Friday, 21 February 2014

Days 330 to 335: Rio de Janeiro

Rio is a mess. It is not efficient, not particularly safe; it could do with a thorough scrub behind the ears and then all over. Homeless people sleep in doorways, shout at themselves or others, dance on corners, or harangue people for money, depending on how desperate or mentally ill they are. On a quiet residential street, a man with spinning eyes pulls himself close to me and breathes over my face before walking on. The streets are criss-crossed and tangled as though drawn up by a samba dancing drunkard. Taxis zip by, the buses roar: all of them are trying to kill us. It's hot, it's sticky, sometimes all the water in the world rains down, sometimes the clouds all disappear. Every single weather forecast we consult during our five days there is wrong.

I've been in Rio before, and I knew then as I knew now: Rio is not my city. It's too wild, too hot, too much. But at the same time, I can't help but admire it. Rio is magnificent. It's charming in a way that I never knew a huge city could be. It seems local. Tourists are everywhere, but yet are invisible, just ghosts in the vivid life of the city and its people. The skyscrapers and the jungle seem to mutually coexist; so do the super-rich districts and the favelas. It's lively, incomparably lively, with bars spilling out on to the street, beaches bursting with energy, and sheer city chaos in its heart. Sure, it's sometimes terrifying, but it's also fun. Great fun. Exhausting. But fun. Rio is a mess. But it's a charming mess. And a very, very fun one.

Danielle and I were in Rio a meagre five days in all, staying in the rough-and-ready but very central district of Lapa, where the chaos and fun and horror of Rio seem to roam the streets hand in hand. Our experience there was a tourist one, superficial and sightseeing, wandering and observing but never immersing. I'm not someone who is able to plunge deep into the culture and people of a nation with ease and so didn't immediately ingratiate myself with an elderly Brazilian couple and experience life through their eyes, with the euphoric highs and shuddering lows that this brings. I tend to smile at people and move on - it's not a very good travel tactic, I admit. Danielle is much better, but after a couple of months in Spanish speaking countries, she seemed cowed by being in a Portuguese speaking one - and one that doesn't cater much to English speakers - with the sense of being cut adrift that a lack of common language brings. So we were tourists, map in hand, looking at the sights.

Aside from visiting the Cristo Redentor, twice as per rules, we also visited the following: the Sugarloaf Mountain, the Maracana stadium, Copacabana, the Metropolitan Cathedral, Santa Theresa, some colourful steps, a Starbucks in the city centre, the theatre, an expensive old-style bakery, and saw lots of Lapa. Here are some photos of these, in no order. If you want to know any more about them, then check out the Lonely Planet or Wikipedia - that's where I'd be getting my information in these cases.

The only one I'll make additional commentary on is the Metropolitan Cathedral. It's the one that looks like a fat industrial chimney. Monstrous, isn't it? Built - surprise! - in the 1960s, it looks about as unlike a cathedral as you could imagine. Which was apparently the idea. The architect - and this is according to the guide on a free tour we went on - felt it was wrong to build a new church in the style of old ones and wanted to build something fresh. So he went all modern and Brutalist and created something that, at first sight, makes you shudder in horror. But, take a closer look. Go inside. It's really very nice.

The cathedral happened to be very close to our apartment in Lapa, and I saw it every day. And I quickly grew to like it, really like it. It's different, and I admire difference in a building, even when it doesn't work. And for those that think the Metropolitan Cathedral doesn't work - I totally understand that. It looks awful. But it grew on me, a lot. It's large, distinctive, and stands out against the crowd.

According to our guide, it's deliberately ugly on the outside to contrast with the beauty inside. Maybe that's just something the architect made up to justify himself, but probably there was some degree of intention. Also intended, decades later, was the pair of glass skyscrapers built behind. Look at the picture above - can you see the cross shape?

Aside from looking at tourist sights, we also ate and drank, mostly in Lapa, mostly paying over the odds. Five days... not enough, of course. A couple of weeks would have been more like it, just as a taster at least. But unlike Rio, Danielle and I are subject to a schedule, and that schedule called. Lima, it said, and then the world.

1 comment:

  1. I admit that the cathedral does look quite impressive from the inside (I like stained glass, be it ancient or modern, and it looks as if they have used it to very good effect here). I don't really like the outside. Funnily enough it bears a striking similarity to the RC cathedral in Liverpool (Liverpool Metropolitan Cathedral).

    Rio demolished a lot of its grand old buildings in the mid-20th century, which is a shame. Brazil was really into the whole Le Corbusier/Niemeyer style of the time.


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