“Santo Antônio” is the name given to the narrow neighborhood that stretches from the plaza in front of the church and convent of Carmo complex down to the vast open square known as Largo do Santo Antônio. The neighborhood’s main drag is the Rua Direito de Santo Antônio, an extension of Rua do Carmo.
Although bereft of the splendid treasures of the Pelô, for the sheer joy of rambling around a historic bairro, Santo Antônio offers a much more enticing—not to mention safer—vibe. Not as old or as reupholstered as the Pelourinho, Santo Antônio offers a much more “authentic” experience of Salvador and hints of what the Pelô could have been had the strategies accompanying its makeover—expulsion of residents and pandering to tourists—not been so brutal.
In the last few years, many of its crumbling belle epoque–era mansions have been saved by enterprising hoteliers—many of them gringos—who have opened up restaurants, galleries, and no less than 25 pousadas. Luckily, instead of radically transforming the hood, these newcomers spruced it up and then integrated themselves into the fabric of what is still, at heart, a traditional bairro popular, with its cozy bakeries, grocery stores, and bars.
As you stroll along the uneven cobblestones, admiring the eclectic turn-of-the-20th-century architecture, you can peer into windows and see residents gossiping, watching TV, drinking beer, and attending to the business of their lives. An added bonus of the plethora of newly opened pousadas and restaurants is that several are outfitted with panoramic terraces offering splendid views of the Cidade Baixa and the Baía de Todos os Santos. Watching the sun set over the Ilha da Itaparica in the company of amigos and a bem gelada (ice-cold beer) is a favorite ritual.
As you make your way down the Rua Direito de Santo Antônio, highlights include the Cruz do Pascoal, a giant cross planted in the middle of the road, in front of which the faithful used to pray for protection against demons, and the attractive 18th-century Igreja Nossa Senhora do Boqueirão (Rua Direito de Santo Antônio 60).
The road eventually opens upon the spacious Largo de Santo Antônio square, which is framed at one end by a belvedere overlooking the ocean and at the other by the neoclassical Igreja de Santo Antônio Além do Carmo. The church is almost always open due to Santo Antônio’s popularity. Not only a protector of the poor, he also intercedes on behalf of lonely hearts and bachelors (as the patron saint of marriage) and specializes in finding lost valuables.
At the far side of the square is Forte de Santo Antônio Além do Carmo (Largo de Santo Antônio, tel. 71/3321-7587, 7:30– 9:30 p.m. Tues., Thurs., and Sat., and 5:30– 7:30 p.m. Sun., free), which was constructed in the 16th century by the Portuguese as a defensive measure against invading Dutch troops. During the years of military dictatorship, the abandoned fort served as a detention center for political prisoners who spoke out against the government. After undergoing renovations, it was reopened in 2006 as a Capoeira Preservation Center, dedicated to preserving this traditional martial art while providing new headquarters for some of the city’s oldest capoeira schools.
© Michael Sommers from Moon Brazil, 2nd Edition