Out of the Past in Lively Old Rio

Share with others:


Print Email Read Later

As Rio de Janeiro undergoes a face-lift in preparation for next year's World Cup and the 2016 Summer Olympics, what was old is once again new.

Miles from the future Olympic Village, the refurbished Maracanã stadium and the new subway stops that have turned streets in Ipanema and Leblon into construction sites, Rio's old downtown, the center of Brazil's public life for much of the 19th and 20th centuries, has come springing back over the past decade or so as an entertainment and cultural hub.

The resurgence goes beyond Lapa, a once-disreputable district on the outskirts of downtown whose revival has been so ballyhooed that there seems little new to say. Anytime I'm in the city that was once Brazil's capital, I find myself gravitating instead to a corner of downtown that is less frenetic and also offers a greater variety of attractions: Rio Antigo, or Old Rio, wedged between the former docks and Rua 1 de Março in one direction and Avenida Presidente Vargas and Praça XV de Novembro on the other.

Day or night, activity in the neighborhood centers on the quaint Rua do Ouvidor, lined with attractive open-air restaurants, art galleries, bookstores and shops selling everything from antiques to custom-made Panama hats. On a Saturday afternoon in July, the height of the Brazilian winter, the street was crowded with Rio residents lunching al fresco as groups of musicians strolled from table to table, singing and playing samba and chorinho, a style of acoustic music that is one of the predecessors of the samba.

Chorinho was developed in the 19th century, so it seems highly appropriate, a touch of historical symmetry even, to see it being played on a street whose first heyday came when Rio was the somewhat scruffy seat of an empire ruled by Pedro II. In her book "A Parisian in Brazil," an account of life in Rio in the 1850s, Adèle Toussaint-Samson remarked on the profusion of milliners, hairdressers, florists and pastry shops "displayed in all their splendor" along the Rua do Ouvidor, and took special note of the street's leisure-loving denizens.

"It is the daily rendezvous of the 'young men about town,' who, under the pretext of buying some cigars or cravats, come to flirt with the Frenchwomen, on whom they dote," she wrote. "This street, though narrow and ugly, is in some respects the Boulevard des Italiens of the capital of Brazil" -- a reference to a street that was then the center of cafe society in Paris -- and thus, she added in a burst of condescending enthusiasm, is "essentially a French street."

In my own case, I began to frequent Rio Antigo, sometimes called the Cultural Corridor, in the middle of the last decade, when a restaurant called Cais do Oriente, or Docks of the Orient, which had opened on the Rua Visconde de Itaboraí a couple of years earlier, began offering live jazz performances featuring top-flight Brazilian musicians. I was hesitant at first: when I first lived in Rio in the 1970s and worked on the other side of Avenida Presidente Vargas, I would sometimes lunch at a Japanese restaurant on Rua do Ouvidor, but once darkness fell, the neighborhood, genteelly shabby during the day, became a desert.

Cais do Oriente eventually stopped featuring jazz on a regular basis, but I kept going back to the area, in large part because I had by then discovered museums like the Centro Cultural Banco do Brasil, housed in an imposing neo-Classical building that used to be the headquarters of the central bank. The center opened in 1989, but its programming has become increasingly ambitious in recent years, so its popularity has grown: in July, a show called "Elles: Women Artists in the Pompidou Center Collection" was just wrapping up, and on previous visits I'd seen a large multimedia installation of work by Laurie Anderson, an M. C. Escher show and a selection of French Impressionist paintings.

More than once I've found myself spending nearly the entire day at the CCBB, as the center is known. After checking out the exhibitions -- there is always more than one -- I'll leisurely browse in the ground-floor bookstore, have a snack in the cafe, sit and read for a while in the imposing atrium and then spend the evening seeing a movie or attending a play or concert: in addition to its multiple galleries, the center has two cinemas and three theaters.

Down the block, in another striking historic building that has been repurposed, is the Postal Service Cultural Center, which, its name notwithstanding, seems to specialize in the visual arts. My favorite exhibition there in recent years was an interactive display devoted to the Portuguese poet Fernando Pessoa, but the museum also often features shows by Brazilian and European painters, photographers, sculptors and designers; on the ground floor there is also a quiet bistro, open for lunch and dinner, as well as a theater for musical and theatrical performances in the evening.

If you're not in a hurry and are looking for an authentic culinary experience after a museum stop, I'd recommend the Rio Minho, at Rua do Ouvidor 10, down by the docks. Opened in 1884, it claims to be the oldest continually operating restaurant in Rio de Janeiro, and I believe it: on one wall is a photograph of a luncheon the restaurant hosted at the turn of the 20th century for a group of notables, one of whom I recognized as my wife's great-grandfather. The real attraction here, though, is not so much the Portuguese atmosphere as a dish invented at the restaurant: sopa Leão Veloso, a tasty Brazilian bouillabaisse teeming with fish and crustaceans and flavored with cilantro, pepper and white wine.

Rio Minho doesn't offer al fresco service, but many of the other restaurants in the area do, and the variety of choices is impressive: in a one-block stretch I noted various Brazilian regional cuisines, as well as restaurants specializing in Arab, sushi and seafood dishes. Along the cobblestoned Travessa do Comércio, there are also several "por quilo" restaurants -- an institution found all over Brazil in which you pay for your food by its weight. These are especially popular during the workweek with employees of the nearby Rio stock exchange and other businesses, but their number has proliferated as the neighborhood becomes a weekend playground.

The Travessa do Comércio terminates at the Arco do Teles, an archway dating to the 18th century. For fans of Carmen Miranda, the singer and actress who was Hollywood's top female box office attraction in the 1940s, this particular block is a pilgrimage site: though born in Portugal, she spent her early years in the shadow of the Arco, in a boardinghouse that her mother ran at Travessa do Comércio 13. A by-weight restaurant now operates there, with nothing to note Carmen's passage except for a small plaque above the dessert platter.

On the other side of the Teles archway, at Largo do Paço 38, is the historic Tabacaria Africana. Though I'm not a smoker, I still make a point of always paying a visit: In operation since 1846, the shop boasts a clientele that has included numerous presidents of Brazil and, in its earliest days, even Emperor Pedro II. Nowadays clients can sit at tables in the front and puff away on cigars and pipes; in the back are glass jars with a variety of sweet-smelling tobaccos from various corners of the world, and if you ask, the staff will concoct a blend just for you.

The tobacco shop fronts on the historic Praça XV de Novembro, which takes its name from the uprising on Nov. 15, 1889, that deposed Pedro II and made Brazil a republic. Rather prosaically, the east side of the square leads to the docks for the ferryboat across Guanabara Bay to Niterói, which plays Oakland to Rio's San Francisco. On Saturdays, in the area between the docks and the square, there is also one of the biggest and most diverse open-air flea markets I've even seen -- a market where I've bought many old books and hard-to-find samba and Tropicália records, usually on vinyl but sometimes even on eight-track.

What makes lingering at Praça XV de Novembro worthwhile is the old imperial palace, called the Paço Imperial, where the Portuguese and Brazilian royal families lived from 1808 onward. The Paço Imperial is just across the broad, open square, past the fountain that is another Rio landmark, and was made into yet another cultural center, with a museum, library, large courtyard for resting, restaurant and bookstore, as part of a restoration project that began in the 1980s.

Gradually, the palace complex has become a lure: In recent years I've gone to see exhibitions there devoted to the landscape architect and painter Roberto Burle Marx and, in July, the personal art collection of Roberto Marinho, 20th-century Brazil's biggest media magnate. After that visit, I headed for the Livraria Arlequim on the ground floor, a bookstore noted for its fine collection of DVDs and CDs of Brazilian films and music, only to find that I couldn't get near the bookshelves because a jazz quintet led by the Brazilian harmonica player Mauricio Einhorn was doing a free show and had drawn a big crowd.

So I decided to put aside my original plan and settled in to enjoy the music myself. That's what I like about traipsing around Rio Antigo: no matter what the hour, you never know what's going to be just around the corner.

IF YOU GO

MUSEUMS

All of the museums mentioned below have free admission.

Centro Cultural Banco do Brasil, Rua Primeiro de Marco 66; (55-21) 3808-2020; bb.com.br.

Centro Cultural Correios, Rua Visconde de Itaboraí 20; (55-21) 2253-1580.

Paço Imperial, Praça XV de Novembro 48; (55-21) 2215-2622.

RESTAURANTS

Rio Minho, Rua do Ouvidor 10; (55-21) 2509-2338.

Cais do Oriente, Rua Visconde de Itaborai 8;   (55-21) 2233-253; caisdooriente.com.br.

Larry Rohter, the New York Times's bureau chief in Rio de Janeiro from 1999 through 2007, is the author of "Brazil on the Rise." He is writing a history of Rio.

travel

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.


Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

You have 2 remaining free articles this month

Try unlimited digital access

If you are an existing subscriber,
link your account for free access. Start here

You’ve reached the limit of free articles this month.

To continue unlimited reading

If you are an existing subscriber,
link your account for free access. Start here