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May 1, 2010 1:29 am
There is a bar on the beach in Rio where the friends of Ronnie Biggs, the Great Train Robber, gather for afternoon drinks. They talk about their friend and his life on the lam and their good times during the three decades between 1969 and 2001 when Biggs, now 80 and in a north London care home, lived in Rio as a fugitive from British justice.
The bar is just a 10-minute stroll down the seafront esplanade from the great white ice-cream Copacabana Palace hotel and its $500 (£330)-a-night rooms. An open-air venue with chairs and tables arrayed under a large shade awning, the bar is the kind of place where female prostitutes, who represent most of the visible clientele, know the waiters by name, and vice-versa.
Nearby looms Copacabana’s defunct Meridien hotel, an unlovely concrete tower, which, as a measure of things, recently came close to being transformed into the world’s first skyscraper bordello. Across the street is La Cicciolina, a nightclub named after the Hungarian-born former porn star Ilona Staller.
It is a sleazy part of town, and the beach bar where Biggs’s friends go to drink is not an ideal place to take one’s girlfriend or wife, although sometimes the odd tourist couple can be seen there, seated haplessly among the prostitutes and the dissolute regulars, earnestly examining their menus and looking a little scared. Like most cities, Rio is all about knowing where to go and where not to go.
Copacabana faded from fashion not long after Barry Manilow consecrated it with that tacky 1978 disco hit showtune “Copa-Caah-baaana”. Coincidentally, that was the same year that Biggs’s only-ever single, “No One is Innocent”, recorded with the Sex Pistols, was released. Both songs reinforced Rio’s image as the ultimate destination for sinful – or at least sensual – personal freedom and escape.
I suppose one must include the nostalgic “Girl from Ipanema”, that universal ode to bygone youth and sexual allure, an ode to the better, cleaner, more affluent beach of Ipanema, just up the corniche from Copacabana on Rio’s coastline
Copa is not “my” Rio, precisely, but I appreciate its louche tenacity. Although most of my local friends live elsewhere in the city – in boho hilltop Santa Teresa, in swish beachside Leblon or in the quiet bayside enclave of Urca, overlooked by Sugarloaf mountain – and avoid coming to Copa if they can help it, I like it, and usually stay there.
The people are more beautiful and the water cleaner in Ipanema and Leblon; the restaurants are better too – and the nightlife is hippest at the samba and forró dance clubs in funky Lapa, in the crumbling old centre of town – but Copa has the most character of the beach districts.
At the Copacabana Mar hotel where I usually stay, a block behind the Copacabana Palace, many of the guests are Angolan honeymooners – Angola now has tourists! – or middle-aged couples on “romantic” weekend breaks from provincial cities in Brazil’s interior. The hotel’s rooms look as though they were last decorated in 1983 but there is a small pool on the roof with an amazing view; breakfast is included in the room price, which, at $114, is reasonable, and the staff is friendly.
Among the hotel’s regular guests is an elderly transsexual who comes and stays several times a year. On my last visit we coincided, and I always saw her at the breakfast buffet. A tall, trim woman now, she appeared every day in the same 1960s-style short black and white dress hemmed just above the knee, with black pumps. Her hair was done in a bouffant flip, and she wore horn-rimmed glasses on a lady’s silver chain. The waiters all knew her.
Sex, in one way or another, is the main commodity on offer in Copacabana. There are an inordinate number of pharmacies specialising in Cialis and Viagra at knock-down prices. Working in one of them is an imposing black transvestite babalawo (a priest in the Afro-Brazilian religion of Candomblé) who has become a local fixture. He wears mismatching coloured boots to “channel” his male and female energies, and dispenses sexual advice, condoms and potency and fertility drugs to his customers. His frock is covered in hundreds of good luck badges, talismans that customers have brought to him over the years.
Copa has Rio’s best sandwich joint, Cervantes, which stays open late at night and where the same white-jacketed waiters have worked forever. These hale men are proud specialists in the speedy and efficient delivery of great mouth-watering sandwiches, packed with sliced ham and a wedge of freshly cut pineapple, and bottles of cold beer. Outside, at night, prostitutes stand on the corner, waiting to be picked up by men in cars.
The area is Ground Zero for dog hairdressers. It’s a Copacabana thing. Like everything else, they are at street-level and on full view, and all day long, you can watch as men or women – hairdressers in white coats – comb and blow-dry doggies in the window. Later on, when the sun is low in the sky and the seafront sidewalk basks in shade, professional dog-walkers and domestic servants and elderly women appear with the pampered creatures attached to them on leads, fluffy and rotund Scotties and Pekinese and Lhasa Apsos. After nightfall, when it is cool, people sit at corner bars and watch football games on TV, the volume set loud; men play dominos at little tables set out in the caged security entrances of the apartment buildings.
When Copa’s corniche is closed to traffic, on Sundays, everyone descends on the beach to swim and take the sun or surf and play volleyball. Along the road, families, lovers, teens, tourists and older men and women with facelifts and fake hair jog and walk and skate and preen, all attended by an army of dogged but respectful vendors of pirated CDs, handmade necklaces, ice-cream cones, coconuts, bikinis and vigour-enhancing acai-berry slushies.
That’s the Copacabana I see, anyway, a place full of ordinary people and chancers, too; a bit tawdry and unknowingly retro, and, therefore, deliciously original. To a large extent, this description also applies to Rio at large. At a time when so many other cities in the world have seen radical makeovers to adopt the cloned look of homogeneous urban modernity, Rio is still refreshingly eclectic and chaotic, so enveloped in its own self-indulgent, sometimes desperate but radiant reality, too, that it seems to inhabit its own time capsule.
Some people never shake off the sense of rapture that envelops them in Rio. Some don’t realise that time has passed and that they have grown old. For some of them, living life in Rio is an end in itself.
One of Biggs’s oldest friends, Stan “the Man”, joined him in Rio back in the early days, and has never left. Introduced by mutual friends a few years ago, I liked Stan and, so, when I was back in town I looked him up. Spry and jaunty, Stan has a good sense of humour. He lives in an apartment in Copacabana with his Portuguese wife, a former stewardess. After 40 years, he still speaks Portuguese like an East Ender.
In a city of rituals, Stan is a creature of habit. Most days, he and his wife go to the same “kilo” restaurant for lunch. Kilo restaurants are buffet-style places where you pay for your food according to its weight, popular with Brazilians on a budget. Afterwards, Stan walks his wife home and then sees his mates at the bar on the beach for a bottle or two of cold Brahma beer.
I joined them one day as they talked of Ronnie and his problems with the British justice system [Biggs was sent to prison on his return to the UK in 2001 but last year was released on health grounds]. His mistake, they agreed, was to have courted publicity and to have thumbed his nose at British justice during his years in Rio. Everyone took another swig of beer.
I glanced out from the shade of the bar, past the prostitutes and towards the sunlit ocean. The expanse of blue water heaved all the way to the great blue curtain of sky. Waves were breaking and whooshing on the sand. Everything sparkled.
Jon Lee Anderson is a staff writer on The New Yorker
Champagne brunch, Philippe Starck interiors and a homage to London
When Rio’s most famous landmark hotel, the palatial wedding-cake Copacabana Palace (www.copacabanapalace.com.br; from $535), opened in 1923, its location on the Avenida Atlântica, facing Copacabana Beach, was ideal, writes Claire Wrathall. Not so now. Though Orient-Express’s recent investment in the hotel means that inside it remains as alluring as ever – and there’s still no better view than the panorama at dusk from the balcony of its sixth-floor penthouses, looking towards the Arpoador peninsula and Sugarloaf Mountain – the beachside of the avenue is strictly no-go after dark.
“We don’t use the Copacabana because it’s in the wrong area,” say Paul Irvine and Henry Madden, founders of Dehouche (www.dehouche.com), one of the best specialist tour operators to Brazil. The pair took a holiday to Brazil in 2003 and loved it so much they quit their jobs (Madden was an investment banker at UBS in Zurich, Irvine a headhunter in London) to launch Dehouche.
They do, however, commend the Sunday champagne brunch in the Palace’s poolside Pérgula restaurant (terrific seafood), and its impossibly opulent new Bar do Copa, which has 10,000 fibre-optic lights in its ceiling, arranged to represent the constellations of the southern hemisphere, with walls of golden Murano glass, is unrivalled for people-watching. The house cocktails, the Copa and Negresco, contain respectively caviar and gold leaf, hence their popularity with local telenovela (soap opera) stars.
Irvine and Madden recommend staying at Hotel Santa Teresa (www.santa-teresa-hotel.com; from $425), which opened last year in a former colonial ranch in the historic hilltop district of Santa Teresa. Its rooms are spacious and beautifully designed, sufficiently leading edge to have won a Wallpaper* design award, with lots of wood, earthy textiles and natural light, and hammocks on the balconies. But its real glory is its restaurant, Térèze, whose chef, Damien Montecer, is a protégé both of Gordon Ramsay and Alain Ducasse. Madden and Irvine, along with the influential local food critic Danusia Barbara, consider it the best in Rio, though for all that its French-accented cooking is quite down to earth. Its humming lounge Bar dos Descasados, which has breathtaking views across the city to the coast from its vast airy terrace, is also worth the detour, whether or not you’re a guest.
Alternatively there’s Fasano (www.fasano.com.br; from $520), which faces Ipanema Beach and opened to deserved acclaim in 2007, thanks partly to its fabulous rooftop infinity pool. The Philippe Starck interiors – lots of ironwood, leather, red brick, yellow onyx and white marble – are holding up well but Fasano isn’t resting on its laurels. Its Renata de Abreu Spa, which opened in January (and uses La Prairie products), is exceptional even by the standards of a city that takes beauty therapy very seriously indeed. And its Fasano al Mare restaurant is among the most highly rated in Rio, shortly expected to gain a third star in the Guia Quatro Rodas, Brazil’s answer to Michelin, which will put it on a par with the classic Portuguese restaurant Antiquarius (www.antiquarius.com.br), Claude Troisgros’ Olympe (www.claudetroisgros.com.br) and Le Pré Catalan, located in the Sofitel hotel (www.sofitel.com) on Avenida Atlântica, where the fine French cooking is rivalled only by the stupendous views.
The real appeal of Fasano, however, is its hipper than hip Baretto-Londra Bar, “a homage to London”, with a huge red, white and green union flag on one wall and a display of British album covers on another. More modish yet is its super-exclusive rooftop bar, which, say Dehouche’s Madden and Irvine, “vies for the title of world’s best bar”, so stunning is the panorama of the Dois Irmãos mountains (Corcovado too, if the weather and light are right) across the bay, and so beautiful the people who flock there.
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