Recife: City of Skyscrapers and Sorcery

Having mastered Portuguese and explored Rio in full, The Editor gets on a jet plane and heads North East to the region of Pernambuco for one of Brazil’s best carnivals…

I touched down in Recife on a hugely expensive internal flight from Rio de Janeiro, three days before Carnaval proper was due to start (whilst Carnaval officially lasts four days, plenty of parties take place before, during and after these dates). It’s fair to say the capital of Pernambuco didn’t make the best ever first impression on me. A gargantuan blanket-flat metropolis, there was none of the majesty of Rio’s forested mountains, no glimmer of the as yet invisible ocean, no peek of Christ The Redeemer in the distance whispering assuringly “don’t worry everything is going to be ok”… and as my taxi driver slogged down the Avenida Marachel Mascarenhas de Moraes into town, the view of urban grime in the foreground, backed by haphazardly placed skyscrapers, which stretched off to my right and as far down the coast as I could see, reminded me of… Benidorm. Except slightly shabbier.

So this was where I was going to be spending the next nine days, I reflected, as my driver ignored a fanfare of angry klaxons to conduct a three point turn over six lanes of heavy traffic. “Wrong bridge,” is what I think he said to me, by means of explanation.

My friend Pedro, an amigo from my Barcelona days, was living in Parnmirim, an awesome part of town he assured me. But as I was waiting for the skyscrapers to recede and the low-rise apartment blocks to, if not transform into colonial palaces, then at least become a little less ramshackle, I was to be disappointed. We pulled up onto a makeshift driveway in front of a canteen-style ice cream store with a handful of dirty plastic chairs outside. This was it. The location of my Recife apartment. Tripping up over the uneven paving, I got the keys as instructed from the girl behind the ice cream counter and let myself in. Pedro’s flat at least was a little oasis of awesome, full of potted plants, tasteful ornaments and tomes on art and architecture. Peering out the window and over the street, I took a minute to admire the block of flats opposite, ripe with the charisma of a multi-storey supermarket parking lot, before collapsing on Pedro’s sofa for a much-needed nap.

Skyscraper city

Just Call Me Rhodezinho

There wasn’t much time for regretting my decision to leave Rio, and all the new friends I’d made there, as Pedro arrived back from work a couple of hours later and we went to eat at a stylish French restaurant right next door that I’d somehow failed to spot (…was this neighbourhood stealthily chichi after all?). After that, as an appetiser for the forthcoming Copa, it was time to teach Brazil how to play football… English style.

Ok pretty much my first touch – in this tactical and technical five-aside-game, played on pitch the size of a tennis court – was a weak pass across goal, that was intercepted and duly dispatched by the grateful opposing striker. But once I grew into the game, things improved a little. An advocate of total football, some of my teammates seemed a little off put by my bursts from defence (they should really learn to cover me better), but they complained a little less when I smacked a volley straight from a throw in into the top right corner of the goal.

The following 40 minutes or so was a footballing demonstration straight out of the Premier League playbook, as I used what little weight I have to strong arm faster players off the ball, diligently kick the ankles of more skillful players into submission and win aerial balls off taller players by simply torpedoing through them. Most of this was met by a wryful smile by my opponents, but three quarters into the game and it was time to show that I wasn’t all British steel, and that there was a little Brazilian flair in there as well. Winning the ball in my own half, I chipped a delicate through ball past two opponents and into the feet of my teammate… as his first touch took him out wide I read his intentions and burst through the middle just as he laid it back to me with a sublime back heel. Caressing the ball with my boot I split the defence with my initial touch and bore down on goal. The keeper came out to narrow the angle, but it was still a 75% shot… and this is where I need to freeze the action to explain something. The best players never take a 75% when their team mate is on for a 100% shot… and so instead of going for glory, I slipped a slide rule pass to my striker who had continued his run and was arriving at the far post at speed. A tap in for him, and the christening of an English playmaker in Brazil for me. Just call me Rhodezinho.

Unfortunately no video or photographic evidence exists of this footballing masterclass, so you’ll just have to take my word for it.

Second Impressions

My second day in Recife started inauspiciously as I headed out to discover the Old Town and immediately tripped up once more on one of the many insidious protuberances that plague the city’s sidewalks. Despite being well over an hour away by foot I had decided to walk as I’d thrown away enough dineiro on taxis recently and Pedro warned me that the bus would not be much quicker than walking anyway, what with the state of Recife’s traffic. This is a serious con of life in the Pernambuco capital. Getting around is a huge pain the arse. Brazilians love their cars, but whilst Rio and Sao Paulo both have traffic issues (particularly the latter where on any given day 20% of cars are not allowed into the city, to try and reduce transit) they also both have decent metro systems. Recife’s metro only serves the south of the city, and I was in the north. It’s true that the company Pedro works for has implemented a bike share system… but if you think I was getting on the saddle on these lawless roads you can think again. And so, ignoring long distances and the slowness of travel I decided to rely on my two feet, but aside from having to constantly dodge ankle breaking holes and bumps, I also had to play dodgems at every intersection owing to the lack of pedestrian crossings… making even going a few blocks a pie a royal pain.

Brazilian bike share

My determination to explore was at least rewarded, as en route to the old town I did at last come across the first of Recife’s buildings to please my aesthetically-exacting eyes: a scattering of colonial houses, a row of brightly painted bungalows, and a slew of churches, some whitewashed, others decaying – but decaying grandly at least. Meanwhile waterways and trees popped up along the way to confound the forest of skyscrapers around them with some good old-fashioned non-concrete jungle.

A splash of colour

By the time I’d reached the Old Town, my legs were pretty wooden, but finding a now concentrated area of something resembling beauty invigorated me and I straddled bridges, braved narrow alleyways and discovered scenic squares. It was not a quaint, European-style Old Town, that you might find in say Tallinn or Krakow, full of elegant cafes and tourists milling around in happy holiday mode. It was dirty and unkempt, and lifeless in places… but hey, give it 20 years and they’ll be enough rip-off restaurants, faux folk souvenirs shops and strip joints to compete with Europe’s best, I’m sure.

I guess I should be careful what I wish for. Anyhow, here are some pics as it is right now:

Looking back from the Old Town to the city

Fan-tash-tic statue

A scenic square… without a skyscraper in sight!

One Magical Night

When Pedro told me there was a great bloco, called Paraquedista Real (Royal Parachutist), within walking distance from his house, on the second night of my stay, I could hardly have expected what followed. We walked just ten or fifteen minutes from the apartment and, without crossing any noticeable frontier or border, suddenly found ourself in a world of cobbled streets, flowering gardens and stately mansions. One such picturesque street led us to a square where a large crowd had gathered to drink beers and scotch and coke (all the rage in Recife… although disappointingly it was much harder to get your hands on a good Caipirinha than in Rio!), served up with a smile by raffish folk selling them out of polysterene ice boxes or from makeshift kiosks. Before Pedro, Sabrina (P.’s girlfriend), and I could touch a can of Skol though our stomachs needed lining, and we could have hardly found a better pre-session snack than the plastic bowls of cassava root vegetable with sundried beef being sold on the side of the street. Delicious and nutritious, if only they served that at your average Glasto-style music festivals I might actually make it to day three without dying.

Let the march begin!

Our bellies were appeased just in time, as the brass band struck up on the square and the crowd huddled in tight to sing along with the music, in what was obviously a treasured annual tradition in this district. Before long we had set off on a march, doubling back along the shady alley beside the church, the band leading the way with the masses singing, clapping and dancing in the traditional frevo style as we frolicked over the cobbles. For the first time in Brazil I was moved. Yes, Rio was a rich treasure chest of excitement and (over)stimulation; but the scent of petals and fruit in the balmy evening air, the silhouette of the church steeple against the indigo sky, and the almost ancestral chanting of the revellers during this one night in Recife was truly magical. Far from being a gritty Brazilian city experience, I felt like I was skipping through the pre-war Serbian countryside with a bunch of earth-soiled villagers enjoying a centuries old pagan festival. If only I could sing along to the Madeira do Rosarinho and dance frevo, and we could have bulldozed that skyscraper that suddenly appeared when we twisted around a second corner, I’m sure my happiness would have been complete.

The concert continues late into the night

The party conga arrived back on the square and the celebrations continued long into the night, as an elderly chorus of crones performed Carnaval classics to a packed, wedding-style dancefloor. Pedro and Sabrina had to work the next day and decided to call it a night, but free from such constraints, and with my eye for aesthetics very alive to the many fine forms still in attendance, I decided to linger a little longer. After a fair bit of nervous foot-tapping and drink clenching, eventually I summoned up the courage to approach an attractive blonde girl called Izabella.

…The night was about to get a little more romantic.

That’s it for this latest installment of On The Road. Join Duncan again soon, as he finally experiences Carnaval in Brazil!