Off-season Rio


    The first thing that strikes you in Rio is the color, masses of it
    exploding in a wild palette wherever you look. Rio was cleaner and safer than I expected,
    a result of the city’s drive to brighten an image that had been blackened during the 1980s
    by reports of tourists being subjected to muggings and theft.
    By John Fitzgerald

    Around about 7 a.m. on a weekday morning, with the sun building strength and patches of
    dark sand glistening from the small waves creeping back into the ocean, hundreds of Cariocas,
    as Rio de Janeiro natives call themselves, could be found pacing briskly along the Avenida
    Atlântica, the wide, majestic thoroughfare that borders Copacabana Beach.

    Across from the white Copacabana Beach Hotel, dozens of navy cadets in tank tops and
    olive-colored shorts accelerated their stride as they passed puffing, determined-looking
    seniors wearing sun hats and tatty sneakers. On the beach itself, tai-chi classes were in
    full swing, and skinny, dark-skinned youngsters kicked sandy soccer balls into makeshift

    Here in this city where coastline and mountain peaks have contrived to create one of
    the world’s most memorable settings, I was eager to join the communal morning ritual, even
    though I rarely jog at home. It seemed preferable to a few lonely laps in the pool back at
    the hotel and the refreshment was cheap too. For a real (about half a US dollar), I could
    stop at one of the tiny kiosks on the Avenida Atlântica and watch as the owner chopped
    the top off a fresh coconut and handed it to me with a straw to extract the juice.

    I’d come to Rio last June and was anxious to see whether the city’s legendary high
    spirits were the same in the off-season as prevailed during the fabulous February
    Carnaval. Luckily, World Cup fever (which ended up giving most Brazilians little more than
    a headache for their efforts) was in full swing and the street scene was livelier than
    most other places I’ve ever been.

    The first thing that strikes you in Rio is the color, masses of it exploding in a wild
    palette wherever you look. There’s the Tijuca National Park with its forest of eucalyptus,
    cedar and trumpet trees—all 3,200 hectares of it less than a 20-minute drive from
    downtown or centro—and the hundreds of street-vendors’ trucks that lumber
    along, seemingly enveloped by heaps of glistening fruit. There’s the wide necklace of
    blonde sandy beaches that hug Rio’s shores for some 80 kilometers and the elegant, pastel
    shades of many of its buildings.

    Rio was cleaner and safer than I expected, a result of the city’s drive to brighten an
    image that had been blackened during the 1980s by reports of tourists being subjected to
    muggings and theft. Since the early 1990s, some 1,200 police have been assigned to patrol
    beaches and major tourist areas. The only trouble I had was having to choose from the
    dozens of youngsters I met who asked cheerfully to have their pictures taken.

    Because I wanted to be close to the water, I avoided staying in Rio’s dense, bustling
    downtown that overlooks Guanabara Bay, opting instead for Copacabana, the most celebrated
    of the ocean-side districts that follow one another along the coast from Leblon and
    Ipanema to Leme. More than five kilometers long, the Leme/Copacabana stretch of beach,
    which can accommodate up to 100,000 sun-worshippers, starts in Leme and curves along the
    Avenida Atlântica until it reaches Copacabana Fort, which juts slightly into the ocean.

    Nearby the Fort, there’s a small encampment used by fishermen to repair and dry their
    nets and it’s where I was offered shelter one day (and a hefty glass of cachaça or
    sugarcane alcohol) to warm me up when a hard rain fell unexpectedly and I was trapped
    without cover.

    But Rio is a lot more than beaches. Early in my stay, like just about every other
    visitor to Rio, even those who’ve been there before, I made the pilgrimage by cable car to
    the top of Sugar Loaf mountain. Along with the Christ the Redeemer statue on the 914-meter
    high Corcovado or hunchback mountain, it’s one of those got-to-do’s, like savoring the
    ceiling of the Sistine Chapel when you’re in Rome.

    Taking the cable car at Praia Vermelha, I ascended in about three minutes to the
    225-meter high Urca Hill. From there, a further three-minute ride brought me to the Sugar
    Loaf summit. Despite the presence of refreshment stands and souvenir shops, nothing
    detracted from the extraordinary view of the city set between the mountains and ocean.

    A Little History

    Although the Indians had lived in Brazil long before the arrival of the first
    Europeans, the site on which Rio now stands was "discovered" at the start of
    1502 by the Portuguese André Gonçalves who was travelling with the great Italian
    explorer Americo Vespucci. Navigating into Guanabara Bay and thinking it was the mouth of
    a great river, the men called it Rio de Janeiro or River of January.

    With colonization beginning in 1530, Rio became first a trading port and then Brazilian
    capital in 1783, a role it would play uninterrupted (and through independence) until 1960
    when the seat of government was moved to newly-constructed Brasília. For 13 years that
    ended in1821, Rio also served as home to the Portuguese royal family whose members decided
    to set up shop in the city rather than face the wrath of Napoleon who was encroaching on
    home turf.

    Rio’s architecture, which I’d previously assumed was mostly Miami Beach deco, is full
    of glimpses of 17th, 18th and 19th century artistry. At the lovely Largo do Boticário,
    for example, brightly-painted colonial-era townhouses face a sun-dappled, cobblestone
    square. And many of the downtown buildings, especially those around the imposing Municipal
    Theatre, whose design was copied from the old Paris Opera, reflect an exuberant cultural

    The city’s broad boulevards, like the Avenida Presidente Getúlio Vargas and the
    Avenida Rio Branco were built at the end of the 19th century and lined with a series of
    graceful European-style public buildings. You can see them today along the Avenida Rio
    Branco, which boasts not only the Municipal Theatre (the opera Aida was once staged in its
    opulent, Persian-style restaurant) but such civic showcases as the National Library, the
    Palace of Justice and the National Art School, as well as many of Rio’s major cinemas.

    A mixture of pride and piety and a passion for ornamentation are evident in the
    Portuguese baroque style which graces Rio’s old churches, like downtown’s Our Lady of
    Candelária at the foot of Avenida Presidente Vargas and the church and monastery of São
    Bento. Originally built as a fortress in 1589, São Bento’s interior is a riot of
    intricately-paneled, gilt-encrusted wood. More intimate but no less visually stunning is
    the small, tranquil Gloria Church or Nossa Senhora da Glória do Outeiro that sits atop a
    steep hill overlooking the Gloria Inlet with its small pleasure craft bobbing in the

    In search of a place to rest my feet one day while strolling through the main business
    district, I found the Confeitaria Colombo or Colombo Coffee House at Rua Gonçalves Dias,
    32 (Tel.: 232-2300). The massive two-story restaurant has Belgian mirrors framed with
    Brazil’s famous jacaranda wood and vintage crystal goblets peeking through tall cabinets
    set against the walls. It was built in Art Nouveau style back in 1894 and still serves
    lunch and high tea on weekdays.

    Because it is so close to Copacabana, I found myself often in Ipanema and can recommend
    it for food. With some of its asphalt streets painted in zig-zag designs of pink, blues
    and yellows, the area contains many of the city’s finer stores as well as bars and places
    to eat, from McDonald’s to the expensive Esplanada Grill and plenty of choices in between.

    Along with the restaurant in the Caesar Park Hotel, Ipanema’s Casa da Feijoada (Rua
    Prudente de Morais, 10) is known throughout Rio for its feijoada, the Brazilian
    national dish whose influences can be traced back to when the slaves would collect
    whatever pieces of meat were left over by the owners and cook them with beans. It’s
    usually eaten on Saturdays after a morning at the beach.

    Basically a hearty stew composed of black beans as well as any number of dried meats,
    bits of bacon, salt pork, ribs, sausages and pig’s ear, tail and trotter, feijoada
    is accompanied by kale, orange slices, white rice, fried manioc flour or farofa,
    and a hot pepper sauce. To wash it down, you drink draft beer or caipirinha, the
    pleasurably potent drink that’s part sugarcane alcohol, diced lemon and sugar with a few
    ice cubes thrown in.

    With Brazil being one of the world’s primary sources of gemstones, Ipanema is also
    headquarters of H. Stern and Amsterdam Sauer, two of the major international jewelry
    chains. Both have showrooms and museums that are open to the public with the Amsterdam
    Sauer Museum (Rua Garcia D’Ávila, 105 ) showcasing emeralds, aquamarines, diamonds,
    topazes and tourmalines. It also features an excellently-crafted miniature model of an
    inland mine shaft to give you an idea of how gemstones are extracted.

    Opulence of a different sort, albeit one with a rather solemn atmosphere, can be found
    at the the 19th-century mansion known as the Museum of the Republic (Rua do
    Catete,153). Formerly called the Catete Palace and used to house 18 of Brazil’s
    presidents, the building and the large gardens surrounding it have seen both social events
    and suicide. In 1954, then President Getúlio Vargas, in the midst of a political crisis,
    killed himself in an upstairs bedroom, which has been preserved in all its morbid

    The state rooms on the second floor throw together Roman, Moorish, French and Italian
    decorative styles with 19th and 20th century sculptures and
    silverware but the third floor’s exhibition of documents and photographs and other
    memorabilia spanning the country’s republican history is exceptional.

    Because some of my associations have always brought her to mind, I couldn’t leave Rio
    without checking out the venue that honors Brazil’s first international superstar. Located
    just across from Avenida Rui Barbosa, 560, the Carmen Miranda Museum (Tel.: 551-2597) was
    founded in 1976, some 21 years after Miranda died of heart attack in her Beverly Hills
    home at age 46. Containing costumes, shoes, photographs and records, the museum occupies a
    circular former playground pavilion in Flamingo Park and is presided over by a slight,
    thirtyish man named Iberê Magnani. He saw his first Miranda movie when he watched it on
    television the day NeilArmstrong landed on the moon and from then on, dedicated himself to
    Miranda’s memory.

    Once one of the highest-paid stars in Hollywood, the so-called Brazilian Bombshell, who
    was actually born in Portugal, made her name during the 1940s when she was teamed with the
    Marx Brothers in such films as The Lady in the Tutti-Frutti Hat. Her flamboyant
    costumes alwaysi ncluded a turban with fake fruit or some other concoction and huge
    earrings dangled from her ears. "Fabulous, no!" exclaimed Magnani as I
    photographed him holding one of the diva’s turbans topped with multi-collared umbrellas.
    Fabulous indeed.


    Both United Airlines and Varig Brazilian Airlines fly daily from New York to Rio. Varig
    has non-stop service and United stops in Miami. Shops are open from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m.
    weekdays and 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. on Saturdays.

    Major museums include National Museum of Fine Arts (Tel.: 240-0068) with its collection
    of Brazilian art from the colonial period, as well 19th and 20th
    centuries. There’s also the Banco do Brasil Cultural Center (Tel.: 216-0202) and the
    National History Museum (Tel.: 240-2003) that traces Brazil’s development from 1500 to the
    Proclamation of the Republic in 1889. The Botanical

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