Salvador is the capital of the state of Bahia. It’s big! As the 4th largest city in Brazil, after São Paulo, Rio de Janeiro and Brasilia, it has around 2.9 million people living there.
Poverty invades the city’s sprawl, noticeable as you travel in and out by bus.
Despite being one of the most crime-ridden cities in the country, it has an interesting history – worth reading more about if you are so inclined. It was the latter rather than the former that enticed us to spend a couple of days here. Although – shamefully or sensibly you decide – we stayed in the safer area of Rio Vermelho and took taxis to and from the places we wanted to see.
After being founded by the Portuguese in 1549 as the first capital of Brazil, it is one of the oldest colonial cities in the Americas. Thankfully, historic architecture from this period is still showcased today in the beautifully picturesque UNESCO World Heritage-listed district of the Pelhourinho, situated in the Upper Town.
Wandering the cobbled lanes, we felt nervous about the hidden dangers around us. Armed police guarded corners, whilst a hustle and bustle could disguise opportunist thiefs.
As we rounded one corner in a taxi, three men were being held up by police. “Probably guns,” commented our driver.
It’s hard to imagine now, but during its colonial times Salvador had considerable wealth and status, which you can see reflected in these magnificent buildings, as well as its plethora of historic churches and palaces. We didn’t get to see them all, but good examples include:
– Cathedral of Salvador. Former Jesuit church of the city it is an example of Mannerist architecture and decor.
– Igreja da Ordem Terceira de Nossa Senhora do Rosário dos Preto.
– Convent and church of São Francisco. Its Baroque decoration is meant to be among the finest in Brazil.
– Church of Nosso Senhor do Bonfirm. A Rococo church with neo-classical decoration, it is the most famous in Salvador. January’s Festa de Nosso Senhor do Bonfim is the most important in the city after Carnival.
– Lacerda Elevator (Elevador Lacerda). Inaugurated in 1873, it connects the 72 metres between the the upper city and the lower city. In each run, which lasts for 22 seconds, the elevator transports 128 people, 24 hours a day.
It’s wonderful to appreciate the Pelhourinho, but, after its UNESCO listing in 1985, there was a major project to clean and restore the neighborhood in favour of tourism. However, this was at cost to the thousands who lived there. Their forced removal to the city’s periphery has resulted in significant economic hardship, as they are now separated from access to work and civic amenities. It’s a sorry story.
Regardless of its problems, the city’s rich heritage – not solely its beautiful buildings – shouts loudly from every street. As the first slave port in the Americas, the influence of the slaves’ descendants makes it a centre of Afro-Brazilian culture. Vying for attention, are its delicious cuisine, lively music and fabulous dancing.
It is clear that the Salvadorans like to party. In fact, their February Carnival celebrations are said to be the largest in the world (even Rio!). Arriving at the end of June, we sadly missed the Festa Junina or Festa de São João (a month long celebration of the nativity of St. John the Baptist) that takes place everywhere in Bahia.
Bound, on a 5-6 hour bus journey, for the safety and tranquility of Lencois and the promise of Chapada Diamentina’s stunning landscapes, we, not unhappily, left the tension of Salvador behind us. Everyone we meet in Brazil, including Brazilians, tell the same tale of the fear they feel here. It’s a crying shame for such a fascinating place.