Tuesday, 10 February 2015

Country Review: Brazil

Dates there: 14th to 20th February 2014: 7 days

Brazil's Wonders: The Christ the Redeemer statue.

Also visited: Metropolitan Cathedral, the Maracana Stadium

On the Longlist: National Congress in Brasilia, Itaipu Dam

I'll let you into a little secret: I'm not really that keen on Brazil. I'm not sure it's wholly rational, or perhaps I'm just not able to fully explain it, but I can't find the enthusiasm that other people have, or actual Brazilians have in flowing abundance. Perhaps that last point is key: the Brazilians have an awful lot of enthusiasm for their own country. Too much enthusiasm. I know it's very natural for people around the world to believe that "their" country is the best, and there's nothing wrong with a little patriotism, but when it goes overboard and it seems like everybody is ramming it down your throat about how extra-specially great their country is, then I get a little sick of it. I know that it puts a lot of people off America when Americans go on about being number 1, but in my view Brazil is worst of all. Let's have some quiet confidence please, chaps, not noisy bombast about your own excellence.

I won't lie. When they were dumped out of their own World Cup by Germany, 7-1, in the semi-finals, I chuckled. Likewise, so did all the folk in the Edinburgh pub that I was watching the game in. Welcome to crushing defeat, Brazil, welcome to pain and heartache - and the beginning of a brave new world of humility.

Anyway, enough of this schadenfreude, let's talk about the key issues: Brazil's Wonders. Because it's got some pretty cool stuff. Overall, the country is more celebrated for its vastness, a large chunk of which is taken up by the Amazon and its rainforest and river. All very lovely and all that, but that's not really my thing, being all natural and everything. Fortunately, they also happen to have some pretty good man-made stuff. One of them is this fellow.

The Christ the Redeemer statue is certainly the nation's icon. Overlooking the fabulous vista of Rio de Janeiro, it is a very distinctive, handsome, inspiring feature of the city. But there's no chance in hell that it's an actual Wonder of the World, as many might claim. A 38-metre-tall statue built in the 1930s? No chance.

By the time Danielle and I got to Rio de Janeiro, we were chasing time. We'd just visited Porto Alegre, more for logistical convenience than anything, and had less than a week before we were due to fly out of the entire continent. For me, Rio was just ticking the Wonder box, seeing the Christ statue, and getting out. For Danielle, she wanted to experience the beaches, the samba, and all the other delights the city has to offer. Beaches? Samba? I told Danielle she should have chosen somebody else to travel with.

I'd been to Rio before, and so already knew what this visit reconfirmed - it's a spectacularly beautiful city, right up there as one of the most beautiful cities in the world. It's more than just a beach babe though, it's got depth of soul too. Its neighbourhoods have individual personalities, it's got that right blend of bustle and chaos that lends itself to vibrancy, and it's got some fabulous sights to see. Aside from its Christ icon, the two I've singled out are the Metropolitan Cathedral and the Maracana Stadium.

A concrete monster built, nobody will be surprised to hear, in the 1960s and 70s, the Metropolitan Cathedral is one that not everyone would get on board with. As a thing of beauty its comparable to an industrial chimney. Yet, I rather like it. Sure, it's a beast when you consider the likes of your standard church or cathedral, but it also very successfully stands out, from other churches and from the rest of the cityscape. Being distinctive isn't everything of course, but although the Metropolitan Cathedral looks barbaric from the outside, inside it's a considerably more serene experience, with muted lighting from the pillars of stained-glass windows and the open tent-like interior. Even if you hate it, it's one of Rio's standout buildings.

The Maracana Stadium is an easier one to qualify. It's one of the most famous sporting venues in the world. It holds the world record for an attendance at a football match, or any sporting event at a single venue, with 199,854 people watching the 1950 World Cup Final between Brazil and Uruguay. If only they could have squeezed in another 146 for a nice round 200,000. Back then, it would have been all-standing, and wholly uncomfortable and dangerous. I shudder to think of the toilets - and how on earth would you have got there in the first place? Therefore, the stadium has been extensively reconstructed to now be all-seating with a capacity of just under 79,000. Safer, more comfortable, although probably not quite as atmospheric. Smells a lot better, though.

From what I can gather, Rio has the lion's share of Brazil greatest man-made edifices. The rest of the country has fantastic towns and cities, with delightful colonial architecture - Porto Alegre certainly - but no single structural entities that I'd put up on a pedestal. With a couple of exceptions. Famously, Brazil's purpose-built capital, Brasilia, masterplanned by Oscar Niemeyer, is a vision of a 1960s sci-fi future, with his National Congress building particularly standing out.

It's intriguing at least. Overall, the city sounds unutterably ghastly to me, an architectural vision that forgets all about the inconvenient fact that people need to live there. It sounds like Niemeyer managed to find a way to suck the life out the Brazilians.

And although not a thing of beauty either, by some measures Itaipu Dam, stradding the border between Brazil and Paraguay, is the biggest dam in the world, vying for first place with the Three Gorges Dam in China. It supplies about 75% of Paraguay's electricity and 17% of Brazil's - that is incredible. Being bottom of my list currently, the Three Gorges Dam in China amply demonstrated that massive industrial projects don't necessarily translate into inspiring visual feasts, but nonetheless the sheer raw power is impressive.

As with most things, if it's a perfect day and you own a helicopter, it can look quite pretty.

In conclusion, Brazil has a lot to offer the visitor. Natural beauty, a vibrant nightlife, incredible cities, beaches, rainforest, charming architecture, some pretty brutal concrete stuff, and football galore. Although it's not really a Wonder hotspot in my view, it does have the Christ statue which many consider one of the new Seven Wonders. And even though I strongly disagree, I won't shed any tears about it.


  1. Yeah, you hit the nail on the head at the beginning there. I was one of the many who (almost subconsciously?) was hoping for a WC/Olympic shambles and chuckled at their exit. I'm really struggling to think of a nation more confident (misplaced or otherwise) in its own primacy. India? Italy?

    1. I think in that regard, Brazil really is no.1.

      I hope their Olympics goes well in terms of hosting.From memory I think they've got a pretty poor record in anything except for football so I don't expect a hoard of gold medals.

  2. Regarding Brasilia: "Overall, the city sounds unutterably ghastly to me, an architectural vision that forgets all about the inconvenient fact that people need to live there."

    I once read an interesting article about that - the urban planners decided where they would put the paths that criss-cross the vast grass esplanade around which the central government district is set up based on how straight and esthetic they would be, a kind of Versailles' gardens of symetry and harmony of straight lines and geometric shapes. It turns out that when you introduce those pesky citizens into the mix, they tend to walk across the grass in a way that makes getting from A to B as quickly and as efficiently as possible. The result, on Google Earth, is that you can see informal paths that have been created by millions of footsteps over the years. And yes, they do make more sense than the "official" ones.

    As for Rio, throughout the 20th century, it went through several major urban relifts. A huge amount of colonial buildings were demolished to make way for vast avenues and new buildings. I believe one of the reasons was to get rid of some decrepit areas and unsanitary conditions, but even allowing for that, a lot of historical buildings were lost for ever (and of course, one of the other reasons in the 1960s was to make everything as car-friendly as possible, of which Rio is not the only city in the world to have gleefully partaken with many unpleasant effects on the urban fabric and quality of city life).

    1. We took a walking tour in Rio and our guide - who was otherwise very Brazilian and pro-Rio - lamented the destruction of the colonial/historical buildings. It's true that much of the city now is architecturally pretty redundant.


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