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Brazil’s oldest city and the birth place of Carnival!
The cultural epicentre of Afro-Brazil…
The city of Salvador, also known as São Salvador da Bahia de Todos os Santos (Holy Saviour of the Bay of All Saints) is the capital of the state of Bahia. It is the largest city in the North East (Nordeste) of Brazil and the fourth largest city in the country. Salvador was founded by the Portuguese empire in 1549, as the location of the colony’s first capital. This makes it one of the oldest European colonial cities in the Americas.
Salvador has traditionally been the centre of the North East’s rich agricultural industry, starting with the sugar industry in the 16th century. By 1600, Brazil was the largest producer of sugar in the world and Salvador was centre of this trade. As a result, it was a region that was very hungry for slaves from Africa as labour to maintain this production. Hence, Salvador became one of the first slave ports established in the Americas, and one of the largest. Throughout the colonial period, people of African ancestry made up the vast majority of Salvador’s population. This had a major effect on the culture that was to develop there. African, Portuguese, and Indigenous cultures were in very close proximity and this created a unique culture that, one could argue, became the essence of modern Brazil. Today, it is approximated that between 48 and 52 per cent of the population has African and/or mixed ancestry.
Modern Salvador is one of the most beautiful cities in the world. It has natural beauty, amazing history and architecture, tasty and unique local food and a vibrant culture and nightlife.
Salvador boasts 80km of spectacular beaches. In fact, tell a Brazilian that you are going to Salvador and they will usually comment on the beauty of the beaches and recommend a favourite which you must visit. Salvador categorises these as High City (facing the Atlantic Ocean) and Low City (facing All Saints Bay/ Baía de Todos os Santos) beaches. There is a beach for everyone as are calm and ideal for bathing, some are surrounded by rock pools and rock platforms (which appear to be very popular with locals), and some have strong waves and are ideal for surfing.
Like all the beaches across Brazil, Salvador’s beaches are covered with umbrellas and deck chairs that you can hire. They are also teaming with local people selling beer (cerveja), coconut water (agua de coco), grilled cheeses and seafoods on skewers (espetinhos) and even hot soup!!
Many beaches host incredible parties that go all-day and all-night, you will hear the speakers blasting out axe, funk and pop music.
Salvador’s most famous beach is the Porto da Barra Beach.
A city beach positioned on the entrance to All Saints Bay and located in the Barra neighbourhood. It is very pretty, being surrounded by delightful old buildings, such as a white 17th century fort, and a 16th century church. The water is calm, clear and warm all year round, this makes it popular with families with children. It is also in very close proximity to bars, cafes, restaurants and night clubs that are open all night. It is the closest beach to the historic Pelourinho tourist district and is therefore very popular with tourists and locals alike – very busy.
It is one of the few beaches in Brazil where you can view the sunsetting over water. It is common to see people lined up along the beach, at the end of the day, performing a standing ovation to the sun as it sets (a rather endearing Brazilian tradition).
The beach is easy to visit via bus, Uber or taxi.
Centro Histórico de Salvador, or the Pelourinho (pillory), is a historic neighbourhood found within the bounds of the colonial city centre. It is a marvellous and romantic experience for anyone that appreciates colourful colonial architecture, historic monuments, period dramas, and/or is a big fan of Michael Jackson. And even though it is the tourist centre of Salvador, it is not exceptionally busy or crowded, which makes it all feel slightly more authentic.
The name Pelourinho, comes from the whipping post that was found in the central plaza. Tragically, this location was where countless African slaves were publicly whipped as punishment for alleged infringements. This is Salvador’s colonial city centre and today the neighbourhood is comprised of several blocks that surround the Largo do Pelourinho.
The Pelourinho is covered with more than 800 traditional structures that were restored in the 1990s. Amazing churches with the most ornate carved decorations. Impressive buildings that were the offices of civil and military institutions. Even the houses and shopfronts are something to marvel with their unique pastel colours and many have attractive ornaments decorating the entrances. In certain parts you will even be impressed by the street and poster art. Another component to this neighbourhood that makes it particularly fun and unique are the Baianas (Bahian women) walking around in historic buildings in vibrant traditional dress. Some of these women are practitioners of Candomblé (see below); however, many are also street performers that you can pay to take a photo with. Regardless of their motives, they look great and really make the atmosphere special.
Finally, you will notice many references to Michael Jackson, while in the Pelourinho. This is because MJ used the Pelourinho and its colourful streets as the setting of his hit ‘They Don’t Care About Us’. Watch the music video while you are there, and you will recognise the various sights. Also, you will notice the samba-reggae Carnival percussion group, known as Olodum, that was made world famous by being featured in this music video. Today, the students of the Olodum school can be seen rehearsing and marching up and down the winding laneways and streets.
Farol da Barra Lighthouse
Positioned within the Forte de Santo Antônio da Barra, constructed to guard the entrance to All Saints Bay. The modern lighthouse was built in England in the 1830s. This location provides a great view of All Saints Bay and the Atlantic Ocean. However, for a nice view of the lighthouse and Praia do Farol da Barra, walk to the top of Morro do Cristo, a hill with a statue of Jesus Christ on top, located at the eastern end of Praia do Farol da Barra.
The Church of Nosso Senhor do Bonfim
The most famous Catholic church in Salvador and one of the most revered religious sites in Brazil. Although Catholic, it is also significant for practitioners of the Candomblé faith. Festa do Bonfim, takes places on the second Thursday following January 6th (Three Kings Day). Faithful worshipers gather in front of the Basilica of the Conception (Basílica Nossa Senhora da Conceição da Praia) in the commercial district of Salvador, and form a precession to the hill of Bonfim. This precession is led by baianas associated with Candomblé, in their all-white outfits, turbans, and long hoop skirts (just like those seen in the Pelourinho). When at the steps of Bonfim, these ladies perform a ritual called Lavagem do Bonfim (Washing of the Bonfim) in which they wash the steps and square, in front of the church, while dancing and reciting chants in the Yoruba language. Tourists are welcome to be present at this ceremony because it is a community celebration.
One thing that makes this church extra special is the gates at the entrance to the church are covered in thousands of little ribbons of various colours, making an incredible rainbow effect. The ribbon is known as a fita do Senhor do Bonfim (tape of the Lord of Bonfim), on it reads the phrase Lembrança do Senhor do Bonfim da Bahia (In Remembrance of the Lord of Bonfim of Bahia). These ribbons are purchased from vendors in the courtyard and can be tied onto the gate with three knots, or on your left wrist, using three knots. The custom is you can make a wish for each of the three knots; however, they will only come true if you allow the ribbon to fall off naturally. If you choose you wrist, tradition states a baiano (person born in Bahia) must tie the knots for you. Also, in the days that these were made of cotton, they disintegrated rather quickly. Today they are made of nylon and can take years to disintegrate. So, be prepared to commit for those wishes!!!
An Afro-Brazilian religion that can trace it roots back to the traditions and religions of West Africa, the indigenous peoples in the area, and of Portuguese Roman Catholicism. Developing between the 16th and 19th centuries amongst the enslaved African populations across Brazil. Candomblé is monotheistic, believing in a supreme ruler in the Heavens, known as Oludumaré. However, Oludumaré is not worshiped directly. Rather, the seven Orixás (who can also be identified as Catholic Saints) are venerated as the intermediaries of this supreme being.
Candomblé means to “dance in honour of the gods”. Music and dance are important parts of Candomblé ceremonies today.
The houses of worship are known as terreiros, and located across the city. Most rituals and ceremonies are private and only attended by the initiated. However, there are ceremonies that are open to the public which are most fascinating.
The women typically wear crisp, Baroque inspired costumes, decorated with lace and bright tropical jewellery. The skirt is long, down nearer the ankle, and shaped with a hoop. The headdress is worn like a layered turban. However, on Friday believers wear white in devotion to the Orixá, Oxalá.
In Salvador, you will notice a great amount of respect is given to the Orixá known as Iemanjá. Commonly referred to as a Rainha do mar – the queen of the sea. She is associated with water, children and fertility.
During the transatlantic slave trade, Iemanjá was very significant to the African people that had to make the long treacherous voyage of the Middle Passage. Those who survived the passage venerated Iemanjá for carrying them across her domain safely. Devotion to Iemanja could be practiced with relative freedom by the enslaved Africans, under the cloak of devotion to the Virgin Mary and her similarities with the Orixá. Roman Catholicism was a pivotable component in Portuguese society at the time and being a seafaring Empire, there was a strong devotion to Nossa Senhora dos Navegantes (Our Lady of the Navigators). The African slave communities managed to syncretised her with Iemanjá, thus developing Candomblé in the process.
Iemanjá is celebrated on the same day consecrated by the Catholic Church to Nossa Senhora dos Navegantes. Every February 2, thousands of people line up at dawn to leave their offerings at her shrine in Rio Vermelho. An effigy of Iemanja is also carried into the water from the beach, along with symbolic offerings.
Feira de Sao Joaquim
For a truly authentic experience, stray from the tourist path and find your way to the Feria de Sao Joaquim – the grower’s market. As you wander through this market you will notice you are the only gringo there, in fact, the more affluent people in Salvador don’t go there either. If you are a bit anxious about going alone then I highly recommend hiring a guide who knows the place back to front (here is a good one you can contact on Facebook before you arrive).
You will be mesmerised by the exotic fruits and vegetables, the truck loads of drinking coconuts (I presume this is where all the vendors on the beaches get them), the beautiful arrangements of vibrantly coloured chilies (pimenta) and various shades of red dried prawns (camarrão seco), and all the other essentials for Baiana cooking, such as palm oil (azeite de dendê), dry beans (feijão), limes (limão) and meat offal (miudezas de carne). But what I think you will find most fascinating are the stalls dedicated to supplying Salvador’s spiritual needs. Rows of intricate religious statues and idols of all shapes and sizes – Catholic Saints, Candomblé orixás, and various talismans. Incenses, dried and fresh plants, herbs and fruits for potions and offerings. And many different ceremonial items for all the religions.
The food of Brazil is heavily influenced by African culture; however, in Salvador the food is particularly unique in that some of the recipes are almost exact replicas of what you may find being sold in markets across Ghana, Benin, or Sierra Leone. Like these countries, the key ingredients in Baiana cooking are dried shrimp, coconut (coco), palm oil, okras (quiabo), beans, rice (arroz) and cassava (mandioca).
There are many, many traditional Baiano recipes (receitas) but let’s look at the most well-known in Salvador.
A fritter, of West African origin, made of mashed black-eye peas and deep-fried in red palm oil. The acarajé is usually served with dried shrimp, vatapá (a paste made of ground shrimp, coconut milk, bread, peanuts, and palm oil), chilli sauce (molho de pimenta) and / or vinaigrette salsa. The flavour of acarajé is rather unique due to it being deep-fried in palm oil, that has a very distinct taste.
This is the official food of Salvador de Bahia, traditionally served by Baianas, in their traditional dresses and headwear. There are over 500 acarajé stalls across Salvador. These are cultural treasures because Baianas have been selling acarajé in this way since the 19th century. Prior to abolition of slavery in 1888, many acarajé vendors were using the proceeds of their sales to purchase the freedom of enslaved family members. However, acarajé is not only of historic cultural significance, it is also an important component of the ritual food offerings to the orixás in Candomblé, still to this day.
Carnival kicks off in Salvador on the Thursday before Ash Wednesday and officially runs for six days, until the midday of Ash Wednesday. Unofficially, carnival includes several days events leading up to, and following the official festival. Essentially, it means you can party for 12 days (if you have the endurance to do so).
The festival takes place across many locations in the city, all at the same time. The largest and most popular circuits being the Barra-Ondina circuit, the Campo Grande circuit and the Pelourinho. Approximately 2.5 million people are estimated to attend each year (keep in mind these are pre-covid numbers) and more than half are tourists (domestic tourists, more so than gringos).
Carnival Salvador has a very diverse selection of music genres and performances and has more Afro-Brazilian influence than many of the other Carnival festas across the country. The big acts are the trio electico parades, which are essentially a large truck that has had its trailer converted into an open float. Designed with all the fucntionality of a large concert stage, the performers sing, dance, and play music on it as the vehicle drives slowly along the circuit. The revellers all follow beside, and behind it, partying and dancing. You can expect to see many famous performers on these trio electricos. Afoxe and Afro-Blocos are community organisations that perform on the streets during carnival and promote pride in the city’s African heritage. The blocos are very popular and have huge followings. They are much more raw, traditional and authentic, as many are not commercialised as the larger events tend to be.
Samba is universal sound of Brazilian Carnival, however, in Bahia, there is also alot of samba-reggae (Oludum), pagode, but the main focus is on axé music (you fill find examples of each below).