Sunny white sand beaches, sport filled waters, colonial and contemporary culture and an enticing cuisine are all there in Recife, summer or winter. If you are headed to Brazil for the Olympics, or planning next winter’s vacation, take a look at this great, unknown, spot.
Almost unknown to American travelers, the coast of Brazil offers everything that most travelers are looking for. Here the sun seems to shine every day, rain comes as short showers that blow through in moments and the mixture of Portuguese, African and native cultures creates a unique ambiance that excites and entrances.
Recife was founded by the Portuguese early in the 16th century and quickly became rich as a sugar exporter. Captured by the Dutch in 1630, it returned to Portuguese empire, and played a leading role in the establishment of Brazil. Slavery was here in the beginning but the city played a major role in bringing it to an end in 1888. Always considered forward looking, Recife is now the capital of Pernambuco State and a major port city.
That it is a port should not be a turn off. The south end of the city, known as Bairro Boa Viagem, faces onto some of the world’s most beautiful beaches. The Praia de Boa Viagem becomes the Praia de Piedade in Jaboatāo, the next city south, but the miles of soft white sand they contain never seem busy or crowded even though they are right in the city. The warm waters here are perfect for swimming and an offshore reef keeps breakers from being a nuisance. Do be cautious however, sharks have been known to visit these waters.
For a break from the sun there is plenty to keep anyone occupied. Divided into four parts by the Capibaribe and the Beberibe Rivers, it is known as the Venice of Brazil for the waterways slicing through it and the graceful bridges that cross them. The Bairros (districts) of Santo Antonio and Sāo Jose occupies one of the islands and the city center, Bairro do Recife, occupies another while the fourth section, Boa Vista, lies across the Rio Capibaribe from both of them. Most of the historic and cultural highlights of the city lie in these three bairros. Another thing to keep an eye out for are street markets,
One of the nicest ways to get a sense of the city is by water. Catamaran Tours www.catamarantours.com.br has three tours a day (10am, 4 and 8pm) that travel the broad waterways that divide the city into its bairros. The other way is on foot. Start at the Praça do Arsenal, which has a large bronze plaque in the middle marking the zero kilometer point of the state. Open to the river on one side, this was once the commercial and shipping center of the city. Once badly dilapidated, it is now being restored. A stunning flatiron building is fully restored and on an opposing corner the pink former stock exchange is being restored as a bank headquarters.
This island is where the city began and its streets are lined with buildings from all periods as far back as the 17th century. Walk up Avenida Barbosa Lima a block and turn right onto the tree lined Rua Bom Jesus. During the Dutch period a thriving Jewish population lived here. They built the synagogue Kahal Zur Israel in 1636, but it was lost with the Jewish expulsion at the time of the Portuguese re-conquest in 1654. Re-discovered in 2000, it is now a museum with its original floor, mikvah and oven visible through glass floors and multi-lingual panels tell their story. It is believed to be the oldest synagogue in the Americas.
Two streets behind the synagogue lies the Rua Apolo, and the Teatro Apolo. Built in 1842, it has marble features imported from Lisbon. The only theater in town when built, it had a short period of success before becoming a sugar warehouse. It was restored in the 1990s and is again the home of live theater.
Back at Bom Jesus continue on to the tree-shaded Praça. The large yellow building at the north end is the Malakoff Tower. Built in 1855 as an observatory, today it functions as a performance center, There are good views from the roof. On the opposite corner is an attractive restored Beaux Arts building.
It is worth spending some time in the square. Around it lie a number of small restored small buildings dating from the first four centuries of the city’s existence. Brightly colored in blue, red, green and white, they form a colorful backdrop for the activity in the park. This praça, by the way is the scene of a major market every Sunday morning so large that it extends down Rua Bom Jesus.
One of the truly fascinating things about walking in old Recife is the richness of its architectural heritage. Walking the streets here is a lesson in Latin architecture from over a period of five centuries. Look for the simple clean lines of colonial classic, the advent of baroque and rococo, the subtle introduction of naturalism in Art Nouveau and the flashy exuberance of Beau Arts and the simpler and unadorned exteriors of Art Deco and early modernism.
On another end of Rua Bom Jesus lie the exposed ruins of an arch and dike built by the Dutch as part of a drainage project. It’s a popular field trip for school kids. Closer to the other end of the island Forte de Brum was started by the Portuguese in 1629 and finished by the Dutch. A four pointed Vauban style strong point, it today houses a military museum.
At the other end of the island facing Sāo Antonio is the Paço Alfándega. It started life as a convent in 1826 before becoming a Customs House. Its exterior retained, inside it is a modern multi-storied shopping center whose architect has skillfully retained many old features. From its fourth floor roof patio there are beautiful views over San Antonio, Boa Vista and the sea. On the street behind is the church of Madre de Deus. There is more interesting shopping at the Casa de Cultura. This gift shop is located in a re-purposed multi-storied jail which was built in the mid-1900s. It is a good place for local crafts and art.