Didier and Gilles had been working for about five years in Brazil’s gargantuan cultural capital of São Paulo when they decided the time had come to finally pursue their dream of settling down in a tropical paradise. Naturally they chose Salvador de Bahia.
Perched on a bluff over All Saint’s Bay, the city of Salvador was once the capital of Brazil and the primary port for the brutal slave trade that supported the economy of the tropical northeast. Today Salvador is the hub for Afro-Brazilian culture. At the city’s colonial center lies the sumptuous, pastel-hued Pelourinho, known as the ‘Pelo’ for short. It was here that Didier and Gilles found the crumbling colonial mansion that after a year of extensive renovation opened as Casa do Amarelindo, now one of the most popular luxury hotels in Salvador.
Such careful restorations, both by private citizens like Didier and Gilles and by the government, began in 1993 when the Pelo won its designation as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Now the unevenly cobbled streets and marvelous 18th century churches (still in various stages of restoration and decay) are interspersed with restaurants and tourist shops. These strange juxtapositions make Salvador a particularly interesting case study in what tourism consumes, excludes, and cannot touch, however hard it tries.
The yellow façade of Casa do Amarelindo stands poised between two of the Pelo’s most picturesque squares. During the day groups of tourists from around the world drift in and out of the seven nearby churches, admiring the opulent gilding and elegant azuleijo tiling. Relatively few of them pass beyond this appealing network of historic streets. But Salvador really comes to life far past these postcard pretty cityscapes.
A 30-minute bus ride north through working class neighborhoods will take you to the Igreja de Nossa Senhora do Bonfim, a popular place of pilgrimage where Bahians have tied wishes and prayers to the gates in the form of countless colorful ribbons. About halfway between the church and the old center, the gritty São Joaquim Market covers over two dozen city blocks with stalls selling fruits,vegetables, fresh meats, live animals, wooden bowls and spoons, and the various beads, icons, candles and herbs needed for practitioners of Candomblé, the regional faith that combines imagery and practices from Catholic and African religious traditions.
On Saturday evenings, the Museum of Contemporary Art, housed in a beautifully restored 18th century complex on the water, hosts lively jazz sessions, while a young artistic crowd livens the bars and restaurants of the Rio Vermelho neighborhood south of the center. Inland from these coastal areas is the Dique do Tororó, a holy lake around which many of the city’s most active Terreiros, or Candomblé temples, are clustered.
When you’ve seen all this, return to the Pelo with fresh eyes. Despite the number of visitors here, the city still very much belongs to its residents, who turn up on Tuesdays and weekend nights to eat, dance, and play music along brilliantly lit streets. This is, after all, where Bahia was born, and under its cobbles, behind its freshly painted facades, all of the individual elements that make this city special continue to shape its growth. Salvador may not be a fresh discovery, but it still has its secrets.