Monday 20 March 2017

From aboard Ponant Le Soleal: Oh for Olinda


Gilbert is probably the most enthusiastic guide I have ever had. If 'enthusiasm' can be measured in an ability to talk without drawing breath, then he is the winner, hands down.

Every seemingly minor detail is punctuated with an urgent "look over there!", "see what I mean!" or "you can take a photo of that!" in his charming staccato style.

We are on a shore excursion from Le Soleal on our changeover day in the city of Recife in the north-east of Brazil. Recife shares a similar history with so many coastal cities of Brazil. With an official foundation in the early 16th century it soon developed into an important Portuguese trading port that attracted envious attention from the Dutch, who made themselves unwelcome for a period in the mid-17th century before being asked to leave in a forthright manner by the locals.

We don't hang around the city centre, rather we join Gilbert's tiny Anglophone group with his voluminous narrative of the outlying cultural centre of Olinda. Listed by UNESCO in 1982, the little cobblestoned streets and squares are interrupted by churches and civic buildings painted in a variety of pastel hues without the influence of incongruous modern structures. That is, except the old water tower on the hill above the church of Sao Salvador. An elevator has been installed to the rooftop, and for a paltry R8- (about $4) you can ride it to the top to enjoy a panoramic view.

We gather in the square below where a few trinket stalls encourage us to fritter our dollars on carved and sewn items whose little charm is smothered by their homogeneity.

"Please enjoy your coconut and take a seat and rest or buy a souvenir!" Gilbert urges as we mingle awkwardly among the imploring vendors while slurping our gigantic fruit. My request to investigate the tower is dismissed with "we don't have time, please stay together". Five minutes later, our awkwardness undiminished and the empty coconuts piled high, I make my intentions clear and stroll purposefully to the little turnstile at the base. It is indeed a great view above the power lines and air conditioners that obstructed my outlook from the plaza.

We cautiously walk the short distance over the uneven cobblestones, gazing into the dainty little houses along the narrow sidewalks, to another church with the same gilded Madonna and where more copious descriptions ensue. My capacity to absorb any further detail of the Catholicisation of Brazil is long exhausted and I retreat to the small plaza to observe scraggy pigeons peck at the sand between the weathered stones.

Now don't get me wrong, Olinda is every bit the enchanting historic town with much to commend it. It just seems that, apart from the few merchants and their baubles, nobody knew were coming.

After a quick stop to photograph the Recife town square with its attendant fountain and colonial structures, our tour winds up back at the port where we navigate another cavernous, underutilised passenger terminal back to Le Soleal tied up at the wharf.

Igreja da Se (church) from the water tower
Igreja de Sao Joao (church)
Guests admire giant carnivale 'puppets' 
Carnivale decorations along Olinda's streets

Next: we head north west toward the Amazon

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