From my first walk through the achingly beautiful Pelourinho, Salvador da Bahia's historic center -- actually no, maybe from the breakfast table in my pousada on my first morning here -- Salvador was high on my mental wishlist of places to return to in my lifetime. I am so grateful I was able to visit this incredible city on my trip to Brazil this summer, but three days was just not enough to take in all the pastel-hued 17th and 18th-century buildings, tropical breezes, and reverberating drum beats.
Salvador da Bahia was the capital of colonial Brazil from 1549 to 1763, and functioned as a major port of the country's sugarcane industry and African slave trade. The city's wealth, and the displays of such richness in its opulent baroque architecture, relied heavily on the labor of enslaved Africans.
On my first day in Salvador, nothing could tear me away from the historic zone that was the center of so much of this history, the Pelourinho, which takes its name from the "pelourinho" or whipping post where enslaved blacks were exposed and beaten. From my pousada at the north end of the historic city center, I wound southward, stopping at every museum and church that I could on my way down the Largo do Carmo, the Rua São Francisco, and finally the main praça, Terreiro de Jesus.
Igreja Nossa Senhora do Rosário dos Pretos, begun in 1704 and built over the next 100 years, was a worship space for the enslaved and freed black population in Salvador. The beautiful azulejos and the painted ceiling reminded me of churches I had seen in Minas Gerais.
Further south in the Pelourinho, or Pelô for short, was the church and convent of São Francisco, the ultimate showpiece of Bahia's baroque wealth. Finished in 1723, the walls of the nave and chancel are covered in gold-leaf carvings, crafted by enslaved Africans who were prohibited from practicing their own religion. The courtyard displays an enveloping array of azulejos that were transported from Portugal in the 1740s. The imagery on the tiles is derived from the paintings of the Flemish artist Otto van Veen -- yet another iteration of visual forms transmitted across the Atlantic.
I stopped for lunch at the Senac culinary school buffet, a delicious lunch option for just about $6. Senac also has a small Bahian gastronomy museum, which confirmed what my tastebuds had told me -- Bahian food is a lot spicier than foods I had tried in other areas of Brazil! Traditional Bahian food has an African influence, with ingredients like coconut cream, tomato, hot malagneta peppers, coriander, and dende oil from a palm that grows in Brazil and in West and Central African countries.
Salvador is situated on a cliff overlooking the Baía de Todos os Santos, or the Bay of All Saints. The geography divides the city into an upper and a lower portion, and from the cidade alta, or upper city, there are stunning views at sunset -- the only place in Brazil where the sun appears to be setting over the water. The following images show the lower city from the top of the impressive art deco Elevador Lacerda, and the sunset from a lovely cafe in the Pelô called Cafélier.
Here is that famous sunset from the Praia Porto da Barra, where my new Bahian friends, Lara and Davi, introduced me to acarajé (shrimp and bean fritters), and beach cheese -- a delicious, delicious snack of queijo fresco that is roasted over coals, covered in oregano and molasses, and served on a stick. Brazil's oldest lighthouse, the Farol da Barra which dates to 1698, guards this shore.
Seemingly no weekend in Salvador is complete without Saturday night jazz and bossa nova concerts at the Museu de Arte Moderna, also known as "JAM no MAM." I went with Lara and Davi, who graciously set aside extra time for me to explore the building -- originally an 18th-century factory called Solar do Unhão. Lina Bo Bardi rehabbed this colonial complex in the early 1960s. She inserted a giant spiraling stair into one of the galleries, left rails in the cobblestones on the lower level, and tied everything together with her characteristic red details.
Salvador is the center of Afro-Brazilian culture in Brazil -- from music to religion to dance and martial-arts traditions. Candomblé is practiced here, a Bahian religion developed from a synthesis of Yoruba, Fon, and Bantu beliefs brought from West Africa, with elements of Catholicism. Capoeira, a Brazilian martial-art dating to the 16th century, also comes from Bahia. Capoeira's origins are debated among scholars, but it is agreed that enslaved Afro-Brazilians played a critical role in the development of the art form that combines dance, acrobatics, and music. Capoeira was banned at different points during Brazil's history until as recently as the 1920s. In 2014, UNESCO granted capoeira protected status as "intangible cultural heritage."
Here is a glimpse at one of the many drumming groups that dazzle tourists like me in the Pelô. The video cannot fully convey the experience of seeing one of these groups in person -- how the drum beats seem to pound inside you, and the way in which the sounds multiply in force, ricocheting off the centuries-old walls. I attended the fabulous Balé Folclórico, too, but naturally, photos weren't allowed during the performance. I got to see several Candomblé dances as well as some jaw-dropping capoeira -- back flips on the small stage!
I capped off my time in Salvador with a visit to the church of Nosso Senhor do Bonfim, which functions as a center of Candomblé religion and Catholic syncretism. Candomblistas honor their highest deity, Oxalá, here, who they associate with Nosso Senhor do Bonfim (Our Lord of the Good End). The church of Nosso Senhor do Bonfim is know for its fitas, or colorful ribbons, that carry wishes and prayers of the faithful, adorning the church's exterior gate as well as its altar. The ribbons also serve as a souvenir from the church and are seen throughout Salvador and Brazil. The day was not complete without coconut ice cream from Sorveteria da Ribeira -- after about a dozen Bahians told me this was a must-try!