24 November 2011

Rio's Cultural Treasures

Beach going at João Fernandes
Most visitors to Búzios come for the natural beauty of its beaches. Some come to swim, surf, boat, kayak, snorkel, hike, play. Others come to spend the day flopped in a lounge chair under an umbrella, ordering caipirinhas and platters of grilled fish from the omnipresent beach waiters. Frankly, if you don't live here surrounded by your work, your friends, your books, your music — your stuff, as George Carlin might say — there's really nothing much else to do (outside of catching a movie at the Bardot Cinema). That's why there's a Rio de Janeiro.

Like Búzios, Rio has its array of beautiful beaches and stunning nature. But Rio also has a big city cultural life that Búzios lacks. That's why, when Mark and I were in Rio last week with a free Sunday on our hands, we stayed away from Copacabana, Ipanema and Leblon. We spent the day instead in historic downtown Rio at the exhibits and events going on in and around what's been dubbed the Cultural Corridor, starting with the CCBB (Centro Cultural do Banco do Brasil).

The CCBB is in a gorgeous neoclassical building owned since the 1920s by the Banco do Brasil, and restored to glory in 1989 by the bank, a huge underwriter for the arts. The CCBB has various exhibition spaces, theaters, movie screens, concert halls, a bookstore, a café, a restaurant and the de rigueur WiFi space. Admission is free. You want to pop in after doing some shopping and wander through an exhibit, or just sit in the marble rotunda and relax? Be our guest, says the CCBB. The exhibit we caught was India! (the exclamation point is part of the title, and it's deserved), an amazing interactive and multimedia show covering 3,000 years of Indian culture, from the age of antiquity to modern times. If you go in to the exhibit thinking that India is all tandoori and raga think again. The contemporary aspects of the show are a revelation, from the hilarious Bollywood film clips to the teeming black and white photographs of the gritty, seedy side of Indian life today, by Raghu Rai.

Traffic at Chawri Bazar, Raghu Rai
The God Ganesha in the entrance hall

Right outside the CCBB is the Casa França-Brasil, another historic neoclassical building that's been used as a cultural center since 1990. There's always something engaging, if not titillating, happening there. The current show is of colorful video images superimposed over huge photographs of faces and flowers. Interesting, but nowhere near as memorable as their exhibit a few months ago: two naked people lying in a giant hammock, sleeping. Next door is another cultural center, this one underwritten by the Correios, Brazil's postal service, housed in yet another historic building with yet another extraordinary exhibit. An indefatigable curator by the name of Romaric Büel spent years talking to and cajoling Rio's richest and most successful art collectors to exhibit their never-before-seen-in-public pieces of European art — their Renoirs, Picassos, Chagalls, Bosches, etc. — just one time. Not all of them agreed, but those that did gave us a real treat.

Sonia Delaunay
Auguste Renoir

From Correios we followed the winding maze of narrow streets lined with old buildings that have been restored and turned into restaurants, galleries and used-book stores. At the end of the maze is an archway, and beyond it sits the Paço Imperial. Originally built in 1699 as the Mint, then used as a governor's mansion, a royal palace and a post office, the Paço Imperial has been a a cultural center since 1985. When we stopped by last week they were just finishing a multimillion-dollar renovation. But on our next trip to Rio we plan to make a beeline there for their next exhibit, 100 Years of Brazilian Art, culled from the Banco Itaú Collection, which is the biggest art collection in all of South America.


  1. Lovely pictures. All of them. It is such a thing to read about my country from someone that came from overseas. Specially one that is intimate with the place already.

    The last picture in particular... it is such a piece of the Brazilian life. The beauty of the architecture of a time, along with the plastic chairs and tables that have been provided by sponsors such as beer and soda producers. These objects have no idea of the impact they have in people's memories. When I travel to countries where I wish I lived, I miss these things terribly.

    I wonder if these things have been well recorded in any piece of Brazilian literature, like Orhan Pamuk did with his Turkey in his books.

    Hey, have you guys ever been at Rio Grande do Sul?

    1. Hi, Renan, We sure have been to Rio Grande do Sul, we've pretty much been all over Brazil. For at least a decade before we moved here my husband was writing for a travel magazine, and we came down at least 3 times a year. The familiarity we began to feel with the country had a lot to do with our choosing Brazil when it was time to retire.

  2. Oh my. Travelling and writing. It must have been so boring!

    Please keep me up with y'alls writings.