Recife is a major Brazilian city on the northeast coast. It is the closest part of South America to Africa. As you can imagine, the city is full of history. Long ago, when I was living in New York, I briefly met a Recife native. When he talked about his city, his face lit up. He said that Olinda, a very old and historic district of greater Recife, was beautiful. Since then, a visit to Recife has been on my (long) list of places to explore. At last, here was the opportunity.
We took a tour of some highlights of the city, including the Old City, Olinda, and Boa Viagem Beach.
The Portuguese first arrived in 1500. From the 1530s, Portuguese settlers established sugar cane farms throughout this region of Brazil. They found a collection of hills that rose above the shoreline, that enjoyed sea breezes, and afforded good defensive views of the coast. It is said that one of the first Portuguese to appreciate the place, Duarte Coelho, exclaimed, “Oh linda situação para construir uma vila” (What a beautiful place to construct a village). From then on, the settlement was known as Olinda, or Beautiful.
The reputation of the current Olinda is a colorful town with steep winding streets and an arty vibe. I was disappointed that our tour didn’t allow us time to explore much on foot, and taking photos from the moving van was not very successful.
The tour stopped first at the Metropolitan Cathedral of Holy Saviour of the World atop the hills of Olinda. The first chapel was built here in 1537. Over the centuries, and even relatively recently, the church has been renovated, rebuilt and adjusted many times.
For us, the best part of this stop were the lovely views over the city of Recife and its coast.
Being a tourist tour, we were deposited before a short demonstration of a local dance called frevo. Frevo has interesting origins. Competition among Carnival bands and performers goes way back. It was usual that gangs of young men would precede their favorite bands, showing off their capoeira moves (Brazilian martial art), and getting into deadly knife fights with rival gangs. In reaction to police interventions, the gangs replaced their knives (or concealed them?) with black umbrellas. Over time the umbrellas grew colorful and capoeira moves transformed into festive athletic dance moves.
During the 16th century and the first two decades of the 17th century, the Portuguese and Dutch enjoyed a mutually beneficial arrangement. The Portuguese produced cane and other products in the New World; the Dutch distributed the products with their extensive trading infrastructure. However, in 1580, the kingdoms of Portugal and Spain merged; the Spanish and Dutch did not have good relations. The Dutch trading monopoly was lost. So the Dutch sought their own producing territories. In 1630, the Dutch invaded Olinda and took over the region around it.
Our guide explained that that Dutch preferred the flat lands beneath the hills of Olinda, perhaps because they more resembled the landscape of Holland. The pulled down the Portuguese buildings of Olinda for construction materials for their new city along the waterways next to the sea. They established what is today the Old City of Recife. Along the riverfront and Rua da Aurora, we could see remnants of the Dutch city.
In Republic Plaza in Old Recife, a statue of Johan Maurits van Nassau-Siegen, the Dutch governor of Brazil in the 17th century, stares at the governor’s palace of the state of Pernambuco. Notice the elephants on his shoulders, which are perhaps expression of Dutch imperial ambitions.
Johan Maurits van Nassau-Siegen established the first zoo and botanical garden at this location. Today, an immense and immensely old baobab tree from Africa inhabits a corner of Republic Plaza. No one knows how the tree came to be here. Perhaps the governor had seeds brought from Africa. Perhaps African slaves brought the seeds. Or perhaps migratory birds from (relatively) nearby Senegal deposited the seeds in this spot.
By 1654, the Portuguese had retaken Recife, Olinda and the region. They rebuilt Olinda, but the new Dutch-founded city, with its ports and warehouses, had become the commercial and political center of the city, which it remains to this day. Modern greater Recife is home for more than 4 million people.
Early in the 16th century, the Jesuits established the Church and Convent of Saint Antony. Destroyed during the Dutch occupation, it was rebuilt by the Portuguese during the last half of the 17th century.
One room commemorates a visit by a pope. Standing mannequins in the attire of their roles face the pope. They are only heads and hands. Ghostly sisters wait serenely.
In 1696, the Franciscan Order began construction of a chapel within the Saint Antony complex. Work on the chapel continued through the 18th century. This was a time of great prosperity in the region. The order commissioned elaborate gold-covered-wood decoration throughout the chapel. Hence its current common name, The Golden Chapel.
Blue and white tiles cover the the bases of the walls of the chapel. The scenes rendered on the tiles tell biblical stories. Just like the stained-glass windows of European gothic churches, these images were designed to explain the Bible to illiterate viewers.
Among the many paintings along the walls is one that unflinchingly shows what happened to Franciscan missionaries in Japan. They were not accepted there; they were crucified. A zealot later obscured the faces of the tormentors.
Our last stop was brief: at the Boa Viagem (bon voyage, or good trip) urban beach. A boulevard of prosperous apartment towers edged the beach park. It was a sunny hot day with some wind. The beach was busy; people relaxed beneath red umbrellas. The air was fresh and salty.
The guide said that under no circumstances should we go swimming. Sharks will eat you! And there are dangerous currents, and even dangerous submerged objects. Can you imagine having a beachfront apartment without being able to go in the water? The more nuanced explanation is that when the tide is low, and the area by the beach is protected by the reef, swimming is safe because the sharks stay outside! Sharks weren’t always a problem here. Some years ago, the powers-that-be decided to build a new large commercial port south of the city. They ripped out huge areas of mangroves and other natural habitats along the shore. Those habitats had provided the food supply for the sharks. Without that food supply, the sharks naturally looked elsewhere for dinner. Imagine living in a nice apartment overlooking a tropical beach — where you wouldn’t survive a morning swim!
We sailed away from Recife port at sunset. We witnessed how very large the city is, and how well it frames a sunset.