O Rio! ("A Sweet Lightheartedness")

    O Rio! 
("A Sweet Lightheartedness")

    Brazilians’ black and white and brown bodies interlock in
    volleyball games, in wrestling, in affection. The Cariocas’ bodies
    are sinewy or supple, whether gliding across the beach,
    or moving sensuously in a samba.
    By Jill Weissich

    There are no right angles in Rio de Janeiro; Rio is all curves. The city winds around
    the mountains, and 53 miles of beaches twist along the base of the foothills. In dental
    floss bikinis, the Brazilians’ tawny bodies are showcased among foam-scalloped waves.
    Lissome Brazilian models rule! In Rio, life is alegria, a "sweet
    lightheartedness," amidst the music and the sun and the sea. High above Ipanema
    Beach, a tram is suspended mid-air, nosing up Sugar Loaf Mountain. Corcovado, which means
    hump-backed mountain, is Rio’s highest point, from which the 98-foot statue of Cristo
    Redentor stands. The statue, of reinforced concrete, is covered in limestone. Illuminated
    by night, and even shrouded in fog, the Redeemer’s perennially outstretched arms are
    visible as He blesses the city, whose motto may well be:

    "There is no sin below the equator."

    Rio’s Parque Nacional da Tijuca is the largest urban park in the world where enormous
    butterflies swoop over caves, waterfalls and the canopied rainforest, all that remain of
    the tropical jungle which once surrounded Rio.

    If Brazil symbolizes a tropical paradise, Rio de Janeiro is the Cidade Maravilhosa or,
    Marvelous City. Rio is known for Carnaval, the riotous celebration at the beginning of
    Lent. Rio embodies the festival conception of life, from the city’s samba schools to the
    Carnaval balls. During Carnaval, the entire city of Rio, from the poorest in the favelas
    to the politicians and stars, mingle in a contagious, costumed revelry. Months after
    Carnaval is past, Cariocas, (the locals of Rio) show fading glossies of their elaborate
    costumes.

    "Sadness has no end. But happiness does" was written about Rio’s working
    poor, who save all year for a costume for Carnaval, "a single moment of
    fantasy."

    Carnaval signifies the start of Lent, the forty-day period when Catholics abstain from
    a particular pleasure in preparation for Easter. The days of Carnaval are a savored
    indulgence of what will be missed. Thirsty Cariocas sacrifice caipirinha. Now the
    rage in Europe, this Brazilian drink is made from cachaça (Brazilian sugarcane
    liquor), lime and sugar.

    The Cariocas do drink in style, after work, in an area called Telles Arch. At 5:00,
    bars set up their tables and chairs outside along narrow alleys winding through the
    business district of downtown Rio. Soon dozens of barefooted children appear, handing out
    tiny cornucopias of peanuts. The peanuts are followed by beer such as Bohemia, or Cerpa.
    Draft beer is chope. More peanuts are sold, and many more cold beers and snacks,
    such as cheese, twisted around a stick, cheese patties or deep-fried codfish balls. Local
    men and women, aw6kxtling for a seat at the tables, eye each other while shedding blazers,
    neckties, and shirts in the tropical heat. Alegria!

    Although the word Carnaval sounds primitive—even
    exotic—"carne-vale," means "abstinence from meat." Brazil is
    cattle country, and the tang of roasting meat is in the air everywhere: sold at street
    stalls, meat on sticks is dipped in hot sauces; in snack bars, or on the beach, as an aperitivo.

    In a bar, a group will share a fillet cooked with spring onions, spearing it with
    toothpicks; in pubs, it’s sliced in sandwiches, or barbecuing on skewers.

    Brazil’s cattle industry is one of the world’s best, and nowhere will you find beef in
    such glory, drama, quantity and flavor than at the Restaurant Marius.

    Located on Copacabana Beach, Marius is in a huge space, befitting the enormity of this
    dining experience. The tones of the restaurant are muted; the wood and burlap and straw
    interior is the sole aspect of Marius which is understated.

    From the ceiling, huge, gleaming copper pans hang above a cosmopolitan buffet.
    Bresaola, covered with fresh ground Parmesan is arrayed between a cascade of hearts of
    palm, and a platter of deep red, ripe tomatoes. Select one tomato, and an attentive waiter
    appears with a sizzling pan of bubbling mozzarella cheese.

    A cart with leather covered wheels, befitting a covered wagon, holds covered platters
    of feijoada, (the National dish of Brazil,) individual fish dishes and lasagna.

    Achingly fresh sushi and sashimi are accented with bowls of fresh shredded ginger,
    green horseradish and soy sauce. But after sampling the salads, lasagna, a perfect sushi
    and the sashimi, one turns to the true point of Marius.

    Costumed in a billowing white shirt, the waiter approaches. Like a matador, he bears a
    long skewer held at an angle. As he carves a slice off the body of the roast, it is
    considered good etiquette to spear the slice before it flops onto the plate. A pewter dish
    is anchored to the bottom of the carver’s rigging to catch the dripping fat.

    The roasts, charcoaled and burnt fiercely on the outside, when sliced, reveal the pink
    flesh beneath. After the roast came a serving of wild boar, a very high, gamy taste,
    followed by a filet mignon. For variety, there were skewers of roast chicken, chicken
    gizzards, and chicken hearts.

    One is expected to have several pieces of each offering. It’s easy to do since you
    never see a giant filet steak on your plate, but only a slice at a time. It looks too good
    to refuse. It tastes too good to refuse.

    In Brazil, everyone who can afford it eats meat with a vengeance. It is the staff of
    life; from the vast ranches comes the wealth of Brazil. As the waiters carve, and as
    patrons dine, "carnal" (as in desire) here takes on a new meaning. On each table
    stands a silver globe, which the diner turns. When turned to green, it signals the waiter
    to "keep serving;" yellow means "serve, but more slowly;" and red is
    "stop!" The price for the feast: $32.00, or $16.00 without the meat service.
    Children are free.

    Waves and Swing

    The last surviving open-air tram ascends up the steep hills to the Montmartre district.
    Rio’s Santa Teresa is a colorful neighborhood, where once elegant mansions now stand in
    raffish disrepair. A tiny museum, Museu Chácara do Céu (Little House of Heaven) displays
    18th- and 19th-century landscapes, the Brazilian artists
    interpretation of the New World.

    The Museum is set in manicured gardens, which affords a 360-degree view of Rio,
    including the pink-roofed favelas. These shantytowns of Rio’s poor tumble down the
    hills onto the pavements’ curving patterns, one of which is Avenida Atlântica. On this
    broad pedestrian walkway in front of the round Hotel Rio Internacional, in an Escher-like
    design, the letter "S" undulates, not unlike the nearby waves. A blindfolded Rio
    native, they say, could identify which barrio he was in from the sidewalk’s design.

    Across from the Rio Internacional, on Copacabana Beach, the Brazilians’ black and white
    and brown bodies interlock in volleyball games, in wrestling, in affection. The Cariocas’
    bodies are sinewy or supple, whether gliding across the beach, or moving sensuously in a
    samba. From Copacabana Beach, an open-air jeep can get to the harbor in ten minutes.
    Another perspective of Rio is that from a sailboat in Guanabara Bay. The modern city
    sparkles above the grassy Esplanade.

    On the opposite side of the bay is the island of Niterói, where the Museu de Arte
    Contemporânea is located. As dramatic as the Bilbao Guggenheim, this museum has been
    compared to a flying saucer. Its improbably narrow base expands into a symmetrical,
    circular structure. Defying gravity, and suspended in space, the circumference of the
    museum billows out over the water. Why was this fantastic structure built on Niterói
    rather than Rio? Oscar Niemeyer, who also designed Brasília, the capital of Brazil,
    explained:

    "At the Museu de Arte Contemporânea in Niterói, the landscape gave me the main
    guidelines. Everything started when I deliberately dismissed the highly-praised right
    angle. This world of curves arose naturally from where I lived, white sand beaches, huge
    mountains, old baroque churches and beautiful sun-tanned women. In all sketches, the curve
    prevails as an omnipresent element."

    To enter the Museu de Arte Contemporânea, ascend the slight slope of a shocking pink
    ramp which unfurls, invitingly. Glimpses of Rio’s coastline are visible across the bay.
    Inside, the museum’s 28′ round base displays the art while the museum’s exterior
    circumference consists of windows. Less resembling a flying saucer, the interior is more
    like the inside of a stationary top. But multiple visions of Rio, each framed by a
    windowpanes makes the site of the museum much more than understandable, the choice of
    Niterói was inevitable. Each pane of the museum’s windows highlights an aspect of Ipanema
    or Copacabana Beach or Rio itself, which only distance makes visible. Alegria! The
    antic esthetic of the Museum’s shimmering exterior rivals the artwork, already challenged
    by the framed views of Rio’s beaches. The island of Niterói is accessible from the water,
    or by driving across Ponte Costa e Silva, the second largest single span bridge in the
    world.

    Brazil’s national dish, feijoada, is made with cured beef, baby back spare ribs,
    and choriço, for example. To describe the dish as a stew fails to do justice to
    this feast. That feijoada is a black bean based dish, served with a starchy grain
    called manioc, is true. But combine the sweetness of the sausages with the tang of sharp
    onions; pair the rough texture of cured beef with juicy orange slices. The result is a
    dramatic and unpredictable dish, equivalent to the surprises of a piñata. Feijoada
    is eaten in great style, almost only on Saturday afternoons.

    At Delightful, a restaurant on Delightful Street, the entrance is through a rough gate
    in a stone wall. In the garden, four chefs in white toques bustled over the round stone
    oven, and the open grill. The feijoada was served over rice on ceramic plates. But
    oh! the accompaniments! Slices of orange ringed the ceramic platter amidst onions, bay
    leaves and heaping manioc.

    Because of the heat, beer is more popular than wine. Bohemia is available in bottles
    but the draft beer, chope, is the favorite. Brazil’s national soft drink is guaraná,
    from a red fruit in the Amazon forest. Guaraná tastes like cream soda but its
    caffeine content may be the source of its popularity in a population that starts the
    evening at 11 p.m, and is on parade at 8:00 a.m. the next day.

    Brazilian desserts include papaya and mango puddings, "angel’s Belly," made
    of egg yolks and sugar and "baba de moça", the "drool of a
    virgin."

    Oh, sweet light heartedness!

    If You Go:

    Hotel: Rio Internacional, Av Atlântica 1500, Tel: 543-1555

    Major Credit Cards, US $175

    Marius Restaurant, Av Atlântica 290, Tel and Fax: 542-2393

    Open Daily, Major Credit Cards

    First you need a Visa, which costs about $45 and you need three passport-sized photos.

    Airport Departure tax is another $40

    Jill Weissich, an attorney, is the Travel and Food Editor for San
    Francisco Attorney Magazine and has contributed to several other publications. She can
    be reached at jweissich@excite.com 

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