The old bridgehead, and capital of Brazil in times yonder, has never been very sure of its name, although officially, it has one: Salvador da Bahía de Todos os Santos. It is a mouthful, to be pronounced in one sweep, preferably after inhaling deeply.

Big as the city has meanwhile become, its sudden appearance – misty but expansive – hit me in the face, unprepared. After a slow turn into a narrow gap to our right, it stepped out of a misty morning, long and grey, imposing yet inviting.

Truth be told, the past sea days had also left a special impression. The omnipresent ocean had presented his many faces, partly caused by the winds, partly because of the position of the sun. Sometimes the gliding waves seemed covered with a thin layer of transparent enamel; rather than a mirror, the ocean turned into an oversized painting, depicting the infinite surface encircling me. If there is one single striking aspect that has dominated these sea days, it has to be the uninterrupted expanse of its blue surface, a surface that, even if we make abstraction of unfathomable depth and unimaginable water mass underneath, projects, with the precision of laser, our individual insignificance – a great exercise for improved ego management indeed! The horizon appears more stretched at these latitudes as well; the line where waters and heavens meet looks longer and straighter too, enhancing the impression of endlessness. Is it all imagined? Perhaps, but the math doesn’t matter that much when one is immersed in this grand terrestrial theatre.

Salvador beckoned. As the fog was lifting, we made it safely into port. In 1501 Amerigo Vespucci discovered the sheltered bay, on November 1st. Because all explorers of that era were catholic, it would have been blasphemy if All Saints (Day) would not be mentioned in its name. He called the bay simply “Bahía de Todos os Santos”, pleasing kings and popes alike. In 1549 – diamonds and gold had by now been discovered further inland – the Portuguese installed a governor and, as this was considered a blessing for the region as well as for the early settlers, the nascent city was rechristened to “Saõ Salvador da Bahía de Todos os Santos” – Holy Savior of the Bay of All Saints”. For the black slaves who were imported afterwards by the millions (five), because the local Indians weren’t strong enough for the hard labor in the mines, not the Holy Savior, nor the minerals turned out to be a blessing.

Measured by Western standards, Bahìa is the first (civilized?) “city” that we come across on this voyage. You find everything that one could expect of a modern metropolis: high rise apartments, beautiful buildings (colonial mostly), transportation infrastructure, busy streets, a big port, substantial international and regional tourism, shopping plazas and, yes, a stock exchange as well! Among the zillions of zipping cars I haven’t seen Mercedes, BMW or Audi and wonder why. Certainly, it is not for a lack of rich people …

Obviously Salvador has many European, more precisely colonial, traits, quite naturally where it concerns architecture. Among its three million inhabitants, the majority are said to be of African descent. Although the tourist-oriented street vendors were predominantly black, I didn’t have the impression that they were dominating the average street scene. Poverty, as we have witnessed farther north, seems to be less of a problem. That has, according to the guide, much to do with the fact that the fertility rate has dropped from 8.8 children per family in 1990, to 1.8 today. It all looks like a sustainable demography.

All told, the city is buoyant with vivid life, a life that is lived in a breathtaking environment, created by nature as well as by architecture. Salvador boasts a remarkable number of private residences, including the splendid mansion of its biggest slave trader. The old, predominantly Portuguese palaces have been “redeployed” for use by the government. The residence of the governor of the state (simply called Bahía) is imposing and artfully restored. Its towering position, high above the city and the bay, leaves no doubt about where the boss lives.

A totally other class of pearls constitute churches and monasteries. The most outstanding are situated in the upper city, Pelourinho. At its main square the black slaves were beaten when they didn’t “comply” with rules and regulations or didn’t otherwise live up to the masters’ expectations. The monasteries of St. Francisco and Sta. Theresa are impressive architectural jewels. The monasterial church of the Franciscans unquestionably deserves its nickname of “Golden Church” – inside everything, apart from a few baroque artifacts, is gold or gilded.

Because they were refused access to existing holy places, the slaves have built their own church in the same square. The Igreja de Nossa Senhora do Rosario dos Pretos (Our Lady of the Rosary of the Blacks) took one hundred years to complete. Inside it only black saints – that is white saints painted black – are on display! Today, at the square the preparations for Carnival are in full swing – better, in full samba! In Brazil the Bahía Carnival is, also due to the African influences, as famous as the Rio extravaganza. The parade covers 14 kilometers with countless floats that carry … between 8000 and 12000 dancers and musicians … each! See you in March?

In summary: SdBdToS is without a doubt a place to visit. Beware though that it rains every day, albeit only in the early morning as the sun is rising! Throughout the year its temperature varies between 25 and 28°C (76/ 82F), in the shadow which, unfortunately, is often difficult to find. It sports beautiful, tropical beaches, an idyllic bay dotted with many dolce-far-niente islands. Bahía? Cool, man – put it on your priority list!

Prinsendam, Day 24 – Friday Jan 28th, 2011

Bye, bye Allsaintlly Terrestrial Paradise