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Day 47: Rio de Janeiro

Michael Palin - BrazilA Portuguese expedition, blown off course in 1500, brought the first Europeans to Brazil. Two years later, another Portuguese expedition, this time with cartographic intent, came nosing down the coast. In early 1502 they found themselves at the mouth of what they thought was a great river, flowing out between two headlands, one of them with a most striking rock formation (which later settlers were to christen Pão de Açucar, Sugar Loaf Mountain). It was January, the hottest part of the tropical year, and for want of inspiration they called their new discovery Rio de Janeiro – 'January River'. It turned out not to be a river at all but a deep, wide bay. By that time, however, the name had stuck, and January River was set to become one of the most famous misnomers in the world.

The Portuguese must have been impressed by the tall, spiky granite peaks that thrust their way out of the forest right down to the ocean, but what made Rio's location eye-catching also made it commercially unpromising. There were much flatter, wider sites on which to plant sugar. But the pioneering Portuguese navigators had started something, and accounts of their discoveries accompanied by the new maps they'd compiled were luring other Europeans to the 'new land' of Brazil. The French were the first to take a serious interest in Rio de Janeiro and in the 1550s, led by Huguenots keen to flee persecution at home, they sought to establish a settlement in Guanabara Bay, called, with characteristic Gallic understatement, 'France Antarctique'. Belatedly the Portuguese, now well established higher up the coast, moved south to clear out the French interlopers and, after bloody battles fought in the shadow of Sugar Loaf Mountain, they re-established Portuguese supremacy; and, leaving a small garrison to look after Rio, they decamped to Salvador where the real money was to be made.

Four hundred and fifty years later, and with a population of some six and a half million people, or eleven million in Greater Rio, the spectacular physical beauty of the city is celebrated worldwide. Its inhabitants call it, modestly, Cidade Maravilhosa – the Marvellous City. The wide bays, beaches and forested slopes first glimpsed by the Portuguese caravels remain an essential part of the cityscape, but the most prominent features are the granite plugs that rise dramatically from the heart of the city, their impressiveness uncompromised because they are too steep and sheer to build on. Or that's what they thought until 1931, when one of the most iconic statues in the world was raised on Corcovado, 'Hunchback Mountain', at 706 metres the second tallest of Rio's sharp summits. It is a massive figure of Christ, in concrete faced with soapstone. His arms are outstretched, and his head inclined downwards to take in the city below. It is known as Cristo Redentor, Christ the Redeemer, and it adds a further thirty metres to the top of Corcovado Mountain.

A few days from now there will be celebrations to mark the anniversary of the triumphant 'unveiling', in October 1931, of what has become the symbol of Rio, and I'm in a garden in the leafy western suburb of Gávea with the great-granddaughter of the man in charge of its design and construction, an architect and engineer called Heitor da Silva Costa.

Gávea, now a desirable residential area, was a farm until quite recently and nature is abundant. The house is squeezed right up against the forest, which is luxuriant and encroaching, with mango trees and bamboo stands spreading shade and the fiery red flowers of a banana tree filling one end of the small yard where we sit. On one side of us are supermarkets, shopping malls and a hospital. On the other, snakes and monkeys and screeching parakeets. On a round table are stacks of books, letters, newspaper clippings and photographs relating to Heitor da Silva Costa, who seems always to be immaculately suited and, with his starched white collars and wavy hair, bearing more than a passing likeness to Scott Fitzgerald.

Bel Noronha, a documentary film-maker, with dark good looks etched with tiredness, seems as nervous about what's to happen on the top of Corcovado in a couple of days as her great-grandfather would surely have been, this time eighty years ago.
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  • Series: Brazil
  • Chapter: Day 47: Rio de Janeiro
  • Country/sea: Brazil
  • Place: Rio de Janeiro
  • Book page no: 197

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