Salvador Da Bahia – Sensuous & Soulful

To see the real Brazil, head for the capital of the Brazilian state of Bahia, whose official name is Sao Salvador da Bahia de Todos los Santos (Holy Savior of the Bay of All Saints) – a.k.a. Salvador… often just called Bahia.

When you’re flying on down from Miami (and now American Airlines provides the only daily nonstop flights) or flying up from Rio, the air ticket reads Salvador—geographically on the South American continent, but spiritually bound to Africa.

Brazil was born in Salvador and christened a Portuguese colony in 1549. It served as Brazil’s capital for over 200 years. The first settlers, made up of soldiers of fortune and exiles in royal disfavor, found no great Indian civilizations such as the Maya and the Incas, hence they also found no workers for building. Labor was imported and Bahia became the slave trade center of the east coast. More than half the present population is of African descent, originally brought here to work the gold mines and sugar fields, and centuries later, the city still looks and feels more Afro-European than Latin, with modern trappings, of course.

Other more visible characteristics of this intriguing mixed heritage are dozens of churches and hundreds of terreiros or houses of candomble, the prevailing voodoo cult. One of the advantages of having two religions—Christian saints and African gods (calledorixas) intermingle in everyone’s devotions—is that there are twice the number of festivals. Here, it’s an annual parade of piety and gaiety that starts in early January when hundreds of costumed women wash Our Lord Bofim Church and festoon it with flowers.Carnaval, of course, is a moveable feast, falling March 4-9 in 2011, and other traditional festivals include the important Sao Joao Festival on June 23, while the Bembe do Mercado Festival (May 10-13) celebrates the end of slavery in Brazil (1888). And between saint days and holidays, there are almost weekly excuses for some kind of a carnival of dancing and merrymaking.

Physically, Salvador is a hillside port, built in two sections, upper and lower, which are connected by an unusual mass transit system of giant elevators and funiculars. The ideal panorama of this beautiful place is from mid-harbor, viewing Salvador sprawling in both directions along the coast to meet miles of excellent beaches. Vertically, between the waterfront and clifftops, pastel-colored houses, exuberant baroque churches and stone fortifications mix with high-rise buildings in a patchwork of shapes and hues. Must-see attractions include the gilded San Francisco Church—Brazil’s most dazzling—and the former Convent of St. Teresa, with its immense collection of sacred art. Although most of the city’s splendid church interiors are heavy on baroque detail and reckless with gold leaf, one favorite—relatively simple and probably one of the last to be built—is Rosario dos Pretos, constructed by slaves for their own use.

Here in the upper town’s historic Pelourinho district—a UNESCO World Heritage Site—visitors also find a bevy of intriguing boutiques selling jewelry, clothes, naïve paintings and woodcarvings, and shops share the streets with impromptu performances of music and street dancing. In the lower city, a best-bet market is Mercado Modelo, a multi-level building chock-full of crafts offered by some 300 merchants, as well as two appealing rooftop restaurants with panoramic views of All Saints Bay. To get a feel for Salvador’s excellent arts and crafts traditions, the Instituto de Artesanato Visconde de Maua, supporting local artists, is the place to go. Gemstones are the basis of another kind of Brazilian art, and no one should miss a visit to the H. Stern jewelry shop and a chance to walk though its brilliant replica of a gem mine.

The city’s finest Bahian restaurant, Casa da Gamboa, is on the second floor of a colonial mansion in the Pelourinho neighborhood, and in its own colonial quarters on Pelourinho Square is SENAC, the acronym for an important Bahia restaurant and hotel school, where during lunch and dinner, diners confront a buffet of 40 labeled Bahian dishes in its long, long dining room.

Solar do Unhao, a nightclub in a fortress-like structure that served in colonial times as the slave quarters for a sugar estate, is on every visitor’s entertainment list. Their descendants now put on a flashy show with folk themes and local music, building to the super-sexy lambada, a Brazilian invention that enjoyed a brief vogue in the U.S. But the high point of the show is capoeira, whose roots are in a kind of African marital art form, evolving today into a real dance in which “combatants” whirl, duck, twist and flip to the one-string berimbau and increasingly fevered drumming.