Most of Salvador’s most interesting sights are very conveniently located in the old colonial center of the Cidade Alta known as the Pelourinho (a reference to one of the neighborhood’s main squares, the Largo do Pelourinho, where slaves were routinely whipped at the pelourinho, or “pillory”). Despite its inauspicious past, the “Pelô” provides a feast for architecture buffs, with the largest concentration of baroque architecture in the Americas. Replete with an incredible number of richly adorned churches and convents, its hilly cobblestoned streets also reflect a lot of the vibrancy and color of Bahian life.
Only a decade ago, the Pelourinho was a crumbling mess, its buildings dilapidated and its community of pimps, prostitutes, and drug dealers making the neighborhood a definite risk zone. If you’re curious as to what the Pelô was like before its overhaul, gaze (from afar!) down some of the neighboring streets behind the Praça da Sé, which have yet to receive their facelifts and which are notoriously dangerous.
After being declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1985, the area underwent a massive restoration that saved many of the historic buildings and (somewhat unceremoniously) removed the former inhabitants, replacing them with boutiques, restaurants, bars, and open-air spaces for musical shows. What it lost in terms of gritty authenticity, it made up for in terms of heightened security and animation. Indeed, the Pelô became a vibrant hot spot that attracted both Soteropolitanos and tourists, intent on all forms of merrymaking, whether by day or night.
More recently, however, the Pelô has become somewhat of a tourist showcase that is increasingly forsaken by locals while tourists themselves are increasingly approached by vendors and beggars (thieves tend to keep a low profile due to the heavy police presence). Nonetheless, there is no denying the rich history and sheer magnificence of its gloriously restored edifices, which are consistently impressive, even to the most jaded of Soteropolitanos. While the bairro itself can be explored on foot in a couple of hours, in order to take advantage of all the church interiors and interesting museums, boutiques and lovely outdoor bars, you will need a couple of days.
The labyrinthine layout of the neighborhood is very conducive to wandering. Just make sure you don’t venture off the beaten, police-patrolled track—especially at night. The streets that haven’t yet received a facelift are still rife with marginal types and drug dealers, and tourist assaltos (muggings) are not unheard of. So if you find yourself on a street that’s looking decidedly run-down and in disrepair, turn around.
The best place to start your exploration of the Pelô is at the Praça Municipal. Also known as Praça Tomé de Souza—in honor of Salvador’s founder and first governor general (a three-ton statue guards the square) this large plaza was the seat of colonial Brazil for over two centuries. Today, most of the square has been converted into a parking lot, which is dominated by the monumental Palácio do Rio Branco. Guarded by soaring eagles and topped by an impressive dome, the palace is fondly known by Bahians as the bolo de noiva (“the wedding cake”), an appropriate nickname considering its resemblance to a gleaming sugar-coated, multistoried baker’s confection.
Constructed by Tomé de Souza in 1549 as the governor’s palace, over time the building suffered bombardments, partial demolitions, and makeovers—all of which explain its eclectic style, a mixture of neoclassical, Byzantine, and Renaissance elements. Having housed the Portuguese royal family (when they fled Napoleon’s troops in 1808) and been a prison, it now houses Bahia’s ministry of culture. Step inside and you’ll find lots of rococo plasterwork, frescoes, and a small museum with furnishings, as well as artifacts belonging to governors past. that once belonged to the governor. More interesting is the glorious view from the palace’s elegant verandas, where you can take in the Cidade Baixa and the Bay of All Saints.
© Michael Sommers from Moon Brazil, 2nd Edition