Rio’s 10 secrets not in guidebooks

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In these times of low spirits – in Rio, even Carnival is under threat – it’s necessary to look for alternatives, to leave behind routine and, instead of only complaining, to find solutions. That was how, thinking of solutions, I remembered the secrets of Rio. Every city has its secret points, places that are almost never on the tourist routes. Landscapes and buildings, old or new, that sometimes not even Cariocas know. Or they’ve heard of them, but have never been there.

I made a list of ten of these secrets, some very well kept, others not so much: there are those that we always pass through without realizing they are there. Others we know by name, but that’s it. They are places with charm, mystery or history. Or with all of these things combined. And landscapes too, which aren’t lacking in Rio. The secrets of Rio are so great that they were worth making a guide about – “Secret Rio” by Manoel de Almeida e Silva, Marcio Roiter and Thomas Jonglez – but I made my own list. And, I repeat, such a list may include places that are right there under our noses, but which we know little or nothing of.


São José Church
Downtown (av. Presidente Antonio Carlos, s/nº)

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This church has a secret. Those who enter its central aisle, especially on weekdays, to appreciate the rococo style interior (c. 1842), realize at once a strange ritual. In the hallway to the right, people are waiting, forming a line. One by one, people go up to the altar – while the others keep waiting – and disappear behind it. A few minutes go by. The person who disappeared reappears on the other side, on the left, and only then does the next one in the line go up to the altar, also to disappear.

What is the secret behind Saint Joseph’s altar? It’s an image of the saint, before whom people will pray. Not just any image: it shows a very old Joseph, dying, surrounded, on his deathbed, by Mary and Jesus. Life-size. It’s impressive. I heard that churches for Saint Joseph, all over the world, have an esoteric symbology, a relationship with the Templars. There are temples dedicated to the saint that carry on the walls the symbols of the zodiac, they assured me. I don’t know if there’s anything magical there. But popular wisdom says that whoever enters the Igreja de São José for the first time must go behind the altar and make a request – and their wish will be answered. It doesn’t cost to try.

Belas Artes Portal
Jardim Botânico (rua Jardim Botânico, 1.008)

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Those who enter the Botanical Garden through the main gate and go to the end the alleyway lines with imperial palms will pass through a lake and end up in a bamboo grove. There, surrounded by greenery, you will find a two-storey building, consisting of an archway on the ground floor and an upper part with columns.

It looks like the facade of a neoclassical palace, but it’s just a portal, the front part of a building that was, like so many, demolished sometime in the past. This is the portal of the Imperial Academy of Fine Arts, designed by the French architect Grandjean de Montigny (1776-1850). Granjean de Montigny, as well as the painter Debret, came to Rio in 1816, as part of the so-called French Mission, a team of professionals that the court of Dom João, newly installed in Rio, sent for in Europe in order to start the teaching of arts and architecture in Brazil.

Ten years later, in 1826, the Imperial Academy of Fine Arts was inaugurated in a building built from the Montigny project. Brazil’s wrath of demolishments reached it in 1938, so that in its place the Ministry of Finance could be built (which ended up somewhere else). It was a miracle that the architect and urbanist Lúcio Costa (1902-1998), who was then the director of the National School of Fine Arts, had the idea of ​​saving at least the portal of the palace, transporting it, stone by stone, for later reconstruction amid the plants of the Botanical Garden.

Royal Portuguese Reading Room
Downtown (rua Luís de Camões, 30)

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See my post

Ladeira da Misericórdia
Downtown (Largo da Misericórdia)

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See my post

Nossa Senhora da Cabeça Chapel
Jardim Botânico (rua Faro, 80)

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This is actually a secret. There are people who live a lifetime in the Botanical Garden and don’t know that it exists. The Nossa Senhora da Cabeça Chapel is hidden at the top part of this little cross street in the neighborhood and you must ask for permission to enter.

The chapel, built in 1603, sits inside the grounds of a school (and convent) of the Carmelite sisters, the Mello Mattos Maternal House, and is one of the oldest buildings in Rio.

According to the book mentioned at the top, the little church was the private chapel of the Engenho de El Rey, a sugar cane mill that belonged to the governor Martim Correia (1575-1632). It was his family who had brought the image of Nossa Senhora da Cabeça, which gave name to the chapel, from Portugal.

The name of the saint originates from Cerro del Cabezo, in Spain, where an image of the Virgin Mary was hidden during the Muslim occupation. In principle, the nuns allow visitation on weekdays, between 9am and 4pm. But there are exceptions. There have been those who got there and weren’t allowed to enter or photograph the chapel from outside. But if it weren’t like this, it wouldn’t be a secret…

European Institute of Design
Urca (av. João Luis Alves, 13)

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See my post (second half)

Bossa Nova Mall
Downtown (av. Almirante Silvio de Noronha, 365)

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The Bossa Nova Mall is the obvious and evident thing of which Nelson Rodrigues spoke: like that story about Otto Lara Resende always passing by Sugarloaf, but never noticing it – because it was too obvious. Facing Sugarloaf, on the other side of Botafogo bay, there is now another obvious and evident thing: the Bossa Nova Mall, which for the moment few people, even among Cariocas, know.

Right beside Santos Dumont airport, this space – I would not call it a mall – comprised of hotels, restaurants, food trucks and several stores, occupies what was formerly the headquarters of Varig.

With the end of the airline, the building was closed for years, until it was entirely reformed (retrofit, with the structure maintained). Now it’s open to everyone. The easy way up to the terrace, where the Hotel Prodigy’s restaurant operates, is worth a visit. The view is indescribable. The Bossa Nova Mall is the kind of place that leads us to the question: how come no one has thought of this before?

Joatinga
Joá (rua Paschoal Segreto)

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Rio has this unique characteristic: to be a city with millions of inhabitants where, in a few minutes, it’s possible to be in the middle of a forest. Or a secret beach – like Joatinga’s. Among the most hidden beaches in Rio, Joatinga is the most, let’s say, affordable.

Just go down a stepladder. Once down there, you have that feeling of vacationing in some remote place. It’s in Joá, in the west zone (between São Conrado and Barra da Tijuca), in a closed condominium. But anyone can enter.

Once inside the condominium, just look for Rua Sargento José da Silva and on it go down the stairs that leads to the beach. Joatinga is small, it’s about 300 meters long, but, as it’s embedded in the rock wall, it gives one an exclusive, even secret, beach feeling, – that’s its charm. There’s only one problem: at certain times of the year, the wall casts a shadow on the sand and, soon, the sun no longer reaches it. What’s more, during a very high tide, the sea swallows the entire strip of sand and the beach disappears. But these vicissitudes only make Joatinga a rarer place.

Catacumba Lookout
Lagoa (Avenida Epitácio Pessoa, 3,000)

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In the 1990s, photographer and psychoanalyst Hugo Denizart (1946 – 2014) took a series of photographs of Catacumba Park, in Lagoa. The photos showed fragments of the recent past, where the Catacomba favela, removed in 1970, had existed. Denizart photographed steps, pieces of cement, remnants of tiles. Testimonies, in his words, of the human life that had existed there.

To this day, climbing the trail that leads to the Sacopã lookout point, you can find these fragments. Some stone steps are still the same ones that had been placed there by the community. Catacumba Park is an ecological reserve, with a beautiful forest (the hillside has been reforested since 1988). It’s also a place for expositions and adventure tourism. But the Sacopã lookout point is still a less sought after place than it should be, although it’s part of the Transcarioca Trail.

The walk is very quiet and can be done in half an hour at most. And the reward up there is total: one of the most beautiful views of Rio, which includes not only the Lagoa but also Pedra da Gávea, Morro Dois Irmãos, Ipanema beach, Corcovado, everything – and from a less traveled angle.

And returning on the way up to the viewpoint: it is curious to imagine that those stones, that tell so many stories, were also trodden more than 50 years ago by a teenager who was always going up the hill, in search of a party or musical partners. A boy who crossed the Lagoa by a little boat to go to Catacumba. His name was Tom Jobim.

Also see my post and this one on its history

Madureira Park
Madureira (Parque Madureira street, s / nº)

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This virtually everyone knows – but usually only by name. Tourists, as well as locals from the Zona Sul, are somewhat lazy to go to the north of the city, which includes Madureira.

Madureira is one of the most traditional and most Carioca neighborhoods in Rio. If it had no other quality, it would already be sensational for its two bonafide samba schools: Portela and Império Serrano (both were champions in the last Carnival, in their respective groups, to the happiness of crowds).

But Madureira has much more. And, five years ago, the neighborhood got a space for leisure and culture called Parque Madureira.

Madureira Park was built on an immense terrain above which electric transmission lines passed. It was public space, but it was invaded, and families had to be removed. With a 2015 expansion, today it’s the third largest park in the city (at 450K sq. meters long), only losing out to Aterro do Flamengo and Quinta da Boa Vista.

In addition to kiosks, picnic lawns, sports courts, bike paths, waterfalls and ponds, the park has one of the most modern skate tracks in Brazil, where parts of the world championship are held. It also houses the Nave de Conhecimento, a public cyber cafe, and a very well-equipped theater, the Fernando Torres Arena. – Source (PT)

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