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Day 37: The Recôncavo

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The railway terminal in São Félix.
Michael Palin - BrazilThe many rivers that drain into All Saints' Bay may bring modern pollution problems, but they are also the reason why Salvador and its surrounding towns became so rich. The muddy deposits they brought down with them from the sertão made for a fertile shoreline where almost anything would grow. They call this area the Recôncavo (the closest translation in English would be the 'Bight'), and it's some of the most productive land in the country. To try and find out more of where the wealth of old Bahia came from we take the road north and west towards Cachoeira and São Félix, the prosperous twin towns at the heart of the Recôncavo.

Once off the six-lane highway and away from the car dealerships and the shiny, new residential towers of expanding Salvador we're into green rolling hills and a landscape which at first glance could have come straight from the Welsh Borders. Then you look closer and pick out the palms and banana trees tucked away in the folds of the hills. The first sign of the industry that once made so many so rich is a tall brick chimney and beside it the high, grey-smeared walls of an old pitched roof building. It's a sugar factory. In the heyday of world demand, there were over 800 sugar plantations around Salvador. They depended heavily and complacently on their slave workforce, and once that was disbanded their lack of investment in modern production left them hopelessly ill-prepared for open-market competition. There are now a mere handful of sugar producers left.

Evidence of the good times past can be seen in the narrow-gauge railway lines running through the countryside from small towns like Santo Amaro. They're rusting now and used as pathways by streams of people, coloured umbrellas raised against the sun, making their way to and from the market.

Thanks to the richness of the soil, there is plenty that grows here besides sugar. Fruits are abundant. Pomegranate, breadfruit, mangoes, custard apples, cashew and cacao, papaya and passion fruit are stacked up for sale by the roadside or loaded into trucks to be shipped into Salvador. In the late sixteenth century the first cattle were introduced here and as the road climbs high over a ridge healthy-looking tan and white cows with great, swinging dewlaps graze the verges beside us.

Signs direct us to eco-resorts, fazenda (farm) hotels, roadside stalls with 'Honey for Sale' and other indications that tourism is becoming the new income for farmers capitalizing on the jaded urbanite's appetite for wooded escarpments and undulating meadows. And it's amongst scenery like this that we come upon the town of Cachoeira, set in a protective cluster of hills that run down to the limpid Paraguaçu River.

Cachoeira, the highest navigable point on the river, grew prosperous as the main trading port for the produce of the Recôncavo. As much of this was tobacco and sugar cane from the slave plantations, there was, and still is, a big African influence on the town. Religion is fervently popular, both Candomblé and the newer tide of Evangelical Christianity which is sweeping across Brazil. I see premises belonging to the Foundation of Jesus, the Temple of the Adoration of the Living God and the Assembly of Jesus. On a lamp-post a sign reads 'Confess your Sins to Jesus' and gives a phone number. Strident voices boom out from loudspeakers selling the latest car or the latest religion. I think again of my guide Sophia's observation that in Brazil everyone wants to believe in something.

An old girder bridge, which once carried a railway, leads over the wide, slow- moving Paraguaçu River to São Félix. The river, draining down from the highlands of the Chapada Diamantina, was once a force to be reckoned with, frequently flooding the towns. Now it's been dammed a few kilometres upstream for a big hydroelectric scheme and is a shadow of its former self. São Félix, like Cachoeira, is full of relics of former days, remaindered buildings like the fine, stuccoed station, and some neo-classical warehouse facades. It also boasts a relic that's very much alive. By the riverside is the Dannemann cigar factory, first established in 1883, and not only still producing cigars, but also hosting the Centro Cultural Dannemann, a gallery for modern art which is the venue for the internationally recognized Recôncavo Art Biennale.

The freshly painted white and straw-brown exterior of the old factory, with two immaculately restored pediments, arched blue doorways and wrought-iron fanlights, gives no indication of what lies inside. It's like stepping forward a hundred years, into an uncluttered, mid-town gallery. Artfully spot-lit, open-plan and with the most modern paintings, collages and installations elegantly displayed. Much of the credit for this must go to an enterprising and charismatic Dutchman called Hans Leusen, President of Dannemann and Dutch Consul in Salvador. Mr Leusen strides out to meet us wearing a well-pressed pair of chinos and an open-necked shirt. He's seventy-four years old and first came out to Brazil in 1962. Tall, with silver-grey hair, he stands very straight, head held high and a proud but steely look in the eye, like a craggy old eagle. In his right hand is a cigar. As he shows us through from the light, airy gallery area to the cigar-making operation at the back of the building, I ask him if, as a gallery owner, he feels at all cut off from the cultural mainstream in the South. He shakes his head. He thinks far too much is made of the North-South divide.

'São Paulo [in the South] is fifty percent people from the North. When I first came here there was no Carnival in São Paulo. That came from the North.'
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At the Dannemann cigar factory an expert test-smokes a cigar she's just made.
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  • Series: Brazil
  • Chapter: Day 37: The Recôncavo
  • Country/sea: Brazil
  • Place: The Recôncavo
  • Book page no: 160

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