Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Rio-location Vacation

 Finally, after almost an entire year living in Brazil, I've made it to Rio de Janeiro. Helen, having been there five or six times already for work reasons, has been telling me for months that it's beautiful and fabulous and so nice it makes São Paulo look like a huge, ugly, smelly megalopolis which has very little going for it apart from available office space. Which is, of course, exactly what it is. However, it's also my home and having lived here for a year I've become quite fond of the place, warts and all, and quite defensive, too. I found myself flying up to Rio fully prepared to find the place flashy and shallow and nothing but a huge tourist trap - something like a Greek holiday resort but on a much larger scale.

I was wrong. Rio is nothing like the gauche, party capital I'd imagined. More than anything the impression I got was of a city just getting on with business but handily situated in one of the most naturally beautiful locations on the planet. True, there are tourists - a lot of tourists - and a large part of Rio is set up to cater to them in a way that you don't see at all in São Paulo, but it's generally done quite subtly and as most of the Cariocas (Rio locals) seem to spend most of their time enjoying the same facilities as the tourists, it's very easy to forget you're actually an outsider.

We left São Paulo from Congonhas Airport, a tiny strip of runway carved out from among the thousands of skyscrapers squeezing in on all sides. Looking out of my window as we turned onto the runway there seemed to be about five metres of taxiway left before a drop down onto an eight-lane dual-carriageway several metres below. In Rio, at Santos Dumont Airport, there is also little more than a few metres at either end of the runway but in this case it is the sea that surrounds the runway, not roads, and nearly landing in the sea is so much more picturesque than nearly landing on a road.

Our hotel for the week was the Sheraton in Leblon - a very fancy hotel in a very fancy part of town - and this in itself was an adventure for us as our usual family holiday involves something a lot more basic and wallet-friendly. However, Helen had found us an unfeasibly good deal and having spent similar amounts on significantly less salubrious hotels in the past, she then spent much of the week saying things like; "This is great. I can't believe we got such a good deal. I'm definitely staying here again."

And it really was great, although calling it Leblon was perhaps stretching the point somewhat, seeing as how the hotel was actually up the hill and round the corner from Leblon. But it came with its own stretch of beach - not exactly private, but so hard to get to except through the hotel that it in effect was. We tried to spend every morning down on the beach, but except for the first day and the last two, the waves were so big and the undertow so strong that we were forced to abandon the sea in favour of the heated swimming pool instead. Oh, the hardship!

And quite by chance, we also found ourselves sharing the hotel with the Brazilian national football team while they spent a couple of days preparing for their trip down to Argentina for the Copa América. Now I'll freely admit that I'm not the most devoted of football fans, but even I thought it was kind of cool to get into a lift and discover that the other four occupants were Thiago Silva, Robinho, Daniel Alves and Jefferson. (I think this is right - I didn't stop to ask for autographs but I did spend a long time looking through team photos on Google later on.)

Anyway, when we weren't hob-nobbing it with the footballers we did actually go off and try to see something of the city outside the hotel grounds. On Sunday we spent a most pleasant day in the Jardim Botânico, wandering around among the greenery and almost never getting lost. Having come from Cambridge, which has its own world-class botanic gardens, I was interested to see how Rio would compare. I am very far from being even a competent botanist, so please feel free to ignore my opinions but my feeling was that while it was a vast and pleasant place to wander through, there was not that much in the way of plant diversity. We walked through a lot of dense vegetation and passed by some truly enormous trees, but after a while they all started to look the same.

Still, they did have a fabulous cactus garden, which David particularly enjoyed, some interesting monuments dotted around the place...and monkeys. Hungry monkeys.

There was also an interesting pool in the eating area.

Five seconds after this photo was taken Helen called out to the kids to be careful and not fall in. Even before the words were out of her mouth, David was in the water.

Still, all things considered, the boys were pretty good at not complaining about being dragged around a well-tended jungle for several hours in the middle of a hot afternoon (24 degrees in the middle of winter - now that's weather I can live with).

On Monday we paid a visit to the one place you absolutely have to go to when in Rio (apart from the cash machine) and that is the statue of Cristo Redentor (Christ the Redeemer) on Corcovado mountain. There is a small electric train that goes up the mountain at about 45 degrees and deposits you 233 steps below the statue twenty minutes later. Honestly, the trip is worth it for the train ride alone, never mind the fantastic views at the top.

But fantastic they really are.

I don't want to end up sounding like a tourist guide, but the whole experience was really wonderful. Below the statue are various places to sit and get something to eat and drink and at this time of year, and not at the weekend, they weren't even particularly busy.

The only downside to the trip is that David has now devised a new game, the only rule of which is that whenever he sees Corcovado, either in real life or in a photo, he has to bellow CORCOVADO!! at the top of his voice. And as it's something of a ubiquitous landmark, and somewhat photogenic, the game gets to be very tiring, very quickly and very often.


The other big 'must see' in Rio is Pão de Açúcar (Sugarloaf Mountain). Since Pão de Açúcar is also the name of the supermarket I visit almost every day here in São Paulo, it has always struck me as quite funny that I'd want to go all the way to Rio just to visit Pão de Açúcar. But then I am daily reminded that no one else in this family regards my sense of humour as in any way humorous.


Anyway, the trip to the mountain itself involves a double cable car ride, stopping off first on the lower Morro da Urca and then going up to the top of Pão de Açúcar itself. Again, as with Corcovado, the whole area has been designed and built extremely tastefully, with plenty of places to sit and rest, nice shops and stunning views. We stopped off on Urca for a brief and very pleasant picnic and then carried on up to he main event.

Obviously, the views are not quite so spectacular here as they are from Corcovado, although it does give a superb view of aircraft landing at Santos Dumont, banking gracefully in a 90 degree turn and lining up with the runway no more than about thirty seconds or so before touching down. Bizarrely, no one else found this as exciting as I did.

The one other tourist outing we had planned for the week was to go to Santa Teresa, a very beautiful neighbourhood stuck on the top of a hill and full of narrow winding streets and artists studios and the like - or so I'm led to believe. Sadly, we didn't actually make it. We'd planned to go on our last day and one of the main points of the trip is to travel up on the bondinho (tram) but we arrived at the lower station about ten minutes after it had closed due to a fatality and it wasn't going to open again for the rest of the day. We could have gone up by taxi, but as it was the ride on the bondinho we'd been most looking forward to, we dicided to postpone the trip until our next time in Rio.

Instead, we took the metro down to the beach and partook of that most typical of Rio activities - walking along the beach. There are well-built and well-maintained calçadas (mosaic pavements) running the whole length of the main beaches in Rio and they are constantly filled with people simply wandering up and down enjoying the view. On one side you have a wide, two-way cycle lane used by cyclists, roller-bladers, skateboarders and joggers and on the other a glorious sandy beach, filled with sunbathers, surfers and volleyballers.

Being Rio, there are a lot of bodies on display and while many of them are certainly physically impressive or aesthetically pleasing, insignificant swimwear and generous girth are by no means mutually exclusive. However, being Rio, no one seems to care and people of all shapes and sizes are perfectly happy to parade their semi-naked selves up and down the calçada all day long without a second thought.

Amazingly, we managed to get our two couch potatoes to walk the entire length of Ipanema and Leblon beaches (two and a quarter miles) with no more than two refreshment stops and a bit of piggy-backing. And I have to admit, having spent most of the morning in the swimming pool and part of the early afternoon wandering around downtown Rio before the beach walk, even I was quite happy to sit down for a short while back at the hotel - anyone who tells you I collapsed on my bed for an hour, refusing to move and using my bad back as an excuse is clearly remembering things wrong!

And that, pretty much, was that. Although it may not seem like a particularly full week, there was plenty of other stuff I haven't bothered to mention; James and David making new friends as well as meeting old friends from school down by the hotel pool, some fabulous sessions being knocked about by waves that were just the right side of dangerous, a lot of pizzas, three days of Festa Junina games, a lot of ice cream...

...and then back to São Paulo. Poor dirty, smelly, cold, beach-less São Paulo. How can it possibly compete with Rio de Janeiro? However, coming home did feel a bit like changing out of a clean, fresh tee-shirt and shorts and into an old and grubby tracksuit. It may not look as good, but it does feels reassuringly familiar. And anyway, it's only for a few days as we're off again next week - this time back to the UK and Ireland on our annual shopping trip.

So no more blogs for a while.

Happy holidays.


1 comment:

  1. Awww... it sounds as though you had a fantastic time.