If the venerable Sunday Times of London says “Brazil is Buzzing”, who am I to argue. “More than beach bums why Rio and São Paulo could soon rival Milan and Paris”, its headline continues. We will never know just how in, how incredibly hot Rio is, as we opted instead to visit the cool Petrópolis, an alpine retreat that is much different in flavour than the beaches of Ipanema populated by dental-floss-sized swim wear.
We passed as well on the Corcovado Hill tour which visits the site of the Christ the Redeemer statue that overlooks Rio like a diver on a 2,400 foot high tower. It is not that the other two options were not attractive, but rather with only one day ashore, we felt that a place that figured so prominently into the history of Brazil would be more interesting.
Rio de Janeiro was founded in the early 16th century by Portuguese explorers, but it was not until the 19th century that Petrópolis became a full fledged town. Dom Pedro II, Brazil’s last emperor, built an Imperial Palace up in this lush mountainous location. Although this regal venue is only forty miles north of Rio, to reach it is a tortuous drive even today. The road climbs and curves some 2750 feet around mountain walls offering breathtaking views of the valleys below.
The impression that I had on arrival was that I had taken the wrong bus and had arrived in Switzerland. True, there were no snow-covered peaks, but many of the venerable buildings had a distinctly European flavour. Cobbled streets and tiled-roofed buildings, some constructed of wood in an alpine style, strengthened that across-the-seas flavour.
In the middle of town the former royal Summer Palace, now the Imperial Museum, exhibits the crown jewels as well as collections of fine china, tapestries, paintings and ornate furniture. Surrounded by lush tropical gardens, this building, a pink and white confection, presents a strong contrast in style to the restrained perpendicular gothic style of the gray stone Catedral de São Pedro de Alcântara with its finely tapered spire thrusting up into the cerulean sky. Parks bisected by spring-fed streams and canals occupy a good portion of this hilly tourist town. Palm trees and flowering bushes frame the views of major-sized half-timber houses that grip the hills. After all these years many of these mansions are still owned by relatives of the last emperor.
The journey from our ship in the harbour up to this mountain retreat had taken a fat hour so we were curious when the timing back to the ship was set for 2½ hours. Perhaps an unannounced stop on the way down would surprise us. The extra time quoted, it turned out, was indeed a great revelation for us.
As we neared the heart of the city driving on an expressway through leafy suburbs, the traffic thickened and then clogged. Very quickly cars, trucks, and motorcycles started to drive on the median and verges. Soon the vehicles were inextricably snarled as some drivers attempted to turn around in the ditch that bordered this six-lane road. For over thirty minutes we did not move at all. Young people got out of their cars and lounged on the vehicles’ hoods. Music played, people talked and laughed, horns tooted. Occasionally voices were raised in anger but not often. Then people got back into their cars as the traffic uncoiled and mysteriously started to crawl.
When we arrived back at the ship, we told one of the crew about this cacophonous experience. He started to laugh. He explained that we had fallen victim to Brazilian “democracy” in action. Apparently the residents of the suburb in question wanted an overpass built to avoid a rather long and tedious journey, and when the government refused, the citizens instituted a revenge process. Each day at rush hour, burning tires were rolled into the road with the resulting black smoke obscuring vision and thus stopping the traffic. I have no way of knowing whether their ploy worked, but it certainly added a memorable sidebar to an already outstanding day.