Sunday, April 21, 2013

Olinda – by Gary

In 1492 Columbus is credited by many with ‘discovering’ America by arriving in the already settled Caribbean which he continued to confuse with China - even after sailing there from Spain three more times!  Notwithstanding his (and others) mistakes his voyages sparked great European interest in the ‘New World’ and its colonisation.

As a result the Brazilian coast was explored by the Portuguese navigator Pedro Cabral soon after in the year 1500. Pedro commanded an entire fleet and claimed Brazil in Portugal’s name.  European diseases brought by the fleet quickly spread in the indigenous ‘Indian’ populations, decimating their numbers.  The Pernambuco province, within which current day Recife stands, was found ideal for sugar cane production, and the European settlers soon established an industry.  But alas, the surviving local Indians were found unsuitable for enslaving into the manual work of the industry, so the importing of vast numbers of Africans was commenced (and not abandoned until 1888, Brazil being the last western nation to abolish slavery).

The town of Olinda was founded in 1537, sugar cane cultivation fuelling its rapid growth as the administrative centre of Pernambuco.  Many splendid churches, monasteries and convents were built in the town, the Portuguese displaying considerable proselytising zeal.  The Dutch invaded and occupied the region from 1630 to 1654, comprehensively sacking and burning Olinda and establishing the new, planned administrative centre of Recife nearby.  When the Dutch departed the Portuguese rebuilt Olinda and for many years great rivalry existed between the two towns.  Recife gradually eclipsed its rival and in 1827 (5 years after independence) became the capital of the province.

Today Recife is a large bustling city of over 1.5 million people, and Olinda has been absorbed within its urban sprawl.  However Olinda still retains much of the fabric of the town rebuilt by the Portuguese colonizers in the 18th C.  Its largely intact mix of traditional houses, gardens, grand baroque churches and tiny chapels resulted in the area being inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage List.  It is, without doubt, the region’s most important tourism asset.

Looking across Olinda from atop the highest hill in the town; the centre of Recife can be seen in the background

Located on top of this hill is the church and seminary of Our Lady of Grace, reckoned to be Brazil’s finest example of Jesuit architecture of the 16thC and one of the oldest buildings in Olinda.  It was extensively rebuilt in 1661 following its torching by the Dutch.

The Igreja da Misericórdia – the Church of Mercy was first built in 1540 and despite being largely destroyed by the Dutch, retains its original facade.  This church is also located on Olinda’s big hill and the congregation usually ascend to it via the Ladeira da Misericórdia (Ladder of Mercy), which is the cobbled street and stairs in the foreground.

The most impressive of Olinda’s 20 odd churches, the Mosteiro de São Bento - Monastery of Saint Benedict.

Built by the Benedictines late in the 16thC – the monastery is also one of the oldest buildings in Olinda!.

The alter is fabulously intricately carved and gilded timber.

We also visited the Museum of Sacred Art, which has some vivid pieces!


But in case you’re wondering, Olinda is much more than just churches!

Many of the houses are small, simple and stand shoulder to shoulder.

Most appear to have been recently renovated and feature dazzling paint jobs.

We glimpsed cool sanctuary in the internal volumes of some of the bigger houses...

...and quiet tranquil charm...

... while outside it was HOT! We struggled from one shady spot to the next.

Public art is scattered through the town...

... some of it quirky....

... and there were several high quality art/craft galleries.
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