As authorities have wisely suspended next month’s Carnival in Salvador, Brazil, the following chronicle anticipates the exciting event’s return in 2022.
The Brazilian city of Salvador earned its UNESCO World Heritage designation for many reasons, not least of which is that this capital of Bahia is the cradle of much of the nation’s culture, from food and Afro-Brazilian roots to music and its ultra-authentic Carnival.
Not as famous internationally as Rio’s Carnival, Salvador’s is gaining ever more international adherents for its unique elements, such as trio elétrico which are music truck floats that follow prescribed routes. Increasingly, visitors also are discovering the raucous fun of the city’s official Pre-Carnival festivities that rev up nearly two weeks before Ash Wednesday. (Next year’s Carnaval—as the word carnival is spelled in Portuguese—takes place February 24 to March 2, 2022.)
While it may be early to prepare for next Carnival season, Salvador’s colonial Old Town with its celebrated Pelourinho section—which itself hosts major portions of Carnival—is a famously colorful and dynamic place anytime of year. To boot, a handful of the city’s finest restaurants are located on this side of the city that faces All Saints Bay.
It may be tucked behind the Cathedral Basilica of São Salvador, but with its statue of a trio of colorful and cartoonish masked figures sitting out front, the Casa do Carnaval da Bahia can’t be missed. Opened about three years ago in a historic building, the exhibition space to this Carnival museum is spread over four floors, and includes some two hundred ceramic characters that represent costumes and styles that span the history of Carnival. Visitors learn as well about those popular trio elétrico floats that began back in the 1950s.
In a small theater, guests can practice their own dance rhythms by following the guidance of musicians and dancers in video presentations, and learn that local beats such as axé are entirely different from the samba that they associate with Rio Carnival. Those up for a detailed museum visit can continue on to peruse plenty of historic photos and documents and watch more video clips.
The Basilica itself plunges you immediately into old Pelourinho. With its elaborate altars, the stunning Jesuit-built church represents one of the greatest examples of Mannerism in the New World.
As does the Baroque church and convent of São Francisco that stands just beyond the other end of the expansive Terreiro de Jesus plaza, and which is famous as well for its rich gilt work and its stunning murals made up of tens of thousands of magnificent blue azulejo tiles that are currently being restored.
It takes just a few short minutes of wandering the stone streets of the Pelourinho to be taken in by the beauty of all its multi-hued houses. Popular with locals and located right on the plaza, O Cravinho liquor tavern is named for a cachaça (distilled sugarcane) that is infused with cloves, honey and lemon. Small casks behind the bar have the names of their various other infusions scribbled on them. Nearby, Pau Brasilis is a gallery that specializes in Indigenous arts and crafts.
Down toward the sloping Largo do Pelourinho square, the Museu da Gastronomia Baiana, a small gastronomy museum, still contains a section of the old city wall. The exhibits there will not only educate you on the social and economic history behind Bahian cuisine, but will whet your appetite in anticipation of your explorations to come of Salvador’s vibrant culinary scene today.
Also, on the square, Nossa Senhora do Rosario dos Pretos is an 18th-century church with a blue facade and double belfries that was built by and for Afro-Brazilians. For all the beauty of the Pelourinho, the reality is that the name derives from the gruesome fact that the word means pillory and it was exactly here that public whipping of enslaved people took place. Salvador was, in fact, as early as the 16th-century, the site of the first slave market in the Americas.
Another rise in the hilly urbanscape takes you into the Santo Antônio area whose main street is lined with bars, cafes and small shops. The small housefront shops and businesses near the Carmo church include the Atelier Nós where you can see right through the door as the elderly couple Edival and Izaura Rosas restore stunning works of religious icons and statuary.
Hopefully again soon, visitors will be able to book into the Convento do Carmo, the enormous 16th-century convent built, as per usual, around a spacious courtyard, and which was until recently a hotel.
Beyond the church, the Brechó Cabral Descobertas is a tiny antique store if you can call it that, with old toys, cameras, books, posters, mini-statues, and as much variety of cool bric-a-brac that can be stuffed into an old house.
Fewer tourists venture further along the unusually (for Salvador) almost-straight street. With both having terraces overlooking the bay, the Cafélier is an old-school style coffee house with antique decor, while the funky modern Casa Boqueirão sells local artisan crafts and fashions.
Finally, it’s time to explore the city’s renowned culinary scene. Just outside of the Old Town, the four-year-old Mistura Contorno takes up an old warehouse with protected status. While more recently the space was a club, at one point long ago it was a bordello as well. For all its historic brick walls and archways, its large glass windows add a modern ambiance and allow spectacular views of the marina below and far over All Saints Bay.
Already known for her original Mistura restaurant in the Itapuã suburb, owner and chef Andréa Ribeiro mixes Mediterranean and Bahian cuisines on her menu, creating seafood dishes the likes of which you’ve never tasted, such as seabass with pupunha palm heart and asparagus or grouper in Prosecco with truffle risotto.
In a house with the same stunning bay views, the white-tablecloth Chez Bernard is an institution that has been known as the finest French restaurant in town since Chef Bernard Goethals founded it in 1963. Today, Chef Laurent Rezette’s steak au poivre and grilled bacalhau are popular, while dishes such as a fig salad with goat cheese, almonds and honey from the uruçu bee all use local ingredients. The Belgian-born Chef Rezette even makes his own chocolates.
Set among a row of high-end boutiques facing the marina, Amado is an old sugar mill turned spacious restaurant with enormous show windows. From duck magret with bacon polenta to a scallop, squid and shrimp ravioli with basil and sage crème sauce, the ample menu equally attracts romance-seeking and family diners.
Also directly on the marina, Lafayette restaurant has a popular outdoor deck that spreads out under an enormous tree with low-hanging branches, a spot which also promises sunsets seen right through the masts of docked sailboats. Their expansive Mediterranean cuisine includes a grilled seafood medley of lobster, shrimp, squid, octopus and white fish.
It’s an hour-plus by boat or car around All Saints Bay to get to Ilha do Frades, the Island of Friars. But the journey is worth it for the lovely church on the north side of the island.
In a small village on the island’s south side, you’ll find roosters crowing at the rustic, open-air Restaurante Preta where you dine under colorful umbrellas in a leafy setting, and where the party ambiance that reigns sometimes includes live music.
Sure, it’s a long way to go for hearty Bahian moqueca, or lobster with grilled corn and chutneys made from tamarind, and for the tart fruit of the Brazilian pitanga plant. But if you’re in no rush to get back to the mainland, you’ll be pleased that Preta also has a few small rooms for rent. And especially so if you’re here for a deserved post-Carnival wind down.
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