GLOBE AND MAIL
Saturday, February 9, 2002
Resurrecting Rio's Montmartre
Known in the twenties and thirties as Rio de Janeiro's artistic, bohemian heart, the recently revitalized neighbourhood of Lapa is suddenly drawing Rio's trendsetters back in droves
RIO DE JANEIRO Five years ago, Rio de Janeiro's neighbourhood of Lapa was a dodgy place of shadowy corners where no tourist would dare set foot. Although the 300-year-old barrio adjacent to downtown was chock full of history, marvellous mansions, century-old bars and authentic samba jams, it was equally chock full of danger. Even among Cariocas (residents of Rio), it was considered a rough part of town.
Now, suddenly, Lapa has been (re)discovered by café dwellers, antique hunters and chic youths from the fashionable Zona Sul district as the hippest, most happening place in town.
And it's not the first time. In the 1920s and 30s, Lapa laid claim to its fame as South America's Montmartre. Artists, writers, sambistas and high-livers in general flocked to its bohemian clutter of cabarets, clubs and brothels, mingling freely with an underworld of gangsters and whores. Typical Lapa residents included malandros, clever but crooked scoundrels, and colourful figures such as the legendary Madame Satã. Named after the 1930 Cecil B. De Mille film, Madam Satan, Madame Satã was a black homosexual with six adopted kids, loads of charm and an occasional problem with explosive violence.
In the 1940s, president Getulio Vargas decided that the party was over. He closed the brothels and chased after crooks and prostitutes. The Lapa that remained sunk into sad decline. Mafiosos and marginals, pimps and pushers took over the formerly splendid but now crumbling mansions, and the neighbourhood fell into serious decay.
Lapa hadn't always been that way. Until the 18th century, an insalubrious lake had for the most part covered the area known as the "Spainish sands." The first building to rear its head here was a simple, whitewashed church built by the order of Carmelites in 1751. Around the same time, slaves and Indians constructed Rio's aqueduct in the same place. The Church of Lapa, still standing today, albeit with an ornate baroque makeover, lent its name to the neighbourhood that grew around it, and the Roman-inspired aqueduct, whose 42 arches became known as the Arcos da Lapa, has become one of Rio's most indelible landmarks.
Now, Rio's trendsetters have moved into the neighbourhood, dilapidated buildings have been transformed into theatres, bars and nightclubs, and Lapa is back. One Friday night, I hopped a Lapa-bound bus from the apartment where I live in Copacabana. As the bus careened into the main square of Largo da Lapa, the aqueduct's brilliantly bleached arches suddenly loomed like a ghostly chunk of Rome.
We jumped off the bus and headed for Avenida Mem de Sa, a street lined with ornate old mansions. One of these, Carioca da Gema, is a current hot spot where localbohos sip black bean soup and jive to live samba, chorinho and bossa nova. In the house next door is a bar called Sacrilegio, a brand-new, fabulously furnished lounge where you can purchase some of the décor.
After a couple of icy beers in Sacrilegio's garden, we made our way back toward the aqueduct. Vendors had set up kiosks beneath the Arcos and were selling everything from sequined African skullcaps to Day-Glo coloured batidas (cocktails made from tropical fruit juices mixed with cachaça,a Brazilian version of rum). Throngs milled around the arches and up the cobblestoned Rua Joaquim Silva, where bars spilled over to tables in the streets.
The mixture of people was intoxicating: from black sambistas and gringos like me to elderly couples holding hands and sexy teen queens from chic Ipanema and Leblon. At one point, a group of 20 sambistas crowded around some tables and began beating, shaking, pounding and singing traditional sambas. Everybody sashaying on the sidelines knew the lyrics.
Walking down Rua Joaquim Silva was like wandering through a nocturnal bazaar: Hippies were selling leather jewellery and hand-painted T-shirts. There were batida stands, people hawking beer out of foam coolers and the "king of caipirinhas" concocting the mixture of crushed limes, ice, sugar and cachaça that is Brazil's national drink. Meanwhile, hot dogs sizzled (garnished with matchstick potatoes and quails' eggs) and sun-dried beef was grilled with onions and manioc. Homemade chocolate éclairs, pumpkin coconut custards and quindins (a rich custard of egg yolks and coconut) catered to the sweet tooth of most Cariocas.
We stopped to weave at a reggae bar and samba at a samba club. After a few blocks, we turned onto the Largo da Lapa, which was buzzing with all kinds of music and every kind of Carioca. There were lineups to get into the Asa Branca, a dance hall renowned for its lively samba, forro and pagode music. The Cosmopolita, one of Lapa's relics from 1906, was serving drinks behind its stained-glass saloon doors. At the Café dos Arcos, a poetry salon was in full swing.
The entire, sizzling nocturnal scene seemed chimerical when I returned to Lapa one sunny weekday afternoon. A bright yellow tramway trundled its way over the aqueduct, on its way to the hilltop neighbourhood of Santa Teresa. The streets, which nights ago had been filled with fashionistas and late-night revellers, were quiet and reminiscent of a traditional town in the interior. I stopped at the rustic Adega Flor de Coimbra for a glass of cool red wine (Brazilians like all drinks refrigerated) and bolinhos de bacalhau (cod balls). Opened in 1938, this Portuguese bistro was once a popular haunt where intellectuals, artists and later students and leftists sat around drinking red wine by the glass.
At this same corner sprawls another Lapa landmark, although of a more recent vintage. The "convent stairway" is composed of 215 steps covered with a dazzling mosaic of broken ceramic tiles that lead up to the convent of Santa Teresa.
Selaron, a Chilean artist, began the staircase as a gift to his favourite city. Initially, he purchased antique tiles in Brazil's national hues of green, yellow and blue, but soon people began sending him tiles of all colours from all over the world (including Canada). The result is worthy of Antonio Gaudi.
Wandering beneath the arches and following Avenida Mem de Sa, I passed some beautiful, if slightly worn, buildings. At the century-old Bar Brasil, draft beer is served from an ornate, 90-year-old bronze tower. Lazy ceiling fans and polished wooden freezers contribute to the old world atmosphere. A little farther along, at the edge of the lively Joao Pessoa Square, the Nova Capela restaurant is another culinary gem, known for its roasted kid and wild boar.
On nearby Rua do Lavradio, a string of historic buildings houses antique shops, woodworkers and furniture makers. Emporium 100 is an artfully stuffed warehouse that at night is transformed into a lounge featuring live music.
This small dose of Lapa wasn't enough for me and I have returned often to the neighbourhood. Its cobblestones, history and legendary past do conjure up Montmartre, but whether by feverish night or languorous day, Lapa is Rio de Janeiro at its most vibrant.
On the town in Lapa
Lapa's hottest nights are from Wednesdays to Saturdays. Friday is the peak. Things really don't get going until after 10 or 11 p.m. Wandering around in daytime is safer during the week than on weekends when the area is pretty dead. Be discreet and don't flash cameras.
Where to drink: Bar do Claudio: Rua Joaquim Silva, 90A. "Old Lapa's most original bar." Kitschy décor and hearty caldo de feijao (black bean soup).
Bar Brasil: Avenida Mem de Sa, 90. One of Rio's oldest traditional watering holes. Not much has changed since 1906 and the German cuisine is reputed.
Where to eat: Adega Flor de Coimbra: Rua Teotonio Regadas, 34. A bohemian haunt since 1938. The cuisine is Portuguese. Try squid or grilled sardines washed down with chilled Perola Gaucha red wine.
Nova Capela: Avenida Mem de Sa, 96. One of old Lapa's most popular restaurants serves up the likes of roasted kid and boar in a colourfully rustic ambience.
Where to hear music: Carioca da Gema: Avenida Mem de Sa, 79. Bohemian Lapa's favourite new haunt. Top-notch live music with appetizers and drinks inspired by sambas.
Semente: Rua Joaquim Silva, 138. In the middle of Lapa's nocturnal frenzy, this bar offers samba, salsa, chorinho and delicious manioc balls stuffed with ham and provolone.
Where to dance: Asa Branca: Avenida Mem de Sa, 17. A venerated dance hall with daily doses of samba, forro and pagode as well as pizza with sun-dried beef and fried manioc.
Fundicao Progresso: Rua dos Arcos, 24. Hip, musical haven for Rio's alternative young blood. A non-stop fiesta that mixes genres from rock and reggae to soul and samba.
Created: February 10, 2002
Last modified: July 9, 2002
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