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Rio for Beginners

Years ago, I wrote a book on Brazil. I was happy and privileged to spend months traveling to the Pantanal, the Amazon and Bahia (not to mention Recife, Belem and Minas Gerais, among many other places, with countless adventures along the way).

But in the end, I always came back to Rio. With its conical mountains, undulating coastline, and miles of beaches, Rio de Janeiro has a setting and cultural contrast that a 1930’s surrealist might have conceived. It’s the city of Carnival, but its best known image is that of an Art Deco statue of Christ that rises more than 100 feet from its perch on a 2,300 foot mountain called Corcovado.
    Along fabled strands like Copacabana and Ipanema, high rises face the surf of Guanabara Bay. The chicest of the six million Cariocas, the residents of Rio, can be seen going from apartment to beach in nothing more than a skimpy black bathing suit and flip flops, cell phones to their ears, wraparound shades de rigeur, their tans at a level of pefection we can only dream about.

But above their neighborhoods rise mountains that are a patchwork of jungle and shanty towns known as favelas. Rio is stylish and hedonistic, but it’s also a big city, as chic as Paris and as edgy as Detroit, often within a few blocks. There is nothing like it anywhere else in the world.


To experience the most mannered beach rituals in the world, choose cool Ipanema (above) over the slightly seedy strand known as Copacabana. Stroll along Ipanema beach and hang out at the area marked Posto 9,  as the epicenter of hip. Style-conscious Cariocas set up their umbrellas alongside the thundering surf but surprisingly few ever swim, as rip tides can be fierce. Instead, they preen and socialize, in a display of exhibitionism and vanity of the highest order. Women wear tiny bathing suits known as “fio dental” or dental floss, while men choose an abbreviated Speedo-style called a “sungas” The hyper-fit play volleyball as well as the uber athletic hybrid of soccer and volleyball called futevolei. For refreshment, walk a couple of blocks to one of Rio’s ubiquitous juice stands, Polis Sucos (Rua Maria Quiteria), and drink acai, an antioxident from an Amazonian  palm.


If you’ve spent the day with “The Girl from Ipanema” playing in your head, grab a chopp, a Brazilian draft beer, at Garota de Ipanema (Rua Vinicius de Moraes 49A; 021 25233787) , where Tom Jobim (above) and Vinicius de Moraes penned the song decades ago. It introduced the world to bossa nova, a musical movement celebrating its 50th anniversary this year. Across the street is a club called Vinicius Piano Bar (Rua Vinicius de Moraes, 39) and nearby is a virtual temple of bossa nova, Toca do Vinicius (Rua Vinicius de Moraes, 129) where fans can browse a trove of cd’s, books, vintage records and visit a tiny museum.
    Brazil is arguably the most musical country on earth, and in 2009 that music will have a fitting venue in the Cidade de Musica, in the Rio suburb of Barra de Tijuca. Designed by Christian de Portzamparc, it’s a complex that includes a Philharmonic Hall and a Chamber Music Room with Elizabethean-style seating (audience surrounding performers) and rehearsal halls. But the building, constructed so as to “float” about 30 feet above a vast garden with ponds designed by Fernando Chacel, might steal the show, with fetching glimpses of both the mountains and the sea during a performance.

    With a modicum of Portuguese, you can handle Rio’s taxi drivers and have them take you all over the “Cidade Marvilhosa,” the marvelous city. The Chacara do Ceu (Rua Murtinho Nobre 93; 021/2507-1932) in Santa Teresa is the former home of industrialist Raymundo Ottoni de Castro Maya. He collected Brazilian, European and Asian art, but his modernist house is equally fascinating. Taxi down to the waterfront Parque do Flamengo, which was designed by Roberto Burle Marx, and spend some time with contemporary Brazilian art at MAM (Modern Art Museum; Avenida Infante Dom Henrique, 85; 021 2240 4944).

Then head to Praca Tiradentes, ditch the cab, and walk to Real Gabinete Portugues de Leitura,(Rua Luis de Camoes, 30; 021 2221 3138), a 19th-century library whose main reading room is a veritable cathedral of books reaching to the sky. Stroll into the Centro neighborhood, past the 60’s era Petrobras building by Roberto Gandolfi, with its hanging gardens, and visit Rio’s real cathedral, the Catedral Metropolitana (Av Republica do Chile, 245; 021 2240 2669). This towering latticework of concrete has a dark interior, four abstract stained glass windows and seating for 20,000 worshippers.

Walk a few blocks to pedestrian-only Goncalvo Dias, note the ornate lamps suspended over the street that once burned whale oil, and step into Confeitaria Colombo (Rua Goncalves Dias, 34; 021 2232 2300), a riot of Art Nouveau mirrors and stained glass from 1894 (above). Grab a seat at one of the marble tables, order a hearts of palm salad, and follow it with a cafezinho, Brazilian coffee, and an egg-based Portuguese sweet.


   Cariocas like to say it doesn’t matter whether you are rich or poor in Lapa, because everyone comes to this neighborhood for the same thing: music, dancing and a well-made caiparinha, the national cocktail of sliced limes, sugar, ice and cachaca, a sugar cane liquor. Lapa is a bit run down but the best clubs are welcoming. Among them are Rio Scenarium (Rua do Lavradio, 20;  021 3852 5516), an eccentric boite that’s jammed with antiques as well as partygoers and a live band playing samba or chorino. You can also dance and hear music at Estrela de Lapa (Avenida Mem de Sa 69; 2507 6686) and at Carioca da Gema (Avenida Mem de Sa. 79; 2221 0043), which began the Lapa revival and is filled with samba and bossa nova lovers every night.

But I also like Centro Cultural Carioca, near Praca Tiradentes. A former dance hall, this two-story space has samba lessons downstairs while in the vast, windowed upstairs hall, an array of performers play various styles of Brazilian music. On February 9, for example, it’s music to mark the 100th birthday of the patron saint of Brazilian pop culture, Carmen Miranda.


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