Recife (and Olinda), Brazil (2019)
The first day of March found us in Recife, a city of 1.5 million (4 million in the metro area) that is the capital of the state of Pernambuco. We were out on our balcony as we sailed into the port, which we have read was the first slave port in the Americas. Recife is named for a rocky reef that protects its long beaches. What we saw looked like a sea wall rather than a reef, but it might be a sea wall built on top of the reef (or maybe we just didn’t see it).
The last time we were here, in 2012, we had two days because of a missed port previously. It was Carnaval time and we spent time among the costumed crowds in both Olinda and Recife. We also had a nighttime tour of the canals of Recife with all the Carnaval decorations on the buildings lighted. Quite an experience (except for Rick’s camera being stolen through the window of a bus).
This time we only had one day and Carnaval hadn’t really reached the frenzy stage, although a lot of decorations were up. It was also a gray & rainy day, in contrast to the sunny weather on our first visit. Nonetheless, we boarded a bus in the morning for a visit to Olinda. As we walked through the terminal we were greeted by a band with a couple of dancers. As we sat on the bus waiting to leave we saw an elderly passenger walking with a cane fall down. They took him to the hospital but he must have been all right because we saw him back on the ship later. It was a bad way to start the tour and It rained for much of the drive to Olinda, but fortunately it stopped when we reached the point of disembarkation.
Olinda was founded by the Portuguese in 1535 and was the capital of the region, with what is now Recife housing Olinda’s port and some fishing villages. The Dutch conquered this area in 1630. They burned down most of Olinda and established their capital of Mauritsstad on the islands where the port was located, which they connected with bridges and canals. In 1664 to Portuguese returned and renamed Mauritsstad Recife. After the fire Olinda declined as Recife grew in importance because it was the main port for the export of sugarcane. Olinda was restored in the late 20th century and was named a UNESCO world heritage site because of its well preserved 18th century heritage.
Unlike our last visit, when we walked up and down the steep and colorful streets of Olinda, we spent our entire visit this time in an area called Alto da Se at the top of the hill. On one end of this plaza is the Igreja da Se, a church that started out in 1540 as a chapel built of mud, was replaced by a masonry church in 1567, was used as a stable then burned by the Dutch in 1631, then was rebuilt after the return of the Portuguese and elevated to the status of a cathedral in 1676. It was restored to its original appearance in the 1970’s. The temporary wood fence you can see surrounding the church is there to protect it from damage during the Carnaval festivities. On our last visit we saw such fences surrounding a number of buildings in Recife as well.
Just up from the Igreja da Se is a plaza with quite a few vendors’ stands (including one with a sleepy dog). Most had not yet set up for the day when we were there, but a few had wares on display.
Just below the plaza behind a retaining wall was a row of brightly colored houses, shops and restaurants. Many were decorated for Carnaval. As mentioned above, the day was quite drab and that affected how the city looked, but don’t be fooled: Olinda is a very bright and colorful town.
Because this plaza was on top of the hill on which Olinda is built there are stunning views, but down the hill toward the water and across the water to the skyline of Recife. Here are more examples than you probably need (or want). You can see why the Portuguese captain standing on this hill in 1535 exclaimed “Oh, a beautiful spot to build a village!” In Portuguese, “Oh beautiful” is “O linda.”
Olinda’s carnaval is famous for its Gigantes, giant dolls that are sometimes stationary and sometimes worn by people parading through the streets. We didn’t see any of them in action, as we did on our first visit. But we walked down from the plaza to a souvenir and handicrafts store that had several of them on display in a separate room and we also saw one that was being moved on top of a car to the museum of the gigantic dolls. One of the shop’s courtyards was covered with brightly colored umbrellas like those used in Frevo, the area’s signature music and dance.
We walked further down the street and came to our final walking stop, a very eclectic store called Artes do Imaginario Brasileiro. Painted a hot pink with a larger than life scantily clad woman sitting on the roof, it was all ready for Carnaval.
We boarded the bus and drove down the steep streets from the hilltop. We passed a number of colorful buildings typical of Olinda as well as the Igreja da Miseracordia (church of mercy), built in 1540. The church was surrounded by a protective wood wall and many of the buildings were decorated for Carnaval, but the streets were eerily empty, unlike the crowds that filled them last time we were here.
At the bottom of the hill we switched to another bus for the ride back to Recife. On the way we passed several intersections that give an idea what the non-tourist part of town is like and several walls with paintings.
We drove back to Recife, where we saw the Galo da Madrugada (Rooster of Dawn), the symbol of Recife’s Carnaval, standing over a bridge in the middle of the river. The streets and bridges were decorated too.
Back in Recife we went to visit the Convent & Church of Santo Antonio (St Anthony), which dates to 1606 when there was little in this area other than a port. During the Dutch occupation it was used as a fort, then returned to the Franciscans after the Dutch left in 1654. The church is small and rather modest by Catholic standards. We were not allowed to enter it, but had a glimpse through a doorway. On the walls were elaborate religious pictures made of old Portuguese blue and white tiles.
But the real reason to visit here is the Capela Dourada (Golden Chapel) that is on the other side of the open door from the church. This is a dazzling room, with every square inch covered in oil paintings, Delft style tile and carved jacaranda and cedarwood covered with gold leaf. It was built between 1696 and 1724. Even the ceiling is covered with paintings and gilded carved wood. It was our understanding that this church was closed to the public on the day we visited (perhaps for Carnaval) and the Holland America tours were the only ones allowed inside. Imagine how crowded this might have been on a regular public access day.
We left the chapel through another room with a large carved stucco ceiling.
Our last stop on this excursion was the Casa da Cultura (Culture House). On the way we passed buildings by the river, some interesting wall paintings and even what looked like a crowd heading for the evening’s carnaval festivities.
Built in the 1850’s as a prison the Casa was converted to an art and handicrafts market in the 1970’s. It is built in the shape of a cross, with one short and three long wings. This enabled guards in the central area to keep watch down all four wings at once. There were interesting handicraft and souvenir shops in the old jail cells throughout the building and some unusual solo entertainers in the center space.
We drove through a high rise neighborhood that we think was Boa Viagem. It is a fairly wealthy neighborhood that borders one of the most visited beaches in this part of Brazil, although its hard to understand why since it has suffered numerous tiger shark attacks over the last 30 years. We were sitting on the side of the bus looking at the city and didn’t really see the beach at all, just the tall buildings.
We drove across a couple of bridges, one next to a bridge with wall art on each of its supports and the other decorated for Carnaval. Across the river could be seen both the old and newer buildings of Recife.
We drove back to the port through the streets of Recife Antigo (Old Recife), the area of the original Portuguese and Dutch settlements. We passed a number of areas that were decorated for Carnaval. On our last visit here we had walked around this area, enjoying the architecture, the Carnaval stages and the general atmosphere. Among other things we saw the reconstruction of the oldest synagogue in the Americas, built during the tolerant Dutch period but abandoned when the Portuguese returned with many of the congregants moving with the Dutch to New Amsterdam where they founded New York’s Jewish community. But driving through this area today we were disappointed to see many of the old buildings that looked so nice on our last visit were now defaced with graffiti. Not wall art but just scribbles. We had seen this development in Rio as well and in our view it greatly detracts from the city’s beauty.
We arrived back at the port where we were greeted by a sculptural lion. As we were preparing to depart we had a nice view of Olinda across the water.
That’s all for our short and busy visit to Recife and Olinda. A lot of interest to see and do, but not up to the standard of our overnight visit during the height of Carnaval in 2012. We will leave you, as we sail away, with some fruit and vegetable art in the Lido buffet.