A delayed flight takes us north east to Salvador, and we arrive past midnight into the darkened airport. A taxi drives us into the city which is built on two levels: the Cidade Baixa and the Cidade Alta. Above, on a steep bluff overlooking the sea, is where we’ll find the old town; the taxi drives through the lower parts of the city, the commercial district, spooky with its deserted crumbling streets and closed shutters. We reach our hostel, an old converted mansion, and creep upstairs through the grey dark, almost already asleep as we fall into bed.
The morning comes and it’s like a different city. We have a private room on the corner of the building with wooden French shutters and a little balcony and we can see up and down the narrow cobbled streets around us, past the buildings painted yellow and pistachio and white. The sun is out and we’re excited to be here; directly across the road in an upstairs room a woman braids a young girls hair and moves to and fro in the shade of the room.
We head out to explore the old town, the heat meaning that we wander the streets slowly, taking our time. In the 1500s Salvador was the capital of Brazil and the administrative centre of Portuguese America. It was an important city, with grand colonial buildings lined up along the top of the cliffs. Almost five million Africans were shipped here to work in this Portuguese colony, more than any other country in the Atlantic slave era. The remnants of history still remain, from those colonial buildings, now crumbling in the heat, and the ancestors of the slaves who have made their lives are here. Excluding Nigeria, Brazil has the highest population of African people in the world. You can feel it in everything: the food, the music, the feeling of the city. Salvador has been my favourite Brazilian city so far.
We have a map from the tourist information that is marked yellow and white where it’s safe to walk. Despite its rich past and being a vibrant city, Salvador is still a poor city and attacks of tourists are amongst the highest in Brazil here. We’re lucky though not to experience or witness anything and there are lots of police out on the streets.
We head to the Igreja da Ordem Terriers de São Paulo, the church complex just around the corner from the hostel. It has an ornate carved stone facade and inside a bright square of sunlight gleaming in the midday sun, surrounded by cloisters paved in azulejos, beautiful decorative glazed tiling. Inside the church there is gleaming gold and downstairs the crypt is white marble. Upstairs a long room overlooks the chapel and has a view of the Salvador rooftops.
We go to explore the Palácio do Rio Branco, the old governors palace. Much of it is closed to the public, except a room of dry dusty manuscripts and a long room running along the front of the building: a polished wooden floor, tall shutters and an open terrace that overlooks the harbour and the crumbling abandoned mansions below.
From here we go down to Cidade Baixa, using the Art Deco elevator built originally as a pulley system designed the Jesuits. In the lift a lady in red lipstick fans her face and smiles at me, and a guy whispers sweet nothings in his girlfriend’s ear. It’s interesting to wander the market down there and nice during the day, though we’ve been warned not to go at night.
For lunch we go back to the main square in the old town and buy some street food from a lady dressed in a white traditional African dress. She wipes sweat from her face and finally breaks into a smile when we tell her the food is delicious. She has given us acarajé: it’s our first time eating it and definitely wasn’t the last, it’s so tasty! An acarajé is a deep fried bean cake which is stuffed with vatapá (coconut and garlic porridge) and topped with spicy pepper and dried shrimps. It’s gorgeous.
We watch capoeira dancers in the square, guys in loose jogging bottoms and bare heats moving barefoot and performing. We’ve learnt that capoeira originates from colonialism when slaves incorporated fighting moves into a flowing dance, a hidden resistance from their owners and masters. There’s a hulking guy who beats all the other dancers, and a cute little boy – all spindly arms and legs – who tries to square up to him.
Afternoon fades into evening and there are the layers and layers of five o’clock street sounds: the laugh of teenagers, the skud of a ball across the cobbled, music from an open window, voices calling in Portuguese, a girl shrieks as a guy she’s with says something flirtations, clapping hands, the click of dominoes from the old guys round the corner, the rev of an engine. Above it all, I sit barefoot on our thin balcony peeling the sounds apart.
I head out to the shops alone and walk through a triangular plaza which used to be the site of the old slave whipping post, and where Michael Jackson filmed a music video. Now it’s busy with people and the buildings are bright blues and greens, turning in the evening light like they’ve been turned upside down and dipped in gold paint.
That night is a night of music! We head out of our hostel and walk right into a big group of drummers, practising right there in the street. They are so loud, their energy and strength is amazing and infectious and makes the hairs on my arms stand up and my neck prickle. We join the throng and follow the drummers down the street, dancing behind them to the music and buying a beer from a guy in the street.
After a long while, we peel off and go to Terrairo de Jesus, where we buy caipirinhas in plastic cups from a street stall and watch a samba band perform.
We’ve bought tickets randomly for a music event in a small theatre and, upon googling it back at the hostel, realise that it’s “experimental jazz”. Not the usual thing that Moz and I listen to! Nevertheless we decide to give it a go: seven barefoot guys in white perform a dizzying array of instruments nonstop for 90 minutes. It’s beautiful and hypnotic, and I’m glad we spent the equivalent of a fiver to support local music and see something totally new.
We leave the theatre and straight away we’re swept up into another drumming band, following them up the cobbled streets. A guy dots white paint on my face and another ties a colourful ribbon around our wrists to protect us from evil spirits.
Lastly we stumble upon a courtyard, open to the sky where there’s a samba band playing and people dressed up nice.
On our final day we decide to see another side of Salvador (and to try and track down an English bookshops and I’m getting dangerously low on reading material) so we take an uber to a suburb called Barra. The taxi negotiates the steep backstreets of Salvador and allows us to see much more than we could on foot as it wouldn’t be safe to walk in some of the areas. The different levels of the city make it feel as if Salvador is built on layers. The streets are angled against each other and there are hidden spaces where rubbish piles up and people sleep rough. There’s lots of opportunities to fall between the cracks. Poverty is just around the corner from the tourist areas and we catch glimpses of life through open doorways, children scampering barefoot, people looking high, guy collecting rubbish for cash. One with torn shorts and half a smile has a big bag of tin cans throws it under the wheels of a stationary bus to crush the metal, then sits on a kerb to smoke a cigarette.
At Barra, the city beach is packed with bodies, there are high rises all along the front and we walk along the water to the lighthouse and back. The English bookshop is closed but it’s been nice to see a different part of the city, even if it doesn’t feel as nice as the old town. We navigate the city bus system and get chatting to a lovely guy in his fifties. His English is excellent and we talk about his son and England and Brazil, he invites us to a family wedding the next day. He exclaims excitedly “I love you! You work so well together! above love, you always need friendship”. We laugh and walk with him through town and when we say goodbye he tells us he has an operation coming up and will we think of him.
I loved our time in Salvador and am so glad we made the journey up here. It’s been a city where music is around every corner and you can’t help but dive in.
Now time to experience the famous beaches of Bahia!