The sister city to the much bigger and more modern Recife is the charming, colonial town of Olinda. The laid-back Olinda is the home of some of Brazil’s best preserved colonial architecture and its cobblestone streets lay claim to Brazil’s longest Carnaval, a 10 day affair deemed to be safer and more intimate than Rio and Salvador’s. Unbeknownst to us, we would get to experience the raw energy of Carnaval in late November.
We arrived early Saturday morning after our first of many overnight bus rides on our round the world trip. The town itself is quite small and conquerable on foot in an afternoon. Staying on the bottom of the city, we followed the “intuitive” walking tour Lonely Planet had recommended. Walking up the cobblestone hills, we passed several of the 11 colonial churches in the city and rows of brightly colored homes, shops and restaurants. The quick rise in elevation offered tremendous ocean views as well as a view of the town below us and the stark contrast of the modern and not-so-beautiful Recife skyline. The town has a very subtle way of gaining your approval. While first starting out we were unimpressed and already contemplating our next move. But, like a good chess player, Olinda had other offerings up its sleeve.
At the top of the city along with some great views were rows of food stands offering the famous Bahian dish, acarajé. I had read about the dish and now its smell was telling me that the deed needed to be done. I purchased one and waited as the brown bean fritter was fried in dende oil and mashed with salt and onions by the Afro-Bahian woman in the white cloth hat and big, flowing white dress, as is so common in this part of Brazil. Dende oil is a palm oil used in many Bahian dishes and possesses a more pungent smell and taste than corn or olive oil and commonly causes “tummy” issues for the uninitiated (i.e. gringos like yours truly). The acarajé was then topped off with vatapa, a mix of dried shrimp, pepper and tomato sauce. It was, in a word, delicious. And clogging my arteries. This would not deter me from ordering more street food like fried tapioca crepes filled with chocolate and cheese (yes, cheese). I’m trying to keep a balanced diet here and cholesterol is clearly part of that diet.
To really experience all that Olinda has to offer you must stay for a Sunday night. This was not necessarily our plan but, as we found, the quiet days lead to music-filled nights when the blocos, or bands, begin practicing for the pre-Lent festival of Carnaval. Our walking tour ended with us following a band of young and old producing magnetic drum beats, twirling batons and some funky gyrations that I thought were saved for post-puberty, but apparently not. The bloco ended in the town square where there several other bands practicing as well. I can’t imagine what Carnaval is like given that this was just a small practice session but it was a party all the same.
Sunday night brought even more energy and music. Every teenager in town gathered in the square outside of our pousada to blast fevro, forro and other Brazilian beats from their car sub-woofers. It was quite a sight – something like a post-game ‘Friday Night Lights’ party gone Latin – lots of dancing, partying, drinking, flirting – all leading to public make-outs and loads of entertainment for us.
We will be returning again before our flight home for Christmas. We’re looking forward to again ditching Recife and keeping our fingers crossed that we happen again here on a Sunday night.