The first thing that strikes you in Rio is the color, masses of it
exploding in a wild palette wherever you look. Rio was cleaner and safer than I expected,
a result of the city’s drive to brighten an image that had been blackened during the 1980s
by reports of tourists being subjected to muggings and theft.
By John Fitzgerald
Around about 7 a.m. on a weekday morning, with the sun building strength and patches of
dark sand glistening from the small waves creeping back into the ocean, hundreds of Cariocas,
as Rio de Janeiro natives call themselves, could be found pacing briskly along the Avenida
Atlântica, the wide, majestic thoroughfare that borders Copacabana Beach.
Across from the white Copacabana Beach Hotel, dozens of navy cadets in tank tops and
olive-colored shorts accelerated their stride as they passed puffing, determined-looking
seniors wearing sun hats and tatty sneakers. On the beach itself, tai-chi classes were in
full swing, and skinny, dark-skinned youngsters kicked sandy soccer balls into makeshift
Here in this city where coastline and mountain peaks have contrived to create one of
the world’s most memorable settings, I was eager to join the communal morning ritual, even
though I rarely jog at home. It seemed preferable to a few lonely laps in the pool back at
the hotel and the refreshment was cheap too. For a real (about half a US dollar), I could
stop at one of the tiny kiosks on the Avenida Atlântica and watch as the owner chopped
the top off a fresh coconut and handed it to me with a straw to extract the juice.
I’d come to Rio last June and was anxious to see whether the city’s legendary high
spirits were the same in the off-season as prevailed during the fabulous February
Carnaval. Luckily, World Cup fever (which ended up giving most Brazilians little more than
a headache for their efforts) was in full swing and the street scene was livelier than
most other places I’ve ever been.
The first thing that strikes you in Rio is the color, masses of it exploding in a wild
palette wherever you look. There’s the Tijuca National Park with its forest of eucalyptus,
cedar and trumpet treesall 3,200 hectares of it less than a 20-minute drive from
downtown or centroand the hundreds of street-vendors’ trucks that lumber
along, seemingly enveloped by heaps of glistening fruit. There’s the wide necklace of
blonde sandy beaches that hug Rio’s shores for some 80 kilometers and the elegant, pastel
shades of many of its buildings.
Rio was cleaner and safer than I expected, a result of the city’s drive to brighten an
image that had been blackened during the 1980s by reports of tourists being subjected to
muggings and theft. Since the early 1990s, some 1,200 police have been assigned to patrol
beaches and major tourist areas. The only trouble I had was having to choose from the
dozens of youngsters I met who asked cheerfully to have their pictures taken.
Because I wanted to be close to the water, I avoided staying in Rio’s dense, bustling
downtown that overlooks Guanabara Bay, opting instead for Copacabana, the most celebrated
of the ocean-side districts that follow one another along the coast from Leblon and
Ipanema to Leme. More than five kilometers long, the Leme/Copacabana stretch of beach,
which can accommodate up to 100,000 sun-worshippers, starts in Leme and curves along the
Avenida Atlântica until it reaches Copacabana Fort, which juts slightly into the ocean.
Nearby the Fort, there’s a small encampment used by fishermen to repair and dry their
nets and it’s where I was offered shelter one day (and a hefty glass of cachaça or
sugarcane alcohol) to warm me up when a hard rain fell unexpectedly and I was trapped
But Rio is a lot more than beaches. Early in my stay, like just about every other
visitor to Rio, even those who’ve been there before, I made the pilgrimage by cable car to
the top of Sugar Loaf mountain. Along with the Christ the Redeemer statue on the 914-meter
high Corcovado or hunchback mountain, it’s one of those got-to-do’s, like savoring the
ceiling of the Sistine Chapel when you’re in Rome.
Taking the cable car at Praia Vermelha, I ascended in about three minutes to the
225-meter high Urca Hill. From there, a further three-minute ride brought me to the Sugar
Loaf summit. Despite the presence of refreshment stands and souvenir shops, nothing
detracted from the extraordinary view of the city set between the mountains and ocean.
A Little History
Although the Indians had lived in Brazil long before the arrival of the first
Europeans, the site on which Rio now stands was "discovered" at the start of
1502 by the Portuguese André Gonçalves who was travelling with the great Italian
explorer Americo Vespucci. Navigating into Guanabara Bay and thinking it was the mouth of
a great river, the men called it Rio de Janeiro or River of January.
With colonization beginning in 1530, Rio became first a trading port and then Brazilian
capital in 1783, a role it would play uninterrupted (and through independence) until 1960
when the seat of government was moved to newly-constructed Brasília. For 13 years that
ended in1821, Rio also served as home to the Portuguese royal family whose members decided
to set up shop in the city rather than face the wrath of Napoleon who was encroaching on
Rio’s architecture, which I’d previously assumed was mostly Miami Beach deco, is full
of glimpses of 17th, 18th and 19th century artistry. At the lovely Largo do Boticário,
for example, brightly-painted colonial-era townhouses face a sun-dappled, cobblestone
square. And many of the downtown buildings, especially those around the imposing Municipal
Theatre, whose design was copied from the old Paris Opera, reflect an exuberant cultural
The city’s broad boulevards, like the Avenida Presidente Getúlio Vargas and the
Avenida Rio Branco were built at the end of the 19th century and lined with a series of
graceful European-style public buildings. You can see them today along the Avenida Rio
Branco, which boasts not only the Municipal Theatre (the opera Aida was once staged in its
opulent, Persian-style restaurant) but such civic showcases as the National Library, the
Palace of Justice and the National Art School, as well as many of Rio’s major cinemas.
A mixture of pride and piety and a passion for ornamentation are evident in the
Portuguese baroque style which graces Rio’s old churches, like downtown’s Our Lady of
Candelária at the foot of Avenida Presidente Vargas and the church and monastery of São
Bento. Originally built as a fortress in 1589, São Bento’s interior is a riot of
intricately-paneled, gilt-encrusted wood. More intimate but no less visually stunning is
the small, tranquil Gloria Church or Nossa Senhora da Glória do Outeiro that sits atop a
steep hill overlooking the Gloria Inlet with its small pleasure craft bobbing in the
In search of a place to rest my feet one day while strolling through the main business
district, I found the Confeitaria Colombo or Colombo Coffee House at Rua Gonçalves Dias,
32 (Tel.: 232-2300). The massive two-story restaurant has Belgian mirrors framed with
Brazil’s famous jacaranda wood and vintage crystal goblets peeking through tall cabinets
set against the walls. It was built in Art Nouveau style back in 1894 and still serves
lunch and high tea on weekdays.
Because it is so close to Copacabana, I found myself often in Ipanema and can recommend
it for food. With some of its asphalt streets painted in zig-zag designs of pink, blues
and yellows, the area contains many of the city’s finer stores as well as bars and places
to eat, from McDonald’s to the expensive Esplanada Grill and plenty of choices in between.
Along with the restaurant in the Caesar Park Hotel, Ipanema’s Casa da Feijoada (Rua
Prudente de Morais, 10) is known throughout Rio for its feijoada, the Brazilian
national dish whose influences can be traced back to when the slaves would collect
whatever pieces of meat were left over by the owners and cook them with beans. It’s
usually eaten on Saturdays after a morning at the beach.
Basically a hearty stew composed of black beans as well as any number of dried meats,
bits of bacon, salt pork, ribs, sausages and pig’s ear, tail and trotter, feijoada
is accompanied by kale, orange slices, white rice, fried manioc flour or farofa,
and a hot pepper sauce. To wash it down, you drink draft beer or caipirinha, the
pleasurably potent drink that’s part sugarcane alcohol, diced lemon and sugar with a few
ice cubes thrown in.
With Brazil being one of the world’s primary sources of gemstones, Ipanema is also
headquarters of H. Stern and Amsterdam Sauer, two of the major international jewelry
chains. Both have showrooms and museums that are open to the public with the Amsterdam
Sauer Museum (Rua Garcia D’Ávila, 105 ) showcasing emeralds, aquamarines, diamonds,
topazes and tourmalines. It also features an excellently-crafted miniature model of an
inland mine shaft to give you an idea of how gemstones are extracted.
Opulence of a different sort, albeit one with a rather solemn atmosphere, can be found
at the the 19th-century mansion known as the Museum of the Republic (Rua do
Catete,153). Formerly called the Catete Palace and used to house 18 of Brazil’s
presidents, the building and the large gardens surrounding it have seen both social events
and suicide. In 1954, then President Getúlio Vargas, in the midst of a political crisis,
killed himself in an upstairs bedroom, which has been preserved in all its morbid
The state rooms on the second floor throw together Roman, Moorish, French and Italian
decorative styles with 19th and 20th century sculptures and
silverware but the third floor’s exhibition of documents and photographs and other
memorabilia spanning the country’s republican history is exceptional.
Because some of my associations have always brought her to mind, I couldn’t leave Rio
without checking out the venue that honors Brazil’s first international superstar. Located
just across from Avenida Rui Barbosa, 560, the Carmen Miranda Museum (Tel.: 551-2597) was
founded in 1976, some 21 years after Miranda died of heart attack in her Beverly Hills
home at age 46. Containing costumes, shoes, photographs and records, the museum occupies a
circular former playground pavilion in Flamingo Park and is presided over by a slight,
thirtyish man named Iberê Magnani. He saw his first Miranda movie when he watched it on
television the day NeilArmstrong landed on the moon and from then on, dedicated himself to
Once one of the highest-paid stars in Hollywood, the so-called Brazilian Bombshell, who
was actually born in Portugal, made her name during the 1940s when she was teamed with the
Marx Brothers in such films as The Lady in the Tutti-Frutti Hat. Her flamboyant
costumes alwaysi ncluded a turban with fake fruit or some other concoction and huge
earrings dangled from her ears. "Fabulous, no!" exclaimed Magnani as I
photographed him holding one of the diva’s turbans topped with multi-collared umbrellas.
IF YOU GO
Both United Airlines and Varig Brazilian Airlines fly daily from New York to Rio. Varig
has non-stop service and United stops in Miami. Shops are open from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m.
weekdays and 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. on Saturdays.
Major museums include National Museum of Fine Arts (Tel.: 240-0068) with its collection
of Brazilian art from the colonial period, as well 19th and 20th
centuries. There’s also the Banco do Brasil Cultural Center (Tel.: 216-0202) and the
National History Museum (Tel.: 240-2003) that traces Brazil’s development from 1500 to the
Proclamation of the Republic in 1889. The Botanical