Life

Olympics or not, Rio is a stunning city to visit

With Rio having turned into the world's main sporting stage yesterday, Enda Cullen gives his take on Brazil's colourful second city, which he visited earlier in the year, finding residents more fired up by their famous carnival than the Olympic Games

The statue of Christ Redeemer overlooks Rio, with Sugarloaf Mountain in the background

AROUND this time four years ago I was sitting with some friends outside my favourite London pub, The Boot. A police officer came along and asked us how we were doing. Immediately talk of preferred craft beers was suspended. We were unused to a police officer being on his own and to take time to chat was unknown.

But this was the Olympics in London where regular indifference was replaced by friendliness and helpfulness. The Olympics, for a few weeks, made London a much better place.

Earlier this year, seeking some winter sun, my wife and I decided to visit Rio de Janeiro. I was interested in experiencing how Brazil’s second, but most famous, city was preparing for the pinnacle of international sporting events.

After the buzz and excitement of the London Olympics, I was surprised by how underwhelmed the Brazilians were about the upcoming games. When I quizzed some locals they were more interested about the imminent carnival and would talk at length about their country’s disappointing World Cup. A common quip I heard more than once about soccer is: "Os ingleses o inventaram, os brasileiros o aperfeiçoaram" ("The English invented it, the Brazilians perfected it").

Our hotel was a block from Copacabana beach and one could spend all the time here such is the diversity and bustle. It is the back garden of the Cariocas (natives of Rio), from 6am to 2am. It is really pleasant to walk the sand and retro black-and-white mosaic promenades of this man made beach.

There are different activities in various stretches of the beach – volleyball, soccer, fishing, body building and sun bathing. I was expecting a body beautiful show but all shapes and sizes are represented on the beach, although I would hesitate to don the skimpy swim wear of some.

We had a relaxing meal of risotto and ribs in one of the many beach kiosks. As you walk towards Ipanema beach, the Copacabana night market is worth visiting. Here Brazil shirts, hammocks, artwork, and souvenirs can be bought after haggling. Expect to bring the price down by 15 per cent.

An early morning start for Sugarloaf Mountain is advisable due to the popularity of the cable car ride. The trip is in two parts, first to Urca Mountain with its magnificent views of Guanabara Bay and the mountains around Rio. The top of Sugarloaf Mountain provides even greater views and your camera will work overtime.

Some of our fellow travellers went at sunset for a different but equally magnificent experience. I would advise going when the weather is clear as it is apt to change. This advice applies equally to Christ The Redeemer on Corcovado. We took the official bus from Copacabana beach and queued in the hot sun for 90 minutes and had the same experience on the way down the mountain. Pre-booking online is wise.

Once up at the 38-metre statue the 360-degree view is awesome. Be prepared to step over the many people flat on the ground taking vertical photographs of this amazing statue. Do go around to the small chapel at the base that hosts weddings and baptisms and is ignored by most visitors.

For those who like clubbing and wish to experience samba dancing, the Lapa area is recommended. I spoke with an Irish couple who took a taxi to the area, from Copacabana, for under £10. They found the Carioca de Gema great for great live music and dancing. This area used to have a reputation for petty crime but has been cleaned up. However, as in any major city, it is best not to flaunt valuables and be vigilant.

The Metropolitan Cathedral of Rio is worth visiting as it is styled on Mayan pyramids and can hold 20,000 people. Outside it looks like a cone of concrete but inside the magnificent stained-glass mosaic windows stretch up as to the heavens. Unlike the grand and baroque churches of South America, this cathedral is modern, simple and serene.

The Maracana stadium, which holds 75,000, can be reached by the easy-to-use metro system. As you walk from the station to the stadium you come across the statue of Hilderaldo Bellini, the first Brazilian to lift the World Cup in 1958. He is credited with starting the tradition of lifting the trophy into the air in soccer.

The tours take place at prescribed times that can be checked online. Near the entrance of the ground, refreshing and cooling coconut drinks can be bought at stalls while you're awaiting entry. A one-hour tour, in Portuguese and English, will show the stadium that hosted two World Cup finals and this month’s Olympics

Rio has some of the finest churrascarias, (barbecued beef restaurants), in Brazil. Our excellent guide, Augustin, recommended the long established restaurant Churrascaria Palace, a block from the seafront at Copacabana. Professional waiters float from table to table, serving up juicy slices of meat to enthusiastic customers. The peixe pintado (a substantial Amazonian fish) and butterflied picanha (sirloin steak) are some of the most delectable choices served here.

One tip, that I discovered to my cost: don’t over indulge in the starters or the early courses of meat as you need to save room for the better cuts that come later in the meal.

We enjoyed the full experience, with wine, for a little over £30 each. For a cheaper but equally memorable dining experience the Copacabana Cervantes restaurant which served delicious filet mignon steak and pineapple sandwiches for around £3 is great for lunch or a late-night snack.

The months after the Olympics will be a good time to visit as the Brazilian summer approaches and prices revert. Do check with your GP for, as well as Zika virus concerns, vaccinations may be needed. With the devalued Real, (approximately 4.30R$ to UK£), food and accommodation are good value. However, with our own sterling presently going through traumas due to Brexit, this may change.

Rio is a truly stunning city – everywhere you turn there are jaw-dropping views. From the laid-back attitudes of the locals to the balmy climate and endless golden beaches, it does not disappoint.

FACT FILE

:: Flights: KLM (www.klm.com) fly daily from Dublin to Rio de Janeiro, changing in Amsterdam. from £560. It is worth checking other airlines on some of the many internet comparison sites

:: Tour operators: Archers, £3,210 approx per person sharing for 14 nights without flights. Good hotels and breakfast provided (www.archersdirect.co.uk)

:: Other useful sites:

http://www.brazil.org.za/tourism.html

http://wikitravel.org/en/Brazil

www.nhs.uk Advice on vaccinations

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