Salvador de Bahia
The Historic Centre of Salvador de Bahia, frequently called the Pelourinho, is extremely rich in historical monuments dating from the 17th through the 19th centuries.
Bahia was the first colonial capital of Brazil and the city is one of the oldest in the New World (founded in 1549 by Portuguese settlers). It was also the first slave market on the continent, with slaves arriving to work on the sugar plantations.
Major buildings inside the designated area are:
- Convents of St. Francis, St. Dominic, Carmel and St. Anthony
- 16th century Palaces
- Baroque Palaces
Map of Salvador de BahiaLoad map
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I was staying in a Brazilian historic city centre again, at the Pousada Solar dos Deuses in the street between the Cathedral and the main Franciscan church of Salvador de Bahia. Brazil may be the only country in the world where I can afford a boutique hotel in such a prime location. They have a permanent stage here, where singers, bands, and Olodum-like percussion groups perform during the day and evening. Especially the sound of the bass drums reached my room well.
Would these people come here to perform if there weren’t any tourists? Where do they live? The same question can be asked about the omnipresent women in Baiana dresses, posing for photos to earn money. Armed police is present at every street corner in the old town, but (or: thus?) it feels safe during the day and the evening. At night, when the restaurants and bars have closed, the streets become deserted. Only the street dogs that have chosen the Cross of the Franciscans as their overnight place, remain.
As the first colonial capital of Brazil (1549-1763), the city’s importance is undoubted. It still has a special atmosphere, though it feels a bit staged. The many churches are its most notable tangible structures from the past. They are still used for services, but during the day they ‘behave’ like museums. They open only at 9 a.m. and a small entrance fee is asked for. The churches were built by every Roman Catholic religious order imaginable, the major ones even have several successive churches and convents.
The best ones I found the elegant Cathedral (top photo), and the Sao Francisco Church (bottom photo) and the adjacent Church of the Third Order of Saint Francis. The latter has an impressive Plateresque-style façade, while the interior of the former is a gilded baroque spectacle.
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This city let me down a bit, not even because of a visit during the pandemic to which we 'owe' the closure of all museums and most of the churches in the city. It started with terrible traffic jams at the entrance (due to its location, Salvador has only two large access roads plus a ferry crossing). In the end, however, we arrived at the hotel in the historic center, and in the afternoon we went for a walk. Walking through the Lapa district, we could see why Salvador is considered a Brazilian city with the greatest African influence - the entire district was one big bazaar, with crowds of people and shouting sellers. You had to hold the hand of the children well so that they would not get lost in this crowd.
A walk in the late afternoon had the advantage that you could see churches that were only open for services. In this way, we visited the beautiful church of Nossa Senhora da Lapa and the slightly less impressive Nossa Senhora da Piedade. The churches in Salvador are mainly characterized by beautiful painted ceilings.
The next day, however, we were less fortunate. Only one church, Nossa Senhora do Conceicao da Praia, was open. The others, including the cathedral and the wonderful Convent of St. Francis, were closed. We did, however, take a decent walk through the streets of Salvador, reaching both the Lower Town with great views of All Saints Bay and the Upper Town with the Pelourinho district. We covered the road between the Lower and the Upper Towns on foot, although I do not recommend it - you go through a very suspicious area and there are no spectacular views.
While the Pelourinho district is 100% refurbished and looks great, it's only a tiny part of the city. It is enough to walk away from it 200 meters to see a completely different city, with shabby or even ruined buildings, tangled cables and general disorder. To be clear - we did not feel any danger there, but in such an area you can feel a bit uncomfortable. After all, it's a bit sad that in such a huge city, only a small part of the center is really pleasing to the eye. Well, it looks like Brazil's strongest points from a tourist's perspective are the great nature and small towns, not big cities.
I visited this site in July 2018.
The historic centre of Salvador has a very peculiar topography. The city is full of ups and downs, and there's a cliff separating the old area in the upper city and the lower city. Probably the most famous building of Salvador is the one that connects these two parts, the Lacerda elevator. The current building is in art déco style, built in 1930. Use it costs only a few cents, but expect a queue. It isn't a great touristic experience, it's just an elevator, but it's very practical to explore the area.
The lower city is small compared to the upper city. There's really no much space, with the ocean on one side and the cliff on the other side. The most interestings buildings in this area are the Basilica of Conceição da Praia and the Modelo market. Another interesting place there is the Solar do Unhão, a former sugar cane farm complex that is now a museum, but unfortunately I didn't go there.
The upper city has a lot more to see. Usually people call this part of the historic centre of Pelourinho, but this is the name of only one of the districts of old area. The core zone of the WHS also embraces other districts, like Santo Antônio, Saúde and Barroquinha, but the taxi driver that taked me to there advised me to walk around only in Pelourinho area, for safety reasons. Pelourinho is the most touristic area, with shops and restaurants, and with the best preserved buildings. It's very pleasant to walk there, as taxis are the only kind of cars allowed in this area.
The Pelourinho Square (Largo do Pelourinho) has the most beautiful views of this UNESCO site, with the colorful row of houses and towers of the 4 nearby churches. I remember to sit on the stairs in front of Casa de Jorge Amado Foundation (dedicated to a brazilian writer) and just enjoy the view with no worry about time.
But for me the most remarkable place of this site is the Convent of St. Francis. The cloister has beautiful white and blue painted tiles, and the interior of the baroque church is stunning, with its gold decorations literally all over the space. Right in the left side of the convent is the church of the Third Order of St. Francis, that stands out among the many churches of Salvador for its very adorned facade, unnusual for brazilian standards. The most interesting in the interior of this building is the Saint's Room, with its human sized statues of saints with real clothes and human hair, beautiful and creepy at the same time. Unfortunately the cathedral was closed for restoration during my trip, but now it's open again. I can't talk much about this main attraction, but the Terreiro de Jesus square, where it is located, has an interesting scenery, with 2 other nice churches.
Salvador is a big city, with the fourth biggest population in Brazil, and it's a popular destination for those interested in beaches. If you don't like beaches, you can appreciate the 5 old forts that are on the Tentative List. The city is also memorable for the typical food, with a big african influence. I had a great time in Salvador, specially for the feeling of greatness of this former capital of the country, that you can see in the streets of the historic centre, not perfectly conservated, but bold and vibrant. I can say it is my favorite WHS in Brazil so far.
In February 1993 I arrived at Salvador airport intending, on the grounds of personal safety, to stay in the suburb of Barra. Two Spanish women I met persuaded me that this was for milksops and that I should do as they were about to do and stay at the Hotel Pelourinho overlooking what the South American Handbook of the day called "...the finest complex of colonial architecture in Latin America".
Their advice was good and I found myself at the heart of what I consider, still, to be one of the most exciting cities anywhere.
The architecture in the historic core of Salvador is exceptional but better described by others elsewhere, but for me it is the people who make the place unique. It is said to be the most African of Brazil's cities, and at times I felt that I could have been in Senegal. There is a group of statuesque ladies clad in spotless white, lace-trimmed, full length African costumes who make a living by preparing and selling a local fast food, a kind of rissole of coarse semolina deep fried, split and topped with vegetables and spices.
One evening I went to one of the many candomble temples. They are so numerous here that they cannot be simply a tourist trap. I was far from being the only European there but we were greatly outnumbered by worshippers. I stayed for several hours and found the whole experience fascinating, though I confess that I left not a great deal wiser as to the precise significance of what I had seen.
In Largo Pelourinho, the square next to the hotel, the Olodum drummers (as featured by Paul Simon in Rhythm of the Saints) practiced regularly and down the hill near the waterfront were bewilderingly fast exponents of Capoeira.
In the crowds milling around in the square I was subject to more than one attempt at pick pocketing but, to my surprise, a slapped wrist and a knowing smile or wink was enough to send the would be thief on his way.
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