x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

Rio's streets overflow with the frantic energy of Carnaval

It's impossible not to get caught up in the joie de vivre at the greatest show on Earth.

A float in the parade during Rio Carnival 2012. Rafael Moraes / Riotur
A float in the parade during Rio Carnival 2012. Rafael Moraes / Riotur

There is a man standing before me dressed as an enormous flower. Huge sponge petals erupt from his head and a grass skirt barely conceals his modesty. A few feet away, another chap, disguised as a giant butterfly, is dancing as if his life depends on it. And all this without a jot of doubt about their masculinity.

This is the world's biggest street party where, over the course of a week, 50,000 men and women don outrageous costumes to parade in the Sambadrome, watched by 36,000 ticketholders and more than a million revellers - a third of them tourists - who pour onto the streets and beaches of Rio de Janeiro for raucous samba and adrenalin-fuelled, round-the-clock fun.

Whether it is the sultry, sticky heat, the beautiful bodies sunning themselves on glorious beaches or the primal, hip-shaking drum beats echoing from every street corner, it is impossible not to get caught up in Rio's joie de vivre.

The other side of the world just got a lot closer, too, after Emirates launched a direct route to Rio from Dubai. A 14-hour flight stretched out in business class on a flatbed with a mattress means I am ready to hit the ground running on landing.

At the Sambadrome grandstand, the epicentre of Rio Carnaval and a cross between a football stadium and a huge outdoor concert arena, nightly parades begin at 9pm and carry on until dawn as dozens of samba schools compete for the top title.

The costumes are fantastical and extravagant and the floats spectacular, while the themes veer from the sublime to the absurd.

Each samba school boasts 4,000 dancers and picks a storyline or theme on which to base its costumes, meaning the end result can be as varied as Vila Isabel's African heritage tribute and Porto da Pedra's rhapsody to dairy products.

A giant-size Medusa head, complete with animated snakes and moving hands, is breathtaking, as is a vibrant African queen-themed float, which is topped with dancers and a shimmering cavalcade of ice-like sculptures and vast waterfalls, all headed by Neptune, the sea god, who is surrounded by shimmying mermaids.

That they are interspersed with dancers dressed as a pack of playing cards, Mr Potato Head, Napoleon, milk bottles and whirling tops doesn't seem to matter to their audience. From the first chord played by the live samba bands heralding the start of the procession, they are on their feet in the grandstands, whooping and dancing for all they are worth.

Those who cannot afford the ticket prices - between Dh225 and Dh8,100 a head - make their own entertainment, clustering on pavements overlooking the grandstand in fancy dress for street celebrations, crowding the beaches and streets around the neighbourhoods of Copacabana, Ipanema and Leblon, or gathering round impromptu street performers belting out catchy tunes.

In truth, Brazilians don't need much of an excuse to party. And in Rio, the city synonymous with carnival even though it is celebrated throughout the country, you are never very far from a samba beat.

It is ironic that the African slaves shipped to South American shores in the 1500s by the Portuguese have left such an indelible stamp on all aspects of Brazilian life.

The early version of samba they imported is now an intrinsic part of Brazilian culture, the trademark of the most famous carnival in the world and the vein that runs through the country in a great leveller of status and class.

So, too, are the flavours from their homeland - most came from Angola, Mozambique and the Congo - evident in the most traditional dishes such as feijoada, a salty meat and black bean stew, accompanied by fried cassava. It was originally created by slaves using offcuts of meat they were given by their masters. With a six-hour preparation time, it is now a traditional Brazilian dish used to mark special occasions and family weekends, and graces the menus of top-end restaurants.

At Le Pré Catalan, an award-winning restaurant in the Sofitel Rio de Janeiro Copacabana, which overlooks that famous bay, I am treated to an 11-course taste of the Amazon extravaganza when I arrive in the city several weeks before the carnival.

Most of the ingredients I have never heard of; there is not much of a culture of importing ingredients and the fish, fruit and vegetables are all local, meaning the flavours are as wholesome and authentic as you can get. That night, overcome with jet lag, I pass out on a very full stomach.

I wake early to the most glorious view from my balcony. Copacabana must be one of the most photographed beaches in the world but pictures do little justice to its perfection, with fine white sand and the startling blue of the sea only matched by the cloudless sky.

The bay forms a huge sweeping arc in the shape of a necklace, from the Sofitel at one end to the historic Copacabana Palace - where I stay next - at the other. By day, the 4.5km stretch of Avenida Atlantica fronting Copacabana is packed with impossibly bronzed beachgoers, skateboarders and an inordinate amount of Lycra playing volleyball.

By night, although the pavements are still heaving with revellers, the darkened pockets of the beach and a wrong turn down some of the quieter side streets off the main drag take on a sinister feel. It is easy to forget Brazil's high crime rate until you lose your way in the maze of backstreets and suddenly find yourself being eyed as a potential target.

Copacabana is an eclectic mixture of old and young, but is dismissed by locals, known as Cariocas, as a tourist enclave. The beach reaches a promontory by the scenic Copacabana Fort and Arpoador, a rocky outcrop great for sundowners, before morphing into Ipanema and then the family-orientated Leblon.

It is easy to see why Tom Jobim and Vinicius de Moraes immortalised Ipanema in the song The Girl from Ipanema. Every inch of the beach is packed with the young, lithe and tanned. Teenage boys and young men preen on skateboards or show off with a game of beach football while the girls pretend not to notice.

It is a different crowd altogether at the Copacabana Palace, the grande dame of Rio; the hotel's white stucco facade dates back to 1923, exuding an air of refined elegance and old-school glamour. The ballroom is lined with photos of celebrities and high-profile guests who have stayed, from Orson Welles (who threw his television into the pool) and Nelson Mandela to Princess Diana and Gisele Bündchen (who calls it her "second home").

The Botoxed and the beautiful lounge by the vast pool, only shifting from one side to the other as the sun moves. You get the impression they probably never head out into the maelstrom of Rio's chaotic street life.

My vast suite in the Orient Express hotel - which formed the backdrop to Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers' first film together, Flying Down to Rio - comes with a walk-in wardrobe, a lounge with mahogany furniture and a sumptuous bed with 600-thread count Trussardi cotton sheets. It becomes a retreat from the mayhem of the streets outside; I have to remind myself the idea is to keep exploring.

I catch the cog train to the top of Corcovado (hunchback) mountain, where a sign reads: "Our arms are always open to welcome you". It clambers slowly and steeply through clusters of Brazilian hardwood and mahogany trees in Tijuca National Forest, dense with mango and sugar cane, and jackfruit hanging heavy from branches. Around us, the mountainside is dotted with red hibiscus and pink impatiens.

The 710m mountain, from where Cristo Redentor has watched over the city since 1931, lends spectacular views. So, too, does the cable car ferrying passengers to the top of Sugarloaf Mountain (named after the cone shapes used to produce refined sugar), and Parque das Ruinas, the now crumbling remains of an heiress's mansion in the hilltop neighbourhood of Santa Teresa, a bohemian hangout with artists' studios, galleries and craft shops.

On the ground below, 15 de Novembro square near the harbour has a mixed legacy as a former slave market before becoming the site where slavery was abolished and a republic declared. The roads leading off it tell another story about Rio's history of immigration and fascinating cultural diversity.

Narrow cobbled streets are lined with pastel-coloured colonial town houses from the 18th century, replete with shuttered windows and cast iron balconies. The Hollywood star Carmen Miranda made her home here; many have now been turned into restaurants, a popular spot at the end of the working day. Scattered about are a proliferation of ornate churches and the unusual Catedral Metropolitana, whose imposing conical shape and geometric stained-glass windows form the face of modern Rio in the busy downtown district.

But I am drawn to explore the favelas, pockets of poverty and deprivation sprawling across verdant mountainsides in every direction. They sprang up in the late 18th century, after freed slaves made their homes there and swelled to enormous proportions during Brazil's military dictatorship of the 1960s and 1970s, when there was mass immigration from poor rural areas as those struggling to survive sought work.

Crime rates soared and Rio's stark social inequalities were cemented in the ramshackle, multi-storey dwellings, balanced precariously on top of one another sharing the same views as multimillionaires living nearby in hilltop mansions.

At night, the favelas - named after a native wild flower - glitter like jewels. Even during the day, their multicoloured fronts look inviting from a distance. Close up, the harsh realities of life for a fifth of Rio's six million-strong population become shockingly clear.

The company Jeep Tour offers a three-hour walk around Santa Marta favela, a no-go area even for police officers until three years ago, thanks to the monopoly of drug barons and the high murder and robbery rates.

Steep steps, surrounded by mountains of debris and uneven pathways alongside open drains, so narrow you can touch the houses on both sides, are still the only way to negotiate a path, although the government recently opened a funicular railway that connects the lower streets to the top of the neighbourhood.

There are efforts from the authorities to revamp communities with schools and sanitation. Santa Marta's streets are swept three times a week and, with just two years to go before Rio hosts the World Cup and four before the Summer Olympics, the government is pumping US$1 billion into overhauling its poorer districts. But judging from the number of teenagers, barely out of school uniform, nursing babies, there is still a long way to go.

It is another reminder of the many facets of this enticing city. From the party atmosphere of Lapa, an edgy neighbourhood and the heart of Rio's nightlife, to the sun worshipping, laid-back vibe of the beaches, the bohemian charm of Santa Teresa and the serenity of spots like Rodrigo de Freitas lagoon and the botanical gardens with its array of orchids, it is like having 10 different cities melded into one.

But the undercurrent that seems to unite every aspect of life in Rio is a love of music.

In Lapa's 25-block sprawl of clubs, Rio Scenarium is a favourite, a theatre of grotesques spread over three floors, with macabre dolls' heads in glass cases, antiques dotted about and rusting bikes suspended from the ceiling. The quirky setting and live Brazilian band have the dance floor packed until the early hours.

A few streets away, Carioca de Gema, a tiny den with live music, is another popular haunt. There is a refreshing lack of generic international pop; like the food, the music and social life revolves around embracing indigenous influences.

Carnival is the embodiment of that passion for all things native, and when Brazilians aren't celebrating it, they are preparing for it. Costumes are stitched and weekly rehearsals kick off months in advance, with Cariocas invited to see the work in progress at samba schools such as Salgueiro and Cidade do Samba, where some of the floats are made and launched in mock mini-parades.

Watching it all ringside at the Sambadrome is an otherworldly experience and a unique insight into what makes Brazilians tick. I turn to Brazilian journalist Cintia Castro and ask why the nation loves carnival and samba so much.

She shrugs and is stumped for an answer: "They just like to drink a lot, I guess ..."

There is no alcohol being served in the stadium yet everyone is on their feet. By the time the second samba school takes its place in the parade, I find myself jigging on the spot. It's not samba - not as any Brazilian would know it - but there's definitely something in the air. I look across to Cintia and she, too, is bouncing on the spot, notepad and pen in hand. She catches my eye and we both laugh.

There's a reason why it's known as the greatest show on earth. And it's little wonder why the Cidade Marvelhosa - or marvellous city - has so much to sing about.

 

If you go

The flight Return direct flights with Emirates (www.emirates.com) to Rio de Janeiro from Dubai cost from Dh8,780, including taxes.

The hotel Double rooms at the Sofitel Rio de Janeiro Copacabana (www.sofitel.com; 00 55 21 2525 1232) cost from US$580 (Dh2,130) per night. At the Copacabana Palace (www.copacabanapalace.com.br; 00 55 21 2545 8787), double rooms cost from $655 (Dh2,406) per night. Prices include taxes.

The info Next year, the carnival will run from February 8 to February 12.