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Salvador Bahia, a Brazilian city like no other


Salvador, the capital of the state of Bahia was founded by the Portuguese in 1549, it was the first colonialized city in South America, and the first Capital of Brazil where it governed for 214 years, and was the centre of their empire in the Americas. In1558 the Portuguese established the first slave market in the New World, bringing millions of people to Brazil. Today Salvador has a population of approximately 3.5 million and is the 4th largest city in Brazil. Approximately 4.9 million African slaves were transported to Brazil; almost 10 times more than were shipped to the United States of America, the largest proportion of these were shipped into the Port of Salvador. During the1820’s the British Government pushed Brazil for a treaty to end slavery, which they finally agreed to in 1826. However, slaves continued to arrive in Brazil for another 25 years until the Brazilian Government passed a law in 1888 giving slaves’ complete freedom. Today, Salvador is the biggest Afro city outside of Africa. The city lies on a peninsula between green tropical hills and 22 miles of beautiful beaches with a coastline not unlike Angola and the Guinea coast where many of the slaves originated. The Africans who arrived in the city have had a profound influence and role in the history of the city of Salvador and Bahia.

I first arrived in Brazil from the UK during 1979 on a one way ticket. After a number of weeks exploring Sao Paulo and Rio de Janeiro looking for work, and just as my funds were running low, I found myself working in the offshore oil and gas industry, an adventurous and exciting period of my life, which took me the length and breadth of Brazil. It was eleven years later, the company I worked for at the time, sent me to Dubai UAE for a few weeks; I remained in Dubai for 30 years.

Over the years, my work at sea, the oil business and my passion for travel, have taken me to many interesting exotic places around the world;  but now I find myself back in Salvador, to discover that I probably live in one of the most unique and misunderstood cities in the world. Life in Salvador sometimes resembles “Alice Through the Looking-glass,” where you enter a new world, a wonderland of contrasts, a diversity of people, customs, religions, cultures, food, music and art, an amazing example of how utterly different cultures can be integrated.  There is an energy and freedom of expression that runs through everything in Salvador. As much as 83% of the population here are black and/or of mixed race, of indigenous tribes and descendants of slaves, who unlike the USA, have preserved their African culture, traditions and heritage.

So now, trapped by the CORONA Pandemic, my travels are reduced to daily walks around the area where I live and to the central parts of the city. Nothing except for the effects of the pandemic has changed here in the years I have been away, although during that time Dubai became one of the most modern cities in the world and the population increased from 500 thousand to 3.5 million, in the meantime, Salvador did build a metro which took 14 years before it was inaugurated.

Whichever direction I choose to take on my walks, I have to negotiate very steep hills and winding roads, up and down surrounding valleys topped with tall apartment buildings and in contrast, I pass close to favelas built into the hillsides, most often unlawfully. Dull red bricked shacks built one above the other separated by narrow alleyways and only assessable by steep flights of steps, where in many of these the residents illegally tap their electricity and water from the main supplies. Local residents call these favelas “invasions,” whereby the favela dwellers call them “communities”. The central part of the city is divided into two, being Cidade Alta and Cidade Baixo i.e. the upper city and lower city. Around the surrounding areas there are many narrow streets lined with almond and tamarind trees and in back yards are mango, avocado, banana or coconut palms.

On leaving my building I first have to walk up a very steep hill to the main road that runs through my area Graca, reputed to be a leafy upmarket noble area of Salvador, where I am immediately reminded of its colonial past. The streets are paved with a distinctive pattern of small black and white stones, a street mosaic known as Calcada Portuguese. These types’  of pavements with various patterns and curlicues are all through the city and I often pass workers stooped on the pavement with chipping hammers, painstakingly shaping small stones to fit and repair damaged areas of the pavement. Another unusual thing is that many of the streets are lined with trees, some quite  large that over the years  have grown through holes cut in the  pavements, which means that every now and then, pedestrians need to step off of the pavement into the road to walk around the trees. I walk to the top of the main street passing banks, pharmacies, street venders selling fresh fruit from the back of pick-up trucks, makeshift stalls or simply spread out on the pavement. “It’s, ok the dog owning cult that walk their ugly little dogs, by law, have to pick up their dogs mess.” Bahia is abundant with exotic fruits with flavours that don’t compare with European fruits such as jabuticaba, jenipapo, acerola and caju and vegetables some of which can only be found in this part of Brazil. The products come in all shapes and sizes, and no way would comply with European or U.S. food regulations both in appearance and the manner they are displayed, but are as good as any I have tasted anywhere. Along the way I am approached by homeless persons asking for change, sadly this is common these days, not only in cities with a large amount of impoverish people like Salvador, but in major cities all over the world. I chat briefly with my friend selling face masks on the street corner, who likes to practice his pidgin English; we share the similar interests in music and general affairs, I sometimes buy a grubby old well-read book from the street used book seller if he finds one in English for me then give back later so he can sell it again.  Buses pass up and down the street displaying interesting destinations such as Cabula, Jardim de Ala or Sussuarana. Now and again, a  minibus will pull up, the sliding door opens and a guy sticks his head out and shouts out at the top of his voice,  locations and the fares to areas out in the suburbs, which cater  more for  the house maids  and labourers who come to work daily from the impoverish outskirts of the city.

At the top of the road, there is a small church and monastery which overlooks a leafy square which is easy to pass without noticing. The name is Church and Monastery of our Lady of Grace, Nossa Senora da Graca which many people don’t know, is that it is the first church to be built in Salvador. Construction was started sometime towards the end of the 1500s by a man named Diogo Alvares Correa. The story goes that his ship sank off the coast of Bahia and he was rescued by Tupinamba Indians who captured and were planning to eat him. Somehow he won them over and was given the Chiefs daughter for marriage. Because they found him in the water they named him Caramura after a type of fish. The church baring the remains of his Indian wife, whose tomb remains in front of the altar is much larger today.

They say you can visit a different church in Salvador every day of the year, there are more than 300. The many magnificent churches in Salvador and their splendour show the immense wealth and power of the Catholic Church during this era. Jesuits formed part of the centralised government and their prime roll was the conversion of the indigenous population to Christianity. It did not work well, the local Indians did not want to be converted, and neither did they want to work, they preferred sleep, sex and to get drunk on Cauim (Fermented Manioc Beer) if they did not die from influenza or measles contracted from the colonialists, they would just disappear into the bush, which contributed to the Portuguese importing African slave workers.  There were more than thirty different indigenous villages and settlements in what is now the municipality of Salvador. The Society of Jesus came to Brazil because it had a strong relationship with the Portuguese monarchy. The crown supported the Jesuits’ eagerness to evangelize, they made their main centre and college in Salvador and within fifty years had established colleges and missionary settlements along the coast of Brazil. The Portuguese expelled the Jesuits from Brazil and Portugal in 1759; following pressure from government, the elite and the fact that they were becoming more powerful, indulging in commercial ventures and resisting the authority of local government authorities.

I turn into Rua da Graca which takes me up to Rodrigues de Lima Square, the posh residential area of Vitoria, and Avenida sete de Setembro which runs through the upper city  as far as the central historical area. Behind the Church of Nossa Senhora da Vitoria located in the square is a viewing area that many people are not familiar with. It is best visited late afternoon and one of the best places to get a post card view looking down over the entrance to Bahia de Tudos os Santos or All Saints Bay and the beautiful sunsets over the Island of Itaparica the other side of the bay, which was named after it was discovered on All Saints Day by Captain Amerigo Vespucci in 1501. It would have been from this spot that the Tupinamba watched the Portuguese arriving aboard their armadas of Caravella’s.

Next to the viewing area, is a flight of very steep steps leading half way down an embankment to a small favela consisting of a number of pastel coloured dwellings nestled between evergreen trees and palms. From above, it looks very inviting, however my wife on numerous occasions has warned me that it is an invasion by slum dwellers, drug dealers and thieves and very dangerous at that, and I should not think about venturing  down there. This of course only made me more determined to visit and explore, as I had a good feeling about the place. Using my survival skills I noted that there is only one way in and out of the favela, not the sort of place that drug dealers would hide out. I walked to the bottom of the steps to an area where some young ladies were sitting on the perimeter of a small square watching their kids play. I got talking to a friendly young guy who told me he lived there and offered to show me around. We walked further down to sea level by a very steep path which was hidden from the viewing area above by trees and vegetation, we then walked down some very steep steps that took us left then right then left again down to the sea and a small rocky secluded beach where the guy told me they would come to swim and fish. The exclusive Yacht Club of Bahia was to the left of where we were, waves were rolling in over the rocks, and out at sea ships were laying at anchor. We were in a place not known to many inhabitants of the city but nestled amongst one of its most upmarket areas. After chatting for a while we took a different route back. I followed my friend up the hill through a maze of narrow alleyways and steps between modest dwellings  some two to three stories high with guarded windows, hanging plants, odours of cooking, washing out to dry, a few barking dogs and reggae music from an open window until we eventually arrived back to where we had started. The place is in fact a friendly community with a population of around 300 known as Vila Brandao generally made up of street venders and fishermen. I learned that a fishing community first started building homes there around 70 years ago and at one time had as many as 1,000 residents. Over the years there have been many attempts by real estate developers, the yacht club and racist elite to expulse the residents who have successfully avoided eviction. Today there is a restaurant a small hostel and the Vila is increasing in value due to the attention it gets from social media and support from social groups. I gave my new friend a tip, bade him farewell and struggled back up the last long flight of steep steps to the viewing area un-harmed and intact.

A 100 metre cliff runs along the entire bay shoreline from here on, which divides the city into Cidade Alta, up on the cliff and the Cidade Baixo down at sea level. It was during the 1500´s that the Portuguese crown, realized the importance of sugar production in the region and created the capital city Salvador next to the Bay and began to organize the sugar economy there. It became the nation’s busiest port with most of Bahia’s products such as sugar, tobacco, agriculture, gold and precious metals from the mines passing through.

Nossa Senhora da Vitoria church is described as an architectural gem and also said to be the first church built in Salvador during the 16th century, it is listed by the National Institute of Artistic and Historic Heritage displaying works of art of the 16th and 18th centuries. I visited the church recently during one of my walks to cool down and relax for a few minutes and thought it would be a good moment to practice “The Guide to Meditation” which I have been following on Netflix. “It certainly was” I meditated a little and drifted off to sleep, I don’t know for how long, but woke up with mouth, wide open, slumped with my arm around the back of the pew, wondering where I was. Not a pretty sight, but fully relaxed. I didn’t look around to see if any of the congregation were observing me, I quietly slid out from my pew, made the sign of the cross and with my head down, sheepishly walked out.

I continue my walk along Avenida Sete de Setembro via Corridor Vitoria, a section lined along each side with giant ouito trees (which resemble American Elm) approximately 15 meters apart, their branches forming a perfect arch shading the road for almost one kilometre as far as Campo Grande. These trees are reputed to be well over 100 years old and one enormous tree in particular with a trunk the width of the pavement is said to be the biggest mango tree in the world. During the golden years, plantation owners, merchants, their lawyers and doctors would have lived in the magnificent mansions along this stretch, a number of which today have been turned into museums; in turn local government officials and the wealthy live in the new luxury condos that overlook All Saint Bay, have replaced some of the older buildings. “Campo Grande”, also known as “Praça Dois de Julho“, honouring Bahia’s independence from the Portuguese crown on July 2, 1823 is a square that dates from the very beginning of the 19th century. Bahia’s fight for independence not only ended after Brazil was declared independent but it began before the fight for Brazilian independence had started. The local population here of different class and race such as landowners, free blacks and slaves, ingenious Tupi tribes, impoverish whites and immigrants stood side by side to expulse Portuguese troops that remained in Bahia and protect  Bahia’s significance and identity in the face of Rio de Janeiro and Sao Paulo. A magnificent monument, praising the heroes of Bahia’s Independence, was erected at its centre in 1895.

I pass Campo Grande and continue towards the central area, but with more caution, as the security is not as tight here as it is along Vitoria where the city elite live. Salvador has gained the reputation as Brazil’s most violent city. Outside of the historical area tourists should be streetwise and not wander the streets alone or at night. It’s not considered safe even by Brazilians that live here. I continue along Avenida Sete for half a kilometre pass a few drifters, street dogs and the odd nutter, not unlike those you meet on the last bus home in the UK after the pubs have closed and can relax when I see the shops of Piedade and more people in the street.  Piedade Square is one of the most important and popular in the city and a great place to sit to people watch and experience Brazilian daily life.  Here you will find people from all walks of life, a meeting place for young old and the less privileged, a place to gossip, read the papers and play board games or relax in front of the fountains surrounded by flower beds greenery and palm trees. At one time it used to be the main square and many demonstrations took place here that changed the history of Bahia, The Squares four gates are named after four martyrs that were executed here in 1799, for being a part of a liberation movement known as the Conjuration of Bahia.

On a corner next to Piedade Square, stands Igreja de Sao Pedro dos Clerigos or the Church of Saint Peter of Clergymen, one of my stop offs when I am on this particular route and before I get to the Historic Area. This Church was constructed around 1700, relocated and renovated a couple of times since. The church was listed as a historic structure by  the National Institute of Historic and Artistic Heritage in 1938 and is part of the Historic Centre of Salvador´s UNESCO World Heritage Site. This parish is always busy and through the hymns, singing and organ music, one immediately feels the energy here from its congregation, visitors and the curious such as myself. Recently during a stop off, I sat at the back taking it all in, accompanied by a little old lady sitting close by, whispering her prayers. Between the hale Mary’s, mother of God’s bless my soul’s etc. (in Portuguese) I felt she was trying to pass me a message when I heard, “voce poderia me de sete reais?”  Could you spare me seven reais? For a moment I acted as if I didn’t hear or understand her request until I realised where I was.  I looked around and saw figures of Jesus Christ, effigies of saints along the walls, and angels on the ceiling all of which appeared to be looking down directly at me, and waiting; I slipped her a 20 reais note.

If you think by having so many churches, Christianity is the main religion in Salvador Bahia, you could be wrong. A vibrant Afro‐Brazilian cult called Candomblé, a form of voodoo exerts a powerful influence over Salvador and the lives of many Bahianos today. It is a Brazilian religion originated in Africa, formed by the fusion of religious elements which arrived with the slave ships, and over the years, Catholicism and African cults flourishing side by side, although there is some question as to who influenced whom. Followers of Candomble believe in one all-powerful god, Olodumare who is served by goddesses that visit earth to communicate with earthlings through a messenger God called Exu.  These are similar to the Christian God and Catholic saints of the Portuguese missionaries who the slaves were forced to worship, for example, the African god Oxumare is worshipped as St Andrew and the god Oxossi, god of hunting, corresponds to St. George, the dragon slayer. There are reputed to be dozens of Registered Candomble cult houses in Salvador and meetings normally fall on weekends. These rituals are very popular with all walks of life, from celebrities, the artistic to the very poor communities. The ceremonies in the open Candomble houses can be like parties but follow strict rituals. The interiors are carefully divided having shrines and rooms where sacred objects are kept with areas for sacred plants and for feasts. The dance ritual is to drums and solemn chanting and has little to do with history instead it expresses the force of life for the present and the future. During the summer months in Salvador there are no less than eleven Afro-Catholicism related street festivals with the last one being Carnival. The fact that there are African priests who travel to Salvador to learn about their own religion, demonstrates the remarkable survival of these traditions that were kept alive by the slaves.

It is not unusual during my walks, to come across offerings used to communicate with the spirits that are placed in specific or unusual places, along the streets, in the squares and even on the beaches or out on the sea, the latter for the goddess Lemania, queen of the ocean.  Macumba can reflect a darker element of Candomble which I have found the locals to be more reluctant to discuss freely. The type of offering depends on the spirit and varies, with food, cachaça (strong sugar based liquor) cigarettes, cigars, candles, beads, drinks stones, incense and plants; although I am told, animals have been offered. These offerings are made for personal reasons and are gifts to the spirits or specific entities when asking for something such as advice, love, money, strength, or even for revenge or bad doings to an enemy.  I tend to take advice from the locals and steer clear of the offerings.

I am now along the busiest stretch of the street, which was the main shopping area during the 1960´s and 70´s before the shopping malls were introduced in the uptown areas and the outskirts, now a reflection of the contrast between the rich and poor. But this is a part of the city that should not be missed; it is high street shopping Brazilian style and a true atmosphere of Salvador, its busy, colourful, noisy, with rich odours of street food and African cooking amongst surroundings of old buildings and narrow side streets unchanged for decades. Along the pavements in front of the shops with speakers blasting out music and/or promotions of sales and payment instalments, venders set up stalls selling anything and everything, old vinyl long play records, well used cassettes and CD´s, guys repairing mobile phones and watches, others selling fresh fruit shakes, beers, fresh chilled coconut professionally opened with a couple of strikes from a machete and drunk though a straw. In the small square around the monument of Baron do Rio Branco, mulata ladies (women of mixed race) are having their long curly hair styled by street hairdressers. Large black Afro-Brazilian ladies in traditional white attire prepare and sell spicy local food that is still called by its African names, which arrived on the shores of Salvador with the slaves from West Africa. Food such as Coxinha, Cocada, Brigadeiro and everyone’s favourite Acaraje, with vatapá, salted shrimp and Caruru, a mixture of dried vegetables and seasoning.  Acaraje is made from a ball of mashed black-eyed peas, that’s deep fried in red dende, palm oil. It is filled with vatapa, a paste made with coconut milk, ginger and dende oil. Dried salted shrimps and hot sauces are normally added. In 2017 Acaraje was officially declared as part of Brazil’s cultural heritage.

Salvador is rich in history, tradition and natural beauty, but its heart is its people and its diversity. Walking the streets, rubbing shoulders with locals, and characters from all walks of life takes me into the world of Jorge Amado and his novels. Jorge Amado was born in Ileus south of Bahia but studied and lived in Salvador. He remains the best known of modern Brazilian writers; his work became recognized worldwide with as many as 45 books and translated into some 49 languages in 55 countries. His best known novels would almost certainly be “Gabriela, Clove and Cinnamon”, and “Dona Flor and her Two Husbands.” His writings depict the colourful and sometimes humorous day to day affairs of the local communities, but at the same time challenge the authorities and contest their deep social and economic differences and class struggles. He never forgot the misery and difficult lives of the people working the land and the living conditions he saw as a child growing up in Ileus. Amado became a communist and was arrested on two occasions and forced into exile during 1942 where he remained for some time in various countries. For a period his books were banned both in Portugal and Brazil but continued to be popular in countries around the world. Jorge Amado fought for religious freedom and was the author of a law, still in force today, which guarantees the freedom of religion and speech. He died in Salvador in 2001.

I continue my walk and just like Jorge Amado, I love being amongst the common people in whichever country that I visit. The people of Bahia have a reputation of being relaxed, easy going and fun loving which Brazilians from the south interpret as laziness. Some Bahians make fun of their own supposed laziness, but most people in Brazil agree that they are generally friendly and warm people. The crowds of shoppers and venders become less as I arrive towards the end of Sete de Setembro where the beautiful blue waters of All Saints Bay come back into view and the island of Itaparica in the distance. It was here in February 1832 that Charles Darwin arrived aboard HMS Beegle and after dropping anchor recorded in his diary “No one would be able to imagine anything as beautiful as the old city of Bahia, it is sweetly cosy in a lush forest of beautiful trees.”

Here overlooking the bay is a viewing point from Castro Alves square, which surrounds a monument of the great author, playwright and poet. Antonio de Castro Alves, born March 14, 1847, was a poet who supported the Brazilian abolitionist cause, a movement to end slavery and became known as the ‘poet of the slaves.” His work became known by literary leaders whilst he was still a student. After studying law, he soon became a commanding figure amongst the Condor School of poets for his style and romantic image, for this reason he was also known as the “Love Poet”. His image was heightened by the fact he knew he didn’t have long to live following a hunting accident which led to amputation of his left foot. Tuberculosis set in and he died at the age of 24. Knowing that his time was short he wrote intensely in the latter years of his life and much of his work and publications were posthumous. His works include “The Slaves”, which tells the story of a slave girl who is raped by her master’s son “Voices of Africa” and “Ship of Negroes” a dramatic description of the conditions aboard the slave ships that brought the African slaves to Brazil. In his childhood, Castro Alves lived on a farm, where he got to see the conditions of many slaves in the slave quarters and the hardships they endured.

A short walk further up the street brings me to Praca Tome de Souza and the Lacerdo Elevator Elevador Lacerdo which connects the lower city to upper city. The 80 metre elevator was built during 1869 and 1873. It consists of two towers, one that pierces the steep rock cliff and one which protrudes that decend to the level of the lower city. The elevator has four lifts carrying 27 passengers each on a 30 second ride between the two levels, cost 2 pence. It transports on average 33,000 passengers per day. The elevator named after the engineer that built it was listed as a Historical Heritage of Brazil on 7th December 2006. Also in the square, shimmering white is the Rio Branco Palace. The palace which was completed in 1549 was originally the state governments’ seat. It has also been used as a prison and by the military, but is now open to the public. The building is 4,500 square meters and has survived various attacks and reformations.

I finally arrive at the old city centre, the heart of the city and main tourist area which is packed with historic sites and entertainment. This is a neighbourhood built on the riches from a bygone age. Its streets are lined with ornate style churches; neo-classical palaces built by slaves and stuccoed terraced houses. Here one will find historical sites, colonial architectures museums, restaurants, bars, hostels, artisanal shops and music, dancing, and capoeira academies amongst winding cobblestone streets with original colonial era two and three storey buildings stone washed with pastel colours of pale blues, yellows and greens and balconies with original wrought iron railings. In the evenings the whole area comes alive, there are many places of entertainment both along the streets and in the squares with live folklore shows and music typical of the region.

Entering by way of Praca da Se, one passes a life size bronze statue of a Negro warrior with one knee raised holding a Speer. This is Zumbi dos Palmares one of the pioneers of resistance to slavery of Africans by the Portuguese in Brazil. He was the last king of Quilombo dos Palmares, a principle settlement of Afro-Brazilian people who had liberated themselves from enslavement in the north eastern state of Alagoas. Zumbi today is revered in Afro-Brazilian culture as a powerful symbol of resistance against the enslavement of Africans in Brazil. His wife Queen Dandara was also considered a great warrior. Quilombos were communities in Brazil founded by individuals of African descent who had escaped slavery and were called Maroons. Members of Qulilombos  often returned to plantations or towns to encourage slaves to flee, or would take them by force, any who came to Quilombos on their own accord, were considered free, but those that were captured and brought by force were considered slaves and continued to be so in the new settlements. Women of mixed African and European ancestry were also forcibly relocated. In 1694 the Portuguese military launched an assault on Palmares. With the use of artillery as well as a force of Brazilian and indigenous Indian fighters, it took 42 days to defeat Zumbi’s Kingdom. On 6th February 1694 after 67 years of continuous conflict, the Portuguese succeeded in destroying Palmares central settlement. Some resistance continued, but 20th November 1695 Zumbi aged 39 was killed decapitated, and his head displayed on a pike to dispel any legends of his immortality. November 20th is celebrated in Brazil as a day of Afro-Brazilian consciousness.

Further along the square, I come across a Capoeira group practicing their art. Capoeria a martial art of self-defence and mental balance was created by African slaves hundreds of years ago. This can be seen practiced by young people in squares and on the beaches all over the city. Someone playing a traditional instrument called a Berimbau dictates the speed and type of movement performed. In the early days, slaves were punished by their owners if caught fighting, so the music accompanied with chanting, was invented to cover the disturbance of the fighting. The art of Capoeira is uniquely identified with swaying hips, head butts, hand stands and swinging feet. It is very clever, but in modern Capoeria no physical contact is made. After the abolition of slavery in Brazil, capoeira was declared illegal However, by the 1920’s; authorities began to relax enforcement on its prohibition. Today, martial artists travel all over the world helping the art become international recognized and practiced. During November 2014, Capoeira was granted a special protected status as intangible cultural heritage by UNESCO.

I turn the corner at the far side of Praça da Se into an adjoining square Terreiro de Jesus and visit one on my favorite places “O Cravinho “ famous for its Cashasa based drinks. Cashasa is a distilled spirit made from fermented sugarcane syrup, it is cheap, very potent and the most popular spirit in Brazil, enjoyed by all classes from the elite to the alcoholic and your local wino’s. Here one savors a large selection of infused Cashasa’s drawn from wooden kegs lining the dark wood walls. Selections of flavors are available such as Craveno (Cashasa and cloves) Canela (Cashasa and cinnamon) with added flavors as desired such as honey, lemon, passion fruit etc. O Cravinho is an ideal stop off to meet and converse with both tourists and locals. After 4 or 5 tots at 50p a tot, with a bit of a buzz and feeling high, I can happily carry on with my walk and take in the sights and sounds on the way to the Pelourinho or Pillory.

Music of all types can be heard s everywhere in Salvador much of it derived from the African cultures and the influence, customs and beliefs of the various genres that arrived in Brazil. ”Axe” is a popular music that originated in Brazil’s North East during the 80’s fusing different Afro-Caribbean themes with reggae, lambada, calypso and local music such as frevo and forro, it is also present in the Candomble religion. Axe is a Nigerian Yoruba term meaning “soul, light, spirit or good vibrations”. Bahia is the home of many world famous musicians and artists that draw inspiration and utilize their African roots, religion and at times the symbolic of Candomble, also for some, their resistance of the military crackdown of freedom and expression during the military dictatorship following the coup in 1964. The rejection of the military dictatorship brought the whole artistic class together where music and art became a means of resistance. Many artists and singers including Gilberto Gil and Caetano Veloso were arrested imprisoned and tortured during the sixties era of military rule. Later together with many others were forced into exile. Among the many victims was ex Brazilian president (2011 to 2016) Dilma Rousseff, a guerrilla fighter who was imprisoned and tortured for three years.

Walking the steep narrow cobbled streets leading down to the Pelourinho, I pass small hole in the wall type bars and restaurants’ that serve typical local dishes such as everybody’s favorite Moqueca a local seafood stew cooked in a clay pot with dende (red palm oil) coconut milk and spices served with rice and farofa (toasted manioc flower), or another favorite Feijoada the national dish of Brazil, normally served in restaurants and homes all over the country on Sundays. This dish was created by the slaves during the colonial days when they would cook the pork meats such as ears tails and feet discarded by the farmland owners in a big clay pot with black beans. This dish became traditional all over Brazil but has since been enhanced using pork sirloin and sausage.

In the evening the Pelourinho is alive with tourists and locals savouring the atmosphere and music along the streets. Dinner in the restaurants would be accompanied with the music of renown Bahian artists such as Caetano Veloso, Gilberto Gil, Maria Bethania or Gal Costa, whilst around the squares  and along the streets something more vibrant such as Daniela Mercury, Ivete Sangalo and every Afro-Bahano’s  favourite Bob Marley.  Ivete Sangalo is the only artist to have participated in all editions of the concert known as Rock in Rio Lisbon, as well as participating in Rock in Rio Brazil, Spain and United States, a big moment in Axe’s musical history is when she sold out Madison Square Garden in 2010.

The Pelourinho was the central area of Salvador during the colonial period, a large cobble stoned triangular area where the slave auctions took place, however got its name for the whipping post in the plaza where the slaves were publicly beaten as punishment for alleged misbehaviour and infractions, it is a designated UNESCO World Heritage site for its churches and colonial architectures dating from the 17th century and remains a cultural hub for the Afro-Brazilian. Here you will hear the drums of Olodum. Olodum was formed as an African cultural group to perform in the Salvador carnival of 1980 and their popularity grew until they became known worldwide as an African-Brazilian percussion band. What was supposed to be an entertainment option for the residents of the Pelourinho went on to become one of the most prestigious Brazilian musical groups that have since performed in more than thirty countries on all continents. The biggest moments of Olodum can be seen on videos performing in the Pelourinho participating with Paul Simon recording “The Obvious Child” and with Michael Jackson recording his video, “They Don’t Really Care About Us” which featured 200 members of the band playing their different kinds of drums to Salvador’s samba-reggae music The media interest surrounding these music videos exposed Olodum to 140 countries around the world.

Half way down the hill of the Pelourinho there is a pale blue church which is another important place in the history of Salvador’s slaves.  Listed as a historic structure is “de Nossa Senhora do Rosário dos Pretos.” Our Lady Rosary of Black People was built by the enslaved from 1704, the construction took almost a hundred years to complete. Members of the brotherhood community were poor and the building was constructed by members in their free hours, it required the labour of skilled carpenters, masons and iron workers. Religious or not, it is well worth attending a service here where the liturgy of the mass makes use of music inspired by Candomble to the sound of Afro-Brazilian hand drums, chants and dancing, a catholic mass that incorporates elements of African culture.

I normally return home via the short walk back to Praça Tome de Souza and take the Lacerdo Elevator down to the lower city. There is an amazing bird’s eye view from the entrance of the elevator of the lower city’s, small boat harbour, the Mercado Modelo and the cylindrical Forte de Sao Marcelo or Saint Marcelo Fort situated about 300 meters out at sea built on reefs. (Jorge Amado referred to it as the Belly button of Bahia). Its circular walls protect it from attack on any side. Internally it consists of a low central tower, ten meters of surrounding patio and the outer perimeter building. There is a water cistern, dungeon, a chapel and a gunpowder warehouse under the central tower. The fort has been the city’s first line of defence since the original one was completed in 1623 and played an important role defending the city from attacks by the Dutch during Dutch rule of Northeast Brazil between 1630 and 1654. The fort served as a political prison in the 19th century.

Whilst still absorbing the views from above, it is exhilarating 30 seconds later arriving at the lower level and stepping out to the busy Rua de Conceicao da Praia and the lower city. A short walk turning left will bring you to the historic church of Nossa Senhora da Conceicao da Pria Our Lady of Conception of the Beach. The church originally sat close to the sea front and was a place of worship for sailors and tradesman arriving in Brazil. The church is historic, the only Moorish style (Islamic architecture) church in Brazil and well worth a visit. Between the top of the central walls is written in Arabic script “This is the House of God, this is the Gate to Heaven”. Two things of note are the historical Machado Cerveira 1815 pipe organ which sits high above the entrance and the small original mud walled chapel, hidden behind the main church at the base of slope between the upper and lower city. This was the original church built personally by six Jesuit Clergymen in 1549. The early church has been kept in ruins and is very simple with candles crucifixes above a small alter with an effigy of Our Lady of the Beach, three simple wooden crosses a small pew and half a dozen dark wooden chairs. There is a window from where you can see the staircase that was the churches original connection between the lower city and upper city.

However, my walk today takes me across to the other side of the road and another of Salvador’s historic buildings the Mercado Modelo, claimed to be the largest handicraft market in Latin America. The building was the original customs house and where slaves were held when first arriving in Salvador. Years later, it became a commercial  centre where it was possible to purchase items as varied as vegetables, cereals, animals, cigars, cashasa and items for Candomble. Today it houses over 250 market stalls selling a variety of handy crafts, gifts, cashasa based liquors, and souvenirs typical of Bahia visited by more than 80% of tourists visiting the city. The building suffered a number of fires over the years, the last and most serious in 1986. After reconstruction it reopened as Mercado Modelo. On November 3rd, 1968 Queen Elizabeth II and the Duke of Edinburg visited Salvador. The Governor held a reception for her at the Aclamacao Palace where amongst the guests was Jorge Amado. She visited a number of historic places including Sao Francisco Church, the Sacred Art Museum and the market building before returning to the Royal Yacht Britannia and departing for Rio de Janeiro.

On the upper floor you will find one of the most famous restaurants in Bahia and Brazil, Restaurante Maria de Sao Pedro with more than eighty years of existence. Maria de Sao Pedro was born in Santo Amaro da Purificacao 28 June 1901, but lived most of her life in Salvador. She started from serving local food from a small street side stall in the heart of the lower city where her small business grew as did her fame, she moved to the Mercado Model in 1949, and over time her restaurant became renowned for both her exclusive Afro-Brazilian cuisine and a meeting point for celebrities, politicians and the city elite. Jorge Amado was a regular client and Orson Welles whilst filming in Brazil fell in love with her Bahian dishes of Bobo de Camarao, Vatapa and Acaca etc. accompanied with a Caparinho. Queen Elizabeth II also paid a visit to the restaurant.

The Mercado Modelo is where my walk to the historical centre ends today, but not to wander around the souvenir stores or check out Maria’s exotic dishes. My destination is the restaurant’s terrace looking out over All Saints Bay and in the distance the exotic island of Itaparica. Salvador always reserves a show at each sunset. Over a couple of beers I watch the sky change colour and the sun slowly disappearing  behind the island the other side of the bay which tells me it’s time to make my way home. They say that you will never tire of the fabulous sunsets in Salvador.

More by this author in his newly-published biography, Happy Jack: Reflections of Growing Up During the Sixties – A Decade of Rebellion, Change and Defining Moments

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