Friday, September 17, 2010

Incredible Salvador de Bahia, Brazil or Shimmering Churches, Impromptu Drumming and Offerings of Body Parts

The gilded interior of Igreja de São Francisco (Church of Saint Francis), Salvador, Brazil (photo by Luis Bastardo)
The next day, Luis still hadn't satisfied his addiction to visiting churches and historical buildings, so we made our way back to the historical center to visit the famous gilded Igreja de São Francisco (Church of Saint Francis). We decided to hire a guide, which was an excellent idea, because there is so much history and detail in the construction of the church that could be missed, even with a guide book. The guides are volunteers who are paid in tips and we were lucky to find an especially knowledgeable and experienced one who had been giving tours of the church for 20 years. The spectacular church was built in the Baroque style between 1708 and 1723, but the interior decoration wasn't finished until 1755. According to our guide, most of the interior surfaces are decorated with carved wood covered by Gesso and gold leaf. The combination of the glow of the antique gold with the modern electric uplighting is spectacular.

     A blue and white ceramic panel of tiles known as azulejos in the cloisters (photo by Luis Bastardo)

The building was also used as a convent and the cloister walls still display the blue and white painted ceramic tiles known as azulejos, which are currently being restored. Most of the panels are still in good condition and tell the story of colonial life in Salvador during the 17th and 18th centuries. During the evenings, the church hosts a series of free classical music concerts, which are very popular with both tourists and locals. The city takes on another life in the evenings when the cobblestone streets fill with dancers, musicians and vendors. The brightly lit main square, Terreiro de Jesus, fills with music, laughter, food carts, caipirinha kiosks, tables of men playing impromptu cards and domino games and adults and children selling religious and tourist items. We, of course, sampled our obligatory nightly (and, let's face it, sometimes obligatory afternoon) caipirinhas, then wandered around the streets to have a look around and absorb the evening atmosphere.    

   The pastel houses and church spires of the historical center (photo by Luis Bastardo) 

The often steep cobble-stoned streets host restored colonial buildings, painted various pastel colors, towering church steeples, as well as shops, bars and restaurants, from the traditional to the über-modern. Each block has a different feel, from backpacker retro hippie to streets-of-Milan chic to local neighborhood block party. One evening, we heard amazing drumming and singing in the next street and went to investigate. The narrow street was filled with a large group of young women from a local music school, with various types of drums strapped to their bodies, playing along to the songs sung by their teacher. The rhythm was incredible: profound and earthshaking and we could feel it in our bones for hours afterward. It was impossible not to move to the beat and locals and tourists alike swayed and danced, transfixed by the mixture of Brazilian and African percussion.

Young women drumming in the streets of Salvador (photo by Luis Bastardo)

The next day, we took a bus to see the Igreja de Nosso Senhor do Bonfim (Church of our Lord of Bonfim or the "Good End"), which sits high up on the peninsula of Itapagipe. The church is the site of an annual religious ceremony and procession called the Festa do Bonfim (Feast of Bonfim), when church goers dress in traditional clothing, attend the mass at Church of Conceição da Praia in Salvador, then walk the eight kilometers (about five miles) up the hill to the Igreja de Nosso Senhor do Bonfim. Upon arrival, they wash the steps and plaza in front of the church, all the while singing and dancing. The event is hugely popular and draws thousands of people from all over Brazil (and the world). The church is believed to have curative properties and there is a Sala dos Milagres (Room of Miracles) where people leave wax or plastic representations of body parts and photos of themselves or loved ones as either an offering to pray for divine intervention or thanks for curing a particular ailment. Hanging from the walls and ceiling is a collection of plastic arms, legs, livers, hearts, lungs and other internal organs. The overall effect can be a tad jarring, even bizarre, but at the same time, there is a spirit of hope and gratitude that is inspiring and uplifting. All in all, it was quite a good place to end our travels in Brazil. Our impression of Brazil was also a mix of the exotic and the familiar, the shocking and the comforting. The poverty and bleakness of the favelas in combination with the beauty and diversity of the country and the optimism and energy of the Brazilians created a journey that we won't soon forget. 

Replicas of body parts hang from the ceiling in the Room of Miracles (photo by Luis Bastardo) 

Guide info for São Francisco church: Paulo Jose Jeao: telephone: (71)9981-8685

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