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Brazil

Day 23: São Luís to Alcântara

 
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In Alcântara's once-grand Praça da Matriz, flags flutter for the festivities to come. Among the many colonial buildings is a ruined stone church on the right and in front of it the limestone pelourinho, the pillory, where slaves were bought and sold.
Michael Palin - BrazilOn our return we're landed at the Estacão Maritima, the port of Old Town São Luís. From here it's a short walk up into in the Centro Histórico, the colonial core of the city, known as the Zona. It's an hour before sunset and the glaze on the tiles in the narrow streets catches the sharp intensity of the sunlight, making the houses glow and sparkle. Though they look handsome, there were strictly functional reasons for the widespread use of glazed tiling. The tiles provided vital protection for walls vulnerable to the hot and humid climate of the tropics. They also made useful ballast for lightly laden ships coming out from Portugal to collect the riches of their new colony.

They certainly contribute a decorative panache to the attractive, colourful UNESCO-listed heart of São Luís. The Old Town is slowly benefiting from a big restoration scheme called Projeto Reviver, but many of the houses still show the wear and tear of heat, moisture and general tropical decay. Balconies are broken and greenery sprouts out of holes in the walls. But the area is full of life. A group of young boys play football barefoot in a small, paved square. They are fast and skilful, as keeping the ball in play in such a confined space the passes have to be quick, short and accurate. In these São Luís backstreets I have a glimpse of what makes Brazilian football such a joy to watch.

In those streets that have been made-over there are shops, bars, internet cafés and restaurants. Brazilians like their music and there's a good crowd outside the Café da Casa das Ferragens, which has the date 1861 inscribed in the filigree ironwork of its arched doorway, and coat of arms above it. It's only tea-time but a live band plays and a few people samba joyfully and a little unsteadily beside it. Others sit beneath the cosseting shade of the mango trees and drink cold beers. A small group of young men lie sprawled on their backs, completely out of it, an empty bottle of cachaça, the sugar-cane spirit that comes closest to Brazil's national drink, at their feet. This is urban regeneration in its infancy, as yet devoid of shopping malls and international brands. This is still São Luís, capital of the poorest state in Brazil. And perhaps that's why I find it so appealing. It just couldn't be anywhere else.

We stand on the terrace beside the pristine white, recently restored governor's mansion, the Palácio de Leões, and watch the sun turn red and gold behind the tower blocks of the smart beachfront neighbourhoods. Now they could be anywhere else.
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PALIN'S GUIDES

  • Series: Brazil
  • Chapter: Day 23: São Luís to Alcântara
  • Country/sea: Brazil
  • Place: São Luís
  • Book page no: 107

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