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Day 26: Olinda

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One of Olinda's many fine, old Portuguese churches. For a while the city was the state capital.
Michael Palin - BrazilIn the garden of our hotel there's a very tropical sign. Nailed to one of a cluster of tall shady trees is a wooden board on which is written in large white lettering 'Cuidado Frutas' – 'Beware Fruit'! This provokes some discussion amongst us as to what the dangers of being struck by fruit might be. Mangoes fall only when ripe so it might be nothing worse than a wet surprise. Coconuts, on the other hand, especially given the height of some of these trees, could well crack your head open. Decide to avoid the garden for now and opt for the relative safety of the streets.

Olinda, over 1,000 kilometres (620 miles) down the coast from São Luís, has a split personality. There is a colonial town of some beauty, stretching up and over the hills, and there is Nova Olinda, a big, bland, modern accretion which the guide books tend to ignore. It was once the capital of Pernambuco, the richest state in Brazil, and the colonial heart of the town still resonates with the style and affluence of those days of glory, back in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries when plantation owners grew fat and monastic orders counted in the money. There are even more churches here than up north, and there is an itinerary, in English, which will guide you round what is called the Circuit of Churches. The first one I come to, up the hill from the hotel, is the Church and Convent of St Francis. Begun in 1580, it's the oldest convent in Brazil and according to my guide book 'among the finest in South America'. I wander in and pay a couple of pounds to look around. Very ornate, barely a surface unattended to, and the sacristy is particularly splendid, with a massive cabinet carved most delicately from hard, dark jacaranda wood and an elaborate coffered ceiling with clusters of painstakingly carved green leaves surrounding the painted panels. There are all sorts of visual surprises here, including a soaring arch at the entrance to a side chapel, every inch of which is covered with intricately worked wood carvings that seem to hang there with no visible means of support, defying gravity. But it's the cloister that dazzles. Its cool and serene arcades are richly decorated with a mural of the life and work of St Francis, picked out in blue azulejo tiles, and off to the side a doorway leads into a secluded garden with a panorama of the Atlantic Ocean spread out below. And, unlike the sediment-stained waters off São Luís, it is a beguiling blue.
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  • Series: Brazil
  • Chapter: Day 26: Olinda
  • Country/sea: Brazil
  • Place: Olinda
  • Book page no: 114

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