The third-largest city in Brazil, Salvador was the first colonial capital of the country and, being founded by the Portuguese in 1549, is also one of the oldest colonised cities in the New World. At the heart of this antiquated city lies the Historic Centre, better known as Pelourinho, or just Pelô to the locals.
The etymology of the name comes from the Portuguese for the word “pillory”, since the main square was where African slaves were brought to be whipped as a punishment for any transgressions they may have committed. The legacy of these slaves can be seen in the magnificent churches, with their intricate craftsmanship, that are dotted throughout the old town.
Furthermore, the particular fingerprint of the slave can be seen in those churches they were permitted to enter, such as Igreja Nossa Senhora do Rosário dos Pretos, which feature a multitude of black idols. Surprisingly, the vast majority of churches were out of bounds for slaves; which is odd, since these were the very people the missionaries were ostensibly trying to convert.
With the outlawing of slavery in 1835, this part of the city gradually fell into disrepair. In the 50s and 60s, artists, musicians and other bohemian types began to move into the abandoned neighbourhood, bringing with them a sense of urgent cultural vibrancy which still lingers today. In 1985, the district was named a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and in the ensuing decades, major regeneration projects were undertaken to restore the crumbling façades of the churches and buildings in the sector. These were concentrated principally around the Praҫa da Sé and Terreiro de Jesus, which today form the main epicentre of tourism in the city.
Though the restoration projects did a fantastic job of returning a vitality to these marvellous churches and municipal buildings, the area feels almost a little too polished; in embracing tourism, Pelourinho has lost a little of its historic charm and character. This is nowhere more obvious than in the case of Elevador Lacerda, a thoroughly modern elevator which connects the revamped upper city with the more commercial, industrial, poorer lower level. Venturing down into this part is off-the-beaten-track; and as a result, dirtier, more dangerous, but ultimately more authentic.
However, the work that has been done by the tourism board to reinvigorate the central upper levels of the city is truly commendable. What was once neglected, forgotten, ramshackle and abandoned has now been converted into a thriving hotspot for tourism and local culture alike. Examples of this can be seen just by viewing a display of the Brazilian martial-arts-cum-dance capoeira, visiting the Fundaҫão Casa de Jorge Amado (one of Brazil’s most famous writers and a native of Pelourinho) or attending a Candomblé service in one of the beautifully ornate churches. Candomblé is the principle Afro-religion of Salvador and traditionally the biggest threat to the Catholic Church. Its incorporation of and emphasis on music, dance, eating and drinking in its ceremonies make it a truly unique experience to witness, and one that should be taken advantage of if you have the chance.
Whether you plan to visit Salvador for its beaches, its nightlife or its culture, your visit to the city will be incomplete without stopping by the quaint, crumbling architecture of Pelourinho and absorbing its individual atmosphere for yourself.
After graduating with an English Literature degree from Edinburgh University in 2009, Jonny decided that getting a career, mortgage, wife and 2.4 children could wait for a while. He has spent the last 5 years globetrotting and recently fashioned a very comfortable nest for himself in Santiago de Chile, from which he makes regular forays around the rest of South America.