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Day 26: Olinda

Michael Palin - BrazilI walk on up the hill, passing two more fine baroque churches in the space of a few hundred metres. But there was a time when Olinda could have looked very different. The Portuguese founded the town in 1535 when no one in Europe knew much about Brazil, but the success of Brazilwood and sugar exports changed the situation and almost a hundred years later tempted the formidably mercantile Dutch to turn their attention from east to west. Under the leadership of Maurice of Nassau they attacked Olinda and set up a capital of Dutch Brazil on the river delta land which they drained south of the town. The reclaimed land is now called Recife, after the long offshore reefs that protect it, but for twenty years it was Mauritzstadt, a Protestant town in a Catholic empire. Maurice was a tolerant man and allowed freedom of religion. A synagogue, established in Recife, exists to this day. But the men who ran the Dutch West India Company were hardline Calvinists, as severe in their architecture as they were in their taxation. Catholic churches were threatened and all building stopped. In frustration Maurice returned to Holland, leaving them to impose their own zealous Protestantism in Brazil. Not surprisingly, the Brazilians rebelled against their repressors, defeating the Dutch in a big naval battle at Guarapes in 1649. The Dutch West India Company finally abandoned Brazil in 1654, as had the French, who founded São Luís in 1612 only to abandon it three years later. For the next two centuries, Brazil was left to the Portuguese.

A last steep climb brings me out in front of the Alto da Sé Cathedral and to a breathtaking view over the city and across the water to the vast spread of tower blocks that is the skyline of Recife, incomparably more huge than Olinda.

There are enjoyments to be found in a small town and one of these is an early evening stroll through largely traffic-free streets to watch an unhurried world coming together at the end of the day. I discover the modest charms of the Bodega de Véio, a local pub, corner café and general store combined. There isn't much room inside, but what there is is packed with everything you could ever want. And customers are treated like family, and encouraged to stay and chat.

As well as selling brooms and batteries and babies' nappies, the staff behind the counter dispense beer, cachaça or whisky, whilst cutting up cheese and slicing ham and sausage snacks to eat with them. As you eat and drink you can ruminate on shelves stacked to the ceiling with rulers, biros, pet food, tampons, cans of Red Bull, bathroom mirrors, cigarette lighters, postcards, stamps, umbrellas, shovels, school notebooks and hairbrushes. And somehow there is still space for photos of the family who have owned and run the shop for generations. The Bodega de Véio is a place to meet and gossip and very few people who go inside seem to want to come out.
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  • Series: Brazil
  • Chapter: Day 26: Olinda
  • Country/sea: Brazil
  • Place: Olinda
  • Book page no: 114

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