Recife & Olinda – Pernambuco’s Twin Cities
Recife and Olinda, the two neighbouring cities in the north-eastern state of Pernambuco, are only 6km apart in distance but centuries apart in appearance, and make a fascinating contrast. Their joint history involves sugar cane, slavery, colonialism, decay, rebirth through tourism, and the proud boast of being one of the most musically creative areas in Brazil. Recife is the fourth largest city in Brazil, a modern, hectic beach-front city with all the Big City life and Brazilian Big City issues. Olinda is a hilltop town that has hardly changed since the colonial era, with no modern buildings*, a remarkably relaxed atmosphere amongst the narrow cobbled streets, and what some consider the very best Carnaval in Brazil – and if not the best, then certainly the craziest!
Both cities began life in the 16th Century after the arable land of the coastal regions was found suitable to grow sugar cane. After battling with local indigenous tribes who refused to become enslaved, the plantation work was done by Africans forced to work the fields in slavery. Recife was the port built amongst the sheltered islands that was used to ship out the cane to Europe, and was populated by the port workers and slaves. Olinda was the smaller settlement on the hilltops overlooking the port, where the plantation owners constructed their huge mansions. Olinda was thus the seat of power in Pernambuco and the original capital, even while occupied by the Dutch for 24 years. Recife’s trade eventually outgrew Olinda until it became the largest city in South America by the turn of the 18th Century. The decline in the sugar trade and the growth of Rio led to Recife becoming far less important, and to Olinda falling into decay.
Recife continued to grow as a port though and is now a modern Brazilian state capital, with a very rich and a very poor side. The old town on the Recife Island and the Santo Antonio island across the channel have the squares, the old houses and colonial churches. The beach has the modern high-rise buildings with the sand protected by the reef after which the city is named (this is not a coral reef though) all the way down to Boa Viagem, the most salubrious district. The city boasts a thriving nightlife scene with the most popular music being forró, which developed in Pernambuco using accordion, zabumba drum and triangle accompanied by a highly watchable dance style.
Olinda is by far the most interesting of the two cities in terms of tourism. The town was built around the hills and its perfectly preserved colonial centre makes it a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The buildings all date from around two centuries ago, with churches and convents over 400 years old, including the Igrejas (Churches) da Misericordia and Nossa Senhora do Carmo, the Sao Francisco and Sao Bento Monasteries, and the cathedral at the very top of the hill. The views of Olinda and down the coast to Recife are as breathtaking as some of the walking that you need to do to get between the churches up and down the steep cobbles and stairs. Olinda is such a stunning town though, that it is worth any effort.
As well as the foremost buildings of the town, the whole place has a charm all of its own in the terraced houses lining every street, the bars and cafes and the squares with their street markets. There are contemporary cultural highlights too, with the Museums of Sacred and Contemporary Art alongside museums dedicated to the mamulengo puppets and the Boneco Gigante (Giant Dolls) of the Olinda Carnaval. Even if you visit outside of the crazy Carnaval week (or more), then you may still hear frevo music drifting out of the windows of an old building somewhere overlooking the cobbles as a band rehearses. This brass-based music has developed an incredibly high-energy rhythm that continues absolutely non-stop, 24 hours a day for five or six days on end, during Carnaval week. This includes the people carrying the heavy dolls as well...
This may be the very best time to be in Olinda, if you can handle heaving crowds on narrow streets under hot sun or sultry night, but this tropical town is one of the finest colonial sites of Brazil at any time of year, and one of the most fascinating places to visit in the whole country, with history, scenery and a culture that make Olinda completely unique and very special.
Recife is one of the host cities for the 2014 FIFA World Cup and five matches will take place in the Arena Pernambuco.
Suitable Destination For: Colonial History; Contemporary Culture; Carnaval Craziness.
Best Time to Visit: All year long. Holiday periods are very busy in the small centre of Olinda especially. Carnaval Weekend is as busy as a place can get.
Essential Sights & Activities: The islands of the old city, Recife Antigo and Santo Antonio; Recife Beachfront and its famous reef; Olinda - oh linda – every street, house, church, square, museum and monastery of it, and every view over the tiled rooftops of it.