny and in­signif­i­cant next to the vast sweep of Copaca­bana, the ocean and the tow­er­ing moun­tains swathed in trop­i­cal rain­for­est.

There might be a megac­ity of 13 mil­lion peo­ple down there but, from up here at least, it seems that man, de­spite his best ef­forts, has barely made a dent in this in­cred­i­ble land­scape. — Guardian News & Me­dia

The trip was pro­vided by Bri­tish Air­ways Hol­i­days.

a view of the Santa teresa dis­trict.

Panoramic: christ the redeemer over­look­ing rio de Janeiro (also inset). — Pho­tos from Wiki­me­dia com­mons

the es­cadaria Se­laron, a flight of 215 mo­saic steps.

the met­ro­pol­i­tan cathe­dral

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