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Brazil

Day 27: Recife

 
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The tortured figure commemorates those arrested and imprisoned during the years of dictatorship from 1964 to 1985.
Michael Palin - BrazilFurther along the road is another dramatic structure. A huge crab, made from scrap metal, rises some three metres above the grass, its legs and body vividly painted and heavily graffitied. Paulo is more cheerful as he explains this one. The shoreline around Recife was once thick with mangrove beds. During the bad years of political stagnation much of this was destroyed for indiscriminate development. The recent halting of the mangrove destruction is seen as a sign of hope. A new respect for the environment and a new era for the city. As the mangrove beds are the natural habitat of the crab, so the crab has been adopted as a symbol of a new era for Recife, politically, environmentally and artistically.

We lunch at the Pernambuco Yacht Club, out by the sea wall. It's certainly not Cowes, but the food is glorious. A tumbler of caldinho, a fish soup, loosens the taste buds, which are further indulged by a fine moqueca of fresh shrimp, red mullet and beans, washed down with the deliciously aromatic mango-like juice of the caju.

Recife is the only place I've seen which has posters warning of shark attacks. In any other country these might be dismissed as exaggeration by the health and safety-conscious, but Brazil is not big on warnings so it must be something serious. And it is. A helicopter flying low overhead as we walk out along the sea wall is from a local news channel following up a shark attack that took place only yesterday. A young surfer was quite badly mauled. It's a bit of a cause célèbre here as surfing anywhere near the reef is illegal. Some think he got what he deserved. Meanwhile the cheery victim has already announced that he will be back on his board as soon as he's out of hospital.

There is a kind of craziness in the air here. In the nicest possible way. It shows itself in a teasing of conformity, a duty of self-expression, whatever shape or form it takes. This afternoon I met a film director who declared himself a big Monty Python fan. He gave me a copy of his latest film, called Recife Frio, a sort of meteorological horror story, examining what might happen to Brazilians if it ever got cold here. He shook his head incredulously.

'I mean, it's like, what would happen if we had to put coats on.'

Another example of artistic audacity is the Sculpture Park located at the very end of the great pile of granite stones that shelter the harbour. To reach it you have to run a gauntlet of spray from Atlantic rollers smashing into the wall. The sculptures are all the work of a celebrated local artist, Francisco Brennand, and the park was opened in 2000 to commemorate the 500th anniversary of the first European footfall in Brazil. There are various fantastical figures – birds with huge feet, green eggs, women's heads, mouths agape as if screaming–but the centrepiece is the Coluna de Cristal, the Crystal Column, which rises over thirty metres above the sea. There are metal bands around it with holes in and ceramic tiling on the shaft. At the top is what looks like a flower in bud. When it was completed the wife of the then Mayor was quoted in a newspaper saying that she thought it resembled a huge penis. The Mayor was so incensed at this that he visited the newspaper's office armed with a gun, vowing to shoot dead the journalist who'd written the story.

Paulo tells this with some relish. The Mayor never recovered credibility after this incident and is now out of power. A good result, as far as Paulo is concerned.

'He was one of those friends of the sugar barons.'
 
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Street art by the river. The crab that is the symbol of the resurgent cultural life of Recife.
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PALIN'S GUIDES

  • Series: Brazil
  • Chapter: Day 27: Recife
  • Country/sea: Brazil
  • Place: Recife
  • Book page no: 118

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