Travel Story Brazil's city of happiness

Photo of Niall McIlroy

Salvador pulses with colour, taste, history, dancing and laughter even before Carnival.

Salvador is said to be the happiest city in Brazil — perhaps that’s because its citizens spend so much of the year either building up to or winding down from the world’s biggest party. 

Four million pack the streets each February during Carnival and while the noise and colour of that celebration must be intoxicating, there’s more than enough excitement for me today.

I’m stepping out into Salvador on my first full day in Brazil, taking a city tour as part of the Intrepid Travel itinerary I’ve joined to explore the northern part of the country.

I’ve come a long way to get to this city, 1200km north of Rio de Janeiro, but outsiders have been arriving on this coast for half a millennium since navigator Pedro Alvares Cabral first landed and claimed for Portugal what he thought was an island. 

It was Easter Week, so he named it Easter Mount. 

Colonisation began and within 50 years the Portuguese had founded this settlement high on wide All Saints Bay. 

They brought slaves from Africa to farm sugar cane and made it Brazil’s first capital. 

From beginnings built on misery, it is ironic that it’s now a place known for happiness. 

In fact most of Salvador’s citizens are descended from slaves and the city’s Afro-Caribbean roots have given it a very different flavour.

Portugal is still very much in Salvador’s foundations, especially here in the Pelourinho neighbourhood, which dates back to the 1550s and is protected as Brazil’s biggest intact collection of colonial buildings.

 Today locals are laughing and joking in its squares and unevenly cobbled hilly streets, but this was once a place of suffering. The pillories that held slaves — and after which the area is named — once stood in the main square.

Turning a corner we reach a group of drummers and a man playing a berimbau, a single-stringed bow about a metre and a half long extending from a gourd on the ground.

In front of them and in time to the music, two men rock, dart, jump, cartwheel and somersault at each other. This is capoeira, the once-illegal martial arts dance combination native to Salvador.

“Are they dancers or fighters,” I ask, searching for the right word.

“Neither,” says my Intrepid tour conductor Pedro Zinn. “They are players. The old saying is that capoeira is too much martial art to be a dance and too much dance to be a martial art.”

Capoeira means “chicken coop” and was created by the slaves, and I notice some of the players mimic the bound hands of those captives in their moves.

I’m struck by another irony; that this city, particularly the Upper Town, built for defence high on a hill, now belongs to these descendants of slaves — they are the pulse through the beating heart.

A cooling coconut drink later, we enter some church grounds. 

There is said to be a church for every day of the year in Salvador and I don’t doubt it, but the Church of Sao Francisco, which dates back to 1686, is one of the more beautiful. 

I enjoy a few minutes out of the bustle, wandering the cloisters and admiring the woodwork in the gilded chapel.

Out on the street, Catholicism and African spiritualist beliefs are interwoven. Locals stop outside another church to buy coloured ribbons. 

They will tie one ribbon around their wrist and the other to a railing outside the church and pray for good intentions when the priest comes to bless the coloured cloth.

African words live on in the local Portuguese, a slightly morphed dialect, and the cuisine is not unlike what you would find in Benin, Ghana or Nigeria on that concave African coast which once fit so snugly with the bulge of Brazil and from where the slaves came.

The acaraje of Salvador differs little from the Nigerian dish akara and it’s delicious with the right topping. The lumps of black-eyed peas or cassava, deep-fried in palm oil, are filling but essentially bland by themselves. Some are halved and spread with shrimp paste and cashew but I prefer mine with a tasty green chilli sauce.

I enjoy more Afro-Brazilian cuisine later that evening in a hole-in-a-tiled-wall restaurant that extends all the way back into a garden, where a steep set of steps leads into the darkness and up a hill to the next street. 

There’s something magical and mystical about that — like Salvador itself. The building that houses the D’Vennetta is almost half the age of the city — the tiles have been traced to a Portuguese batch from the 1790s. But the dinner is deliciously fresh. 

I enjoy arrumadinho tradicional (literally “little sorted”), a filling layered dish of tomatoes, onions, black-eyed peas, green beans, capsicum, farofa (toasted cassava fried with garlic and butter), with jerky, pepperoni and chicken. 

This is a terrific family owned restaurant without so much as a sign. Tourists would walk right past but we found it on the advice of Pedro’s mother-in-law — this kind of local knowledge is the beauty of this type of trip.

My lasting memory of this evening in Salvador will be the noise. But it’s not a din, it is life. 

Walking amid the pastel-hued Pelourinho buildings back to the hotel, I have surround sound. A cock crows loudly from a second storey balcony; we’re drawn down a side street where the clamorous rehearsal of a dance band reverberates; there are women chattering in traditional white dresses and loud samba music seeping from the shops.

A day in Salvador has saturated the senses — and it isn’t even Carnival.

Niall McIlroy visited Brazil as a guest of Intrepid Travel.

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