April 20th, 2015


Corcovado and Sugarloaf Mountain

We were up, washed, packed and ready for Conceição’s 0745 visit to check us out and collect the keys. She was a sympathetic, slender, tanned woman dressed in skinny black trousers and golden sandals with sunglasses in her long dark hair; a typical Carioca.

I manoeuvred the bags down the stairs with much more ease than I had brought them up on our arrival. Rio Maximo was already open, even though we were early for our tour. There was some agitation by the two travel agents on duty because neither spoke English but we were able to communicate our plans and things got easier when Emma, the cashier, joined us. We put our bulky bags behind Emma’s desk. They impinged heavily upon her space but she was quick to assure us that this was no problem for her. Explaining that she wanted to practice her English, Emma engaged us in simple small talk before settling us in the bright customer seats near the door. A gregarious guide arrived and started a bright conversation before advising us that our own guide would be along soon.

Sure enough, Karla came to collect us soon after. She was a small vivacious woman in her fifties. The tour vehicle was a 15-seater minibus waiting on Avenida Atlantica. We were almost the last to join the party and slotted neatly into two single window seats by the side door. As W said, we had arrived at just the right time because we could not have had better views. Another couple was collected from a hotel and we added our names and ID numbers to a register that was passed to me as soon as I sat down. Most of our fellow tourists were Brazilians but there was also a Swiss couple so there were four of us enjoying the English commentary that was interwoven into the Portuguese. On the back seat sat a couple with a small child on mother’s lap. Beside us were a family of four with parents of our age and two adult children; the father made frequent droll comments (or at least those that I understood were droll; he may have been being very rude in more advanced Portuguese).

Karla was engaging and entertaining. To ensure that we were all paying attention she ran a pop quiz asking us questions about the material she had just told us. She used her register to ensure that she addressed everyone but being in the front seat she had no clue as to where her targets were sitting or who they were. When she questioned the toddler, the child’s jovial father answered for her in a silly high pitched voice.

Corcovado is about two miles from Copacabana but the winding road out of the city and up the mountain quadruples this. It took more than 40 minutes for us to reach our first stop: a viewpoint where a local woman sold chilled water at supermarket rates well below the prices asked within the park. Across the steep valley we could see the colourful buildings of a Cosme Velho favela piled up the mountainside. Later I would discover that I had knocked my camera lens to manual focus and my photographs of the scene were useless; my poor uncorrected eyesight often leads me to rely on autofocus.

The bus wound its way up a narrow forest road that was soon lined with parked cars left by earlier visitors to the site. It was not long after 0900 but it was clear that many people had set out long before us. Soon we were in a queue of vehicles waiting to deposit passengers at the ticket office. Once out of the bus we were in a plaza beside a derelict hotel that had been built in 1921 but was now roofless and neglected. Karla told us that it had been used by the Mexican football team for the 1950 World Cup. It was a picturesque edifice, however, and there were amazing views from its terrace. This is one of three places that one can buy tickets for the monument. Throughout the day, huge queues wait at Copacabana beach for a bus or one can wait several hours for the charming red rack train that climbs from Cosme Velho. As an accredited guide, Karla could jump the ticket queue but we still had to join the line for park buses that are the only vehicles allowed up the last leg of the mountain road. Karla led us through the shell of the old hotel holding her sign high and laughing with self-mocking pride at the tan on her underarms. We filled a bus and watched the trees as we were driven upwards by a driver who spends his entire working day driving up and down this mile of road.

We were dropped off at the train terminus by a small plaza with a little kiosk. Nearby was a flight of steps rising up to the vast iconic statue of Christ with his arms outstretched in Rio's greatest hug. The colossal figure faced away from us as Karla pointed out city sights from a terrace before leading us to a lift that took us right to the base of the big statue.

We have been told that the interior of the statue has a staircase rising twelve stories to Christ’s shoulder but this is only for maintenance and offers no tourist access. There has been a lot of maintenance recently because lightning strikes were beginning to cause lasting damage. Now there are metal spikes on the head and all along the upper surfaces of the huge arms leading to lightning conductors that should prevent any further loss of fingers such as happened last year. Even close up it is not apparent from the ground that the statue is entirely covered in mosaic tiles. Its reinforced concrete core was realised by architect Heitor da Silva Costa and engineer Albert Caquot from a design by artist Carlos Oswald, who was inspired by Leonado Da Vinci’s Etruvian Man to see Christ himself as the cross. Paul Landowski, a French-Polish sculptor, made the final design but the idea to cover the concrete in soapstone tiles came from da Silva Costa. Sadly, the constant replacement of damaged tiles has now exhausted the quarry from which the originals came and the closest matches are slightly darker. Nobody has yet agreed whether the statue should be allowed to grow slowly darker or if, after almost a century of weathering the whole surface should be replaced with darker tiles.

The queues of visitors became a heaving crowd around the monument. Jutting away from its front stretched a terrace with a low balustrade over which we could see the city stretching to Sugarloaf Mountain and beyond that across the ocean. I tried to get a photo of W in the classic position with her arms outstretched before the statue but there were just too many people for this to work. I thought that I might get an effective picture of her among the crowd by staying at the end of the terrace as she climbed the steps towards the statue. She faced me as she reached the top of the steps but a man behind her was shading his eyes with his hand in such a position that his white arm ruined the composition. I waited. He gazed. Just as W moved away he put his arm down but my shot was gone. W did not know that I was waiting for anything. The only reason she had stood there so long was that she was watching people adopt the pose and inadvertently hit others in the face. No-one seemed hurt but many were surprised.

It was not going to get any quieter as the sun rose in the sky and we approached the time for our party to regroup. We spurned the lift and descended the steps past bars and souvenir shops in the shade of the statue and leafy trees. Another of the many buses took us back to the old hotel where Uelton, our driver, was waiting. Our bus took us back to the city between two favelas to Maracanã stadium.

The huge sweep of the great concrete oval of the stadium had been an impressive sight from the top of Corcovado and the curve of the roof pleased the eye as we approached it through the Mangue district. Sadly, this all evaporated when we reached the entrance plaza where the original 1950 colonnade flanking the main entrance obscured the body of the structure and looked forlornly deserted with just us, an ice cream cart, a water seller and a photographer. I imagine that it has all the rich excitement of any national stadium on match days but it was hard to imagine this.

In the middle of this essentially empty space stands a statue of Hilderado Bellini; captain of Brazil when they won the 1958 World Cup. His raising of the trophy to afford photographers a better view has become a standard gesture of victory throughout the football world. The trophy that he lifted was retained by Brazil after they won it for a third time in 1970. Sadly, it was stolen in 1983 and has never been recovered. It was probably melted down for the bullion value of the silver under its gold plate. At Bellini’s feet a man with a replica of the 1970 replacement offered to take our photos while holding it. “Sorry”, said W, “we don’t have good associations with that trophy”. “1966!” countered the photographer not recognising her point about England having never won the new trophy.

The interior of the huge 1950 stadium (which claimed a capacity of 200,000) has been refurbished at least twice since then with its current capacity being 87,000, which is about the same as Wembley and about twice that of Portman Road. Readers of a nervous disposition should look away now but one of the unsung stories of the latest redevelopment was that the structural pillars that support the stands were hugely corroded by the urine of decades of fans who relieved their bladders where they stood rather than miss a moment of play. I remember English terraces showing such use in my youth but the practice passed with the arrival of all-seater stadia.

Our morning was a celebration of concrete. Our next stop was the Sambadrome (known locally as the Sambódromo). Bleachers line both sides of a 700 metre stretch of urban roadway that is now permanently closed to traffic. Although samba schools use it all year round, its annual high is the four nights of Carnival when each samba school is given 92 minutes to strut their stuff the full length of the road. Designed by Oscar Niemeyer (the architect best known for the design of Brasilia) this complex has become another of Rio’s icons. We had been told that there was a samba museum on the site but it proved to be just a shop selling souvenirs and offering temporary costume hire for those who wanted portrait photographs taken on the famous white tarmac.

It was soon after noon when we left the Sambadrome for the short ride to the Metropolitan Cathedral of Rio de Janeiro, another concrete masterpiece. Edgar Fonseca’s conical design was inspired by Mayan pyramids but the inside was a marvellous moody Christian sanctuary with four huge stained glass panels dominating the tapering walls. Adjacent to the cone is a tall concrete lattice tower in which hang the bells that had rung a charming peal just ten minutes before our arrival. Similarly, the cathedral museum had closed at noon.

Back at Copacabana we bid goodbye to the Swiss couple and went for lunch at Churrascaria Estrela Dos Pampas, a por kilo buffet grill on Avenida Nossa Senhora de Copacabana which we had walked past many times. As well as the pay-by-weight deal there is a fixed price all-you-can-eat rate and this was included in the tour price. At about £8 plus drinks and desserts this restaurant is seriously good value even though the food quality was not high. I enjoyed my meal, however, and we went back for more freshly grilled meat.

After lunch we collected a young Brazilian couple from an apartment near the beach and headed for Ipanema, where Karla sang to us and some of the party took photos wrapped around Tom Jobim’s statue. We then visited the inevitable souvenir shop that features in almost every public tour in the world. The shop was pleasant enough but we had seen all its stock in numerous other outlets and, after a brief glance at the shelves, I went out onto the street to watch people.

Sugar Loaf Mountain is about five miles from our part of Copacabana beach and we were there in about twenty minutes. It stands with a second peak on a peninsula that thrusts out into the Atlantic. The two mountains are reached by cable cars that start on the western side of the peninsula in the small district of Urca, where most of the businesses seem to depend upon tourist traffic.

As at Corcovado, we had to wait while Karla jumped the queue for tickets but we could not avoid the queue for the cable car. We were quite content, however, to gaze up at the Urca peak and watch the cable cars gliding up and down. Alongside the public cars was a much simpler cable system carrying open cages in which sat single maintenance workers with the insouciant air of ski lift riders despite the 200 metres fall below them. The peak was dotted with climbers who were such tiny specks at such a distance that we argued happily about their number.

Eventually it was our turn to enter a cable car with some sixty other people to make the three minute ride to the first station. It was evocative to be on the location of Bond’s fight with Jaws in Moonraker. Although that cable car design had been replaced in 2002, Urca mountain is essentially unchanged.

Until 1983 Urca was the end of the cable car journey but a second route was then added to take passengers from Urca to the top of Sugarloaf itself. The Urca station is on a wooded peak with souvenir shops, restaurants and other facilities among spacious platforms from which Karla pointed out more landmarks. From the ground the peak had seemed rather barren but it was filed with trees and a tiny grey monkey sat boldly among the steel girders as we left the car. Beside the station were two retired cable cars. One was of the original 1912 design and the other was its 1972 replacement. Beside each stood a statue of its designer.

The third station, from which the second cable car departs to Sugarloaf, was on the far side of the Urca peak. We had to climb a few steps and then go down a like number a little further along. Karla squeaked when we saw the queue for the cable car. The next day was Tiradentes Day, a public holiday commemorating the hanging of a revolutionary, and many people had also taken this Monday off work to make it a long weekend. This is why everywhere was so busy. We did not mind, however, because the weather was pleasant and we had no deadline to meet. Once we did reach the peaks I went to use the toilets, which were also crowded. They seemed to be filled with climbers who were getting changed in the cubicles and washing their muscled torsos at the basins by the signs forbidding bathing at the basins.

W was beginning to grow concerned by the time I emerged having waited my turn and we had little time to enjoy the glorious vistas before we needed to rejoin the extensive queue for the cable car. By now we had become familiar with the form of the city and we knew where to look to pick out the cathedral and the pair of black office blocks behind it. The two black towers had been designed with profiles that outline a cross between them when viewed from our vantage point. It is such an elegantly witty design in a city littered with stylish fun.

After the long wait for the descending cable car we expected something similar to get off Morro da Urca but we were soon on our way back to our starting point. We had been impressed by what we had seen of the bars, cafes and shops on these mountain tops and could have spent hours loafing there. But it was time to return to Copacabana with Karla singing traditional songs that were familiar to our fellow tourists who were happy to sing along. As we passed the waterfront apartment home of singer Roberto Carlos, Karla told us about his pious weekly attendance at the church next door. We said goodbye to our new friends and went for a final walk along the mosaic tiles of the beach front. We found beachside seats at one of the Skol kiosks at the southern end of the beach between Postos 5 and 6 where the Stand Up Paddle operators cluster. All over the rolling ocean were people standing on broad surf boards propelling themselves with long single oars. Out to sea in front of us an ostentatious chap was performing a headstand on his board with his paddle balanced horizontally on one upraised foot. Another young man failed to emulate him. Repeatedly.

We left the paddlers and wandered north to the retro kiosk with its glazed tables and curling beermats. W drank the water from a coconut while I had my last Bohemia lager. We walked further along the beach and I sat on the sea wall while W went for a paddle. Then we crossed the street to Rio Maximo, retrieved our bags from behind Emma's desk and waited for our car to the airport. Except, it was not a car; it was the minibus from our day's tour. Uelton was waving at us wildly, his face alight with a grin. He put our bags across two seats and we travelled north in the spacious vehicle. The holiday traffic was very heavy but Uelton was undaunted in his pleasure; pointing out the illuminated Cristo Redentor atop Corcovado and offering us sweets. It was like getting a lift from a quiet friend.

After checking our bags we had a long walk to the lounge. It was such a long walk that we asked for confirmation from a passing airport employee and behind us an American grumbled with increasing volume as we got further from the ticketing hall. When we did arrive, the lounge was less than unremarkable. It was like a corridor with fewer seats than passengers. We were lucky to find chairs at a table near the food and drink station which had little variety but its slim pickings were not bad.

Fortunately we did not have long to wait until we retraced our lengthy route to our departure gate and our place at the front of the first class cabin. Indeed, I was at the very front; in seat 1A with its larger cupboard had I wished to hang a jacket. I had placed my flight bag in the bottom of the cupboard, arranged my book and my entertainment devices, and changed into my slippers by the time Mark, our steward, came to offer us pre-takeoff drinks. He was congenial and helpful; and he liked my slippers: “they're much better than ours” he observed. Chris, the Cabin Services Director, introduced himself and then I was left alone with my book until after takeoff.

Once we were in the air I availed myself of a slug of Johnny Walker Blue Label whisky (possibly, to my mind, the greatest benefit of first class travel) and returned to my book until dinner. The second greatest benefit of first class travel is that it allows W and I to dine together at the same table in the skies. The food was good and Mark was enthusiastically knowledgable about the wines; I ended up tasting small samples of the full range.

When W returned to her seat she feasted on chocolates picked from a box proffered by the obliging Mark before he switched her seat to the flat position, made up her bed, and left her to sleep. I read for an hour before going to wash and change into my 'sleep suit' (or 'pyjamas' as Mark styled them in a departure from company policy). I find it astonishing that my great carcase fits into the 'Large' size albeit snugly and can only imagine that small people just drown in the 'Small'. While I was changing my bed was also established and I slept soundly as we flew east across the Atlantic.