Claires travel pages
Claires travel pages

Located on the North East coast of Brasil, Salvador da Bahia, also known by the names of Salvador and Bahia by the local population, is the capital of the Brazilian state of Bahia. It was founded in 1549 and quickly became the premier city in Brazil, and the second most important in the Portuguese Empire, after Lisbon. In the 17th and 18th centuries Salvador prospered, becoming one of the country’s major ports with large amounts of both sugar from the northeast and gold and diamonds from the mines in the southeast passing through the city.

Today, the city of 2.1 million people has managed to retain its African soul and develop the best of its colonial legacy into a unique, vibrant culture. Festivals are spontaneous, wild, popular and frequent. Candomblé services illuminate the hillsides. Capoeira and afoxé dance through the streets. Between the modern tower blocks, well-restored enclaves of the old city remain with cobblestone streets, colourful mansions and dozens of ornate Baroque churches. Salvador’s up town, Pelourinho is the largest closed quarter of baroque architecture. The Elevator Lacerda connects it with the downtown, with its markets and harbour facilities.

I spent 4 days visiting Salvador. It is a beautiful, old city whose heart pulses to an African rhythm. As a result of the important slave trade in the area, Bahia is Brazil's most Africanised state. The fusion of African and Latin cultures had given Salvador a unique brand of magic that is particularly evident at city’s many festivals, most notably the massive “Carnaval” in mid-November which attracts two million revellers from all over the world and is said to rival the famous Rio Carnaval.

Cidade Alta

This is the historic section of Salvador. Built on hilly, uneven ground, the site of the original settlement was chosen to protect the new capital from Indian attacks. The most important buildings—churches, convents, government offices and houses of merchants and landowners—were constructed on the hilltops.

Today, the colonial neighborhoods of Pelourinho, Terreiro de Jesus and Anchieta are filled with 17th-century churches and houses. The area has been undergoing major restoration work since 1993. The result is that Pelourinho has been transformed into a tourist mecca, packed with restaurants, bars, art galleries and boutiques. Although it's apparently lost some of its character in the process (many of the street vendors and local residents have been shunted off), the area is now much safer and tourist police are posted on just about every other corner. During my stay I visited a large number of churches in this area of town, some of them of course more interesting than others.


Capoeira originated as an African martial art developed by slaves to fight their masters. Capoeira was prohibited by the oppressors and banished from the senzalas (slave barracks). The slaves were forced to practice clandestinely in the forest. Later, in an attempt to disguise this dance of defiance from the authorities, Capoeira was developed into a kind of acrobatic dance. The clapping of hands and plucking of the berimbau, a stringed musical instrument that looks like a fishing rod, originally served to alert fighters to the approach of the boss and subsequently became incorporated into the dance to maintain the rhythm. As recently as the 1920s, Capoeira was still prohibited and Salvador's police chief organized a police cavalry squad to ban Capoeira from the streets. In the 1930s, Mestre Bimba established his academy and changed the emphasis of capoeira, from its original function as a tool of insurrection, to a form of artistic expression which has become an institution in Bahia.

Capoeira combines the forms of the fight, the game and the dance. The movements are always fluid and circular, the fighters always playful and respectful. It has become very popular in recent years, and throughout Bahia and the rest of Brazil you will see the roda de capoeiras (semicircles of spectator-musicians who sing the initial chula before the fight and provide the percussion during the fight). In addition to the musical accompaniment from the berimbau, blows are exchanged between fighter/dancers to the beat of other instruments, such as caxixi, pandeiro, reco-reco, agogô and atabaque. I saw several amazing displays of Capoeira while in Salvador, although the best ones I saw were probably in Brasilia and in Porto Seguro. It can be absolutaly mesmerizing when performed to a high level. I will never forget a bunch of street kids bouncing around in all kinds of directions in the middle of the road in Rio.


An absolute must for a trip to Salvador is to see a Candomble ceremony. Candomble draws from African religions and Catholicism, and is practiced mainly in the northeast region of Brazil. There are several ways to see ceremonies, which happen several times a week. My friends and I took a chance and went with a man we met in the square who claimed to take small groups to see ceremonies. He took us out of the city center to a very poor area where we found a ceremony taking place in a small communal building. The whole neighborhood seemed to come and watch or take part periodically throughout the hour or so that we were there. The ceremony involves members who fall into trances and seem to take on characteristics of certain deities, as everyone chants and claps. The ceremony goes on for hours, and people come and go as they please.

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