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My Favorite International Cities - #20 - Rio de Janeiro

First published September October 12, 2022 by the Morning News and SCNow and reproduced here with permission.

Rio is the second largest City in Brazil and South America’s number one tourist spot. I have been there three times; it is a Great City and I love it. I love its hustle/bustle, its ambiance of joy and its ocean side flavor and smells. You can feel excitement in the air. Plus, we have lifelong friends there, enjoined since my residency days in Madison, Wisconsin. Rio bears designation as a World Heritage site, a Cultural Landscape City and one of the New Seven Modern Wonders of the World. The locals like to call it the "Marvelous City."

The indigenous peoples, mostly the Tupi and Tapuia, crossed over from Europe and Russia about 15, 000 years ago migrating down the US West Coast to Brazil over the next two thousand years. They were mostly nomadic, living off the land and the forests, but did cluster along the Atlantic Coast and the rivers to reach about 300,000 population, although not developing stable villages.

Europeans came to Brazil’s shores with the Portuguese explorer Gaspar de Lemos of Jewish ancestry sailing with Pedro Alvares Cabral of Portugal, on April 22, 1500; on a return trip to explore the coastline, they came into Rio’s bay in early January 1502 mistakenly thinking it was a river and thus its English name “January River.” Cabral had declared all of Brazil for Portugal although previously granted anyway by the Treaty of Tordesillas in 1494. The Portuguese originally fully intended to follow the Spanish model of Southern Hemisphere colonization, but partly because of the susceptibility of the indigenous peoples to European disease for which they of course had no immunity, mainly viruses and TB, and the influence of the Portuguese Jesuit priests, unlike the Jesuits in Asia or the rest of the Americas, who in Brazil forbade slavery and built villages with schools. But the Portuguese also built very large sugar plantations and mineral/precious metal mines so that by 1819 they started to bring in African slaves, even more than in North America, swelling to about a million by 1831. Slavery was ended by 1893 and the labor market turned to a huge immigration of workers from the United Kingdom, mostly Ireland and Scotland (often indentured labor at first).

Rio was officially founded in 1565 by Estacio de Sa and Antonio de Mariz in order to prevent a French Protestant conquest and pirate attacks. It became the colonial capital of the State of Brazil in 1763; curiously enough from 1808 to 1821, fleeing from Napoleon, the Portuguese made it Portugal’s national capital although even though removed from Portugal by 4000 miles of ocean. Rio continued from 1822 to be the capital of all the Brazilian Republic (called a Kingdom at first) until 1960 when the capital was moved to Brasilia. Portuguese remains the national language of Brazil. Many important Brazilian businesses remain anchored in Rio including mining, oil (offshore drilling platform construction and repair sites line the coast) and telecommunications companies. In addition, Rio is a significant center for clothing, processed food, chemicals and pharmaceuticals.

Even though a huge Rio Park was first built in 1780 (restored in 2004), modern development was begun by Mayor Pereira Passos in 1902, trying to create Paris in the New World; he built sewage systems, modern streets, parks, electrification plants, and modern buildings including the National Library, the Museum of Fine Arts and the Municipal Theatre. Given today’s Corona Virus vaccine politics, it’s fascinating that Mayor Passos lost power over a vaccine mandate. In 1905 a tunnel was built to expand the city northward and southward with a streetcar system. The development of the luxury Copacabana Palace Hotel in 1923 fed Rio’s growth as a tourist destination and as a beach party town. By 1975 Rio was designated a Metropolitan Region with a population of about 15 million, although the “old city” is at about 9 million. The city has hosted important international events including the 2016 Summer Olympics.

Rio is much too large to walk – you will need cabs/Ubers or public transport. Despite common misperception, it’s actually safe, in fact the safest large city in the Americas despite the barrios and favelas (about 25% of the city lives in poverty). Let’s start our tour from a hilltop, either Sugar Loaf or Mt. Corcovado and the statue of Christ the Redeemer; combined sites, expect to spend at least a half day, but remember these two sites are the classic landmarks, maybe even the world’s image of Rio. Photos are a must. Use a cab or uber or rent a car. Public transport including a recently expanded subway system is good, but will leave you a long walk, and still, you will need the gondola or cog train or the newer elevators and escalators to approach the sites. The statue, designed by Brazilian Heitor de Silva Costa and Frenchman Albert Caquot and sculpted by Frenchman Paul Landwoski and Romanian Gheorghe Leonida stands guard to the Tijuca National Park (the city is also very proud of their White Rock Forest) atop the 2300 foot hill. The statue was constructed of reinforced concrete beginning in 1922 taking 9 years, standing at 98 feet with a 26 foot pedestal; the arms stretch out 92 feet. Over the years it has suffered vandalism, lighting strikes and fires and has been restored or strengthened several times. A competing statue is now underway in nearby Encantado. The statue can be seen from all around the city and is an enduring world-wide symbol of Rio and peace. Although an important Catholic Church is on site (since 2006, Our Lady of Apareciada), there is also the Jewish Lubavitch Chabad Synagogue at the base of the hill, walled and guarded, where we attended a Shabbat service followed by a wonderful Shabbat Dinner at our Rio friend’s home, catered, since a Friday evening. Sugarloaf rises abruptly from Guanabana Bay to 1300 feet, a granite and quartz monolith; final access is by two cable gondolas. The views are marvelous. Construction of gondola stations to the Sugarloaf crest was begun in 1910 with improvements along the way.

Turn to the north from the mountain attractions to visit the Metropolitan Theatre, the old Aqueduct, the neighborhoods of Lapa and Santa Teresa, the old Catete State Palace now a museum, the Laranjeriras Palace, and the huge Maracanã soccer complex. Soccer is a huge sport in Brazil, the national pastime, played from April to November. Brazil last won the World Cup in 2014 and won the Olympic Gold in 2016 and 2020. Pele probably remains their most famous player. The Soccer complex is named after a local river, built in 1950 to hold up to 200,000 people but now modernized and restricted due to safety measures to about 80,000 fans.

The neighborhoods are characterized by music, food, fascinating architecture and brilliant colors . Be sure to visit at night for samba dancing, the bossa nova and caipirinhas (famous Brazilian fruit drink). The caipirinha may be Brazil’s most famous citizen, made with cachaca (from sugarcane) alcohol, sugar and lemon/lime. Be sure to drink the caipirinha slooooowly and Never drink more than three at any one event. On one trip I went ocean sailing, and I think the main point was to enjoy the caipirinhas.

Turn from the mountain attractions south to the Botanical Gardens, the Copacabana Fort and the marvelous beaches. You may not find the “Girl From Ipanema” (Vinicius de Moraes and Antonio Carlos Jobim; A and R Recordings; 1962) - Brazilian women are said to be particularly beautiful - but you can still look for her and enjoy the sand and surf; the weather is almost always gorgeous. The beaches are lined with seaside cafes and bars. But do not take along any money or valuables if you swim or sunbath. Night life never ends along these beaches, and they are almost impassible at Carnival (the four days before Lent) and other festivals, some ancient and pagan. The Botanical Gardens are expansive and include a famous Japanese Tea Garden, over 600 orchid varieties and an art museum. Rio in general has a huge amount of green space and parks.

My favorite restaurant in Rio is one you probably can’t get into, the elegant Leblon condo of Mario and Sheila. But they also took us out on the town to tour the mountain parks and tourist sites and to the restaurants of the Copacabana Palace Hotel and the Rio de Janeiro Paissandu Club (founded by an Englishman in 1905 as a cricket sports club, still requiring left sided driving within its walls). I have also enjoyed the Ipanema Inn and the Tia Palmira restaurants.

On one trip I went down the coast to the wonderful Angra dos Reis for an Allergy Convention as a speaker; there, thru Mario and Sheila, I met famed Brazilian plastic surgeon Dr. Ivo Pitanguy who took us on an island tour aboard his 80 foot yacht.


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