São Paulo is a City

The inside cover of my guide book seemed to have a tough time finding a pleasant way to sell São Paulo to the common tourist. The opening paragraph was full of words like “polluted” and “ungainly”, “concrete” and “sprawling”. If I hadn’t booked the flights before doing the reading, I might have had second thoughts about spending the second part of my Brazilian trip here. Having persevered, though, by the end of the book the prevailing sentiment seemed to be that, while São Paulo might not have stunning views and turquoise waters, it possesses such culture, vibrance and diversity, that it doesn’t need them – and probably doesn’t want them. Indeed, the ever-virtuosic Marlene Dietrich once declared: “Rio is a beauty, but São Paulo…São Paulo is a city”, which pretty much sold it for me. That, and I discovered it’s nickname is Terra da Garoa, translating as Land of the Drizzle, which appealed to my cold Scottish soul.

Day 1

This was originally going to be a solo trip, but Christina and I aren’t sick of each other’s company yet so she’s joining me for the full 4 days. The flight from Rio was a short one (the shortest I’ve ever taken actually at around 35 minutes), and we only managed to drink half of our carry-on Desperados before they were confiscated by the Avianca stewardess – because drinking alcohol on such a short flight is apparently an abomination. Anyway, it was evening when we arrived at the WZ Jardins Hotel (named for the Jardins neighbourhood in which it sits) and we headed straight out for drinks and food.

We weren’t sure what to expect from the neighbourhood, but within a hundred yards we could conclude that it was pretty damn fancy, even in the dark. It’s all boutique shops sitting in uniquely designed units, and it’s full of nice restaurants and bars. Walking around aimlessly without a map, the first establishment we ventured into was a place called ICI Brasserie – a cozy, well-decorated joint filled with fancy beers and red kegs.

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It was late, so the place was mostly empty, but we sat at the bar, tried to communicate to the drinks maestro what kind of caipirinhas we were after, and watched him making them. The process was basically to crush a variety of berries in a glass, add some lime, and fill the rest up with cachaça – the result being what was probably the strongest (but still delicious) drink I’ve ever had in a bar. After a couple of these we were having really deep chat about the meaning of life and had entered the “taking selfies” stage of drunkenness…

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It seemed like a good idea to eat something at this point, so we left our bartender a sizeable tip, and ventured out into the neighbourhood once again. A few blocks down the street, we found a busy wee place called Bar Balcão that looked like our kind of jam. Bar Balcão, I would venture to say, is the jewel of Jardins, and potentially the entire southern hemisphere. There’s a mezzanine level above, on the lower level there is one table, about a foot wide, that snakes through the entire place, and there’s this distinctive buzz that you get cause everybody is all jammed in together like one big party. Or maybe the buzz is due to the fast-flowing caipirinhas and the fact that they are perhaps even stronger than those of the last place. Who knows…

Because it’s so late, the kitchen is about to close, so we quickly order a bunch of appetisers and sit soaking up the atmosphere. The food is top-notch, the staff are super-friendly, the atmosphere is great, the drinks are strong. How lucky were we to find this place? One more caipirinha and then bed! Okay, maybe two.

Day 2

It wasn’t a bad view that we awoke to from our 10th-floor hotel room – although it was to the back of the hotel so you can’t really appreciate the quaintness of the Jardins neighbourhood and all the little unique boutiques which are round the other side.

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We had a large quantity of french toast for breakfast in a diner called A Chapa, which was pretty American, but goes with the overall feel of the neighbourhood which is kind of like a cross between Beverly Hills and Toronto’s Art and Design District. That’s the vibe I get anyway. Row after row of cute (expensive) shops, where each unit is architecturally different and the building front has been tailored for the shop that’s in it. Pretty cool.

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We set off on the 3-mile walk to the city centre, specifically the Martinelli Building – which we have been told is something we should see, but we immediately went off course so we could go down Avenida Paulista. This slight detour seemed pretty necessary given that Paulista is São Paulo’s most famous street – headquartering some of South America’s a most important financial and cultural institutions. On the way, we saw a car dangling off the side of a building…

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Avenida Paulista did not disappoint. It’s lined either side with skyscrapers, many with significant architectural merit. Fat ones, thin ones, shiny ones, slanty ones. There’s also mini Eiffel Tower radio masts on top of a bunch of them, as the street itself is one of the highest in the city, giving the skyscrapers an extra boost which is handy for the antennas.

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Some way down Paulista is a park called Parque Trianon – a shady tropical jungly paradise right in the middle of the scorching city – which we ducked into to escape the midday sun for a while and look at some cool trees. There’s benches, sculptures,  fountains – all your civic needs really – all pretty chill in contrast to the bustling metropolis that surrounds it.

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Have you ever seen an 8ft spider web? Ok, so it’s more of a massive fucking conglomeration of spider webs, but they’re spun between two palm trees that are legitimately 8 feet apart. There’s about five massive spiders sitting in it, one in the centre of each webby nucleus, and as I’m leaning in pretty close to take the photo, the wind is picking up and I’m half expecting them to be blown into my face, but I persevere because I need to get a decent picture, which is hard with the current lighting. Happily the spiders stayed in their webs, content to be marvelled at from afar.

…But can you imagine if it was dark and you ran through this by accident?!?!

NOPE.

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Moving swiftly on from Parque Trianon and its arachnids… directly across the road is The São Paulo Museum of Art, or MASP if you want to use its backwards Portuguese acronym. The building itself is something to be marvelled at – Designed by Italian architect Lina Bo Bardi, the entire thing is suspended above the ground, hanging from two huge red beams that fold around it like giant staples.

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We were just about to get our wallets out, when we discovered that it was Tuesday, which meant free entry! We spent a couple of hours going around the exhibitions very seriously, and then a joyous 20 minutes doing face-swaps with the renaissance art on the top floor. Christina has the photos, and I don’t know if they will ever see the light of day – but I promise I will let you know if they do.

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Also, the views from the top floor were quite nice.

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A short while after leaving Avenida Paulista via a rogue left turn, we find ourselves in a somewhat less salubrious area. It had been on my radar for a while, but this is where I really started to notice the graffiti in the city, specifically the weird cryptic lettering that is scrawled across basically every building in sight. I pondered this anomaly for a long time – it’s all in the same style using the same weird-ass lettering (which I’ve never seen before) in really hard-to-reach places, on ALL the buildings, like some weird city-wide code – and my conclusion was that it could only be aliens.

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Google told me later, however, that it’s actually called PichaçãoIt started in the 40s and 50s as political statements written in tar, and was revived in the 80s by youths who mostly now use it to tag their names. It’s become kind of a thing, though, with pichadores (the guys who do it) competing with each other to tag the most badass locations. Now you know. Not actually aliens.

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We eventually made it to what I think is the city centre, and were greeted by the rather grand Theatro Municipal, built in 1903 so that the bourgeois coffee tycoons and the sizeable Italian immigrant population might have somewhere to go to see the fancy european operas that they so yearned for.

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Not far from the theatre, we arrive at our destination – the Martinelli Building. This 30-story salmon-coloured beauty (in the right of picture) was Brazil’s first skyscraper. It was a shame to see it had been tagged by pichadores, but she’s still a looker. Also nice is the Altino Arantes Building, which may or may not have been inspired ever-so-slightly by the Empire State Building.

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Now we can finally rest for a well-deserved Brahma. Not for long though, because there’s still daylight left and there might be cool other stuff to see if we wander around aimlessly for a bit…

… This aimless wandering took us to some crazy market quarter where people were trying to flog stuff to us every two feet – including a guy selling tazers by zapping the air as we walked past. Which was slightly terrifying, and unsurprisingly not many people stopped to enquire further. My blonde friend and I stood out like a mangled hand as there were definitely no tourists in this part of town. We received many a stare, the occasional yell and a few pokes, but then we found a way out and saw some nice street art, so it was all good.

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After that, we really did deserve a beer, and this time we settled in to a nice bar called Café Alhambra and drank Brahma in the traditional way, which involves ordering giant bottles, keeping them in an ice cooler on your table, and pouring the beer into tiny glasses to drink out of. Such fun.

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We sat there for hours digesting the day’s frivolity and getting a bit tipsy, then we decided that what we really wanted was to go back to Bar Balcão for some awesome food and a cocktail, so we jumped in a cab back to Jardins and that’s exactly what we did. And let me tell you, the burgers at Bar Balcão were bloomin’ fantastic. Also, Christina had a piña colada instead of a caipirinha because she is a traitor to the Brazilian way.

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Day 3

After walking about 10 miles yesterday, we decided to play it local and hang out in Jardins today. This basically involved an extended brunch, a lot of people-watching and a spot of exploring the neighbourhood. We then decided that we needed to do some laundry (because I still don’t have my luggage so we are both wearing her clothes), and things got really exciting. We went back to the hotel and googled “where to do laundry in Jardins”, had a poke through the Yelp results, and found yet another gem. Laundry Deluxe will change your life.

It’s a laundromat, yes. But not your standard coin operated oh-shit-have-I-got-enough-quarters type laundromat. You buy whichever service you want at the front desk (where there is also a café with good coffee and table service), then you go upstairs to use the machines – they supply detergent and everything.

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There’s a long table where people were having meetings and getting on with work, there’s laundry-themed modern art on the walls, all the furniture is made out of funked-up washing machine parts, and they blast 80s beats out of a kick-ass sound system. But what makes Laundry Deluxe so damn awesome is that there is a full-service bar to serve you ice cold beers while you wait for your laundry to finish. A BAR. In the laundromat. Why doesn’t Scotland have this?! Or anywhere else for that matter?

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We hung out at Laundry Deluxe for a good three hours and were kind of sad to leave when our clothes were done. But we had people to meet in a different neighbourhood, so we needed to get moving.

As I was being rudely delayed for 26 hours in Chicago, Christina was off galavanting around Rio with some girls she met at the Airbnb. These girls were from São Paulo, so she arranged for us to meet up with them and some of their friends in a bar on our last night here. The bar was called Amigos do Eddie, and was in the Ipiranga neighbourhood, which if you look at a map of the entire city, seems to be quite close to Jardins, but in reality is like 9 miles away – and with the traffic it took around an hour. That’s how big this city is – you can drive for an hour and barely make a dent in it. Anyway, we eventually arrived, and sat down with everyone to eat delicious fried potato thingys and drink the last caipirinhas of our trip.

The night basically ended with us all pretty drunk, having learnt a spectacular amount of Portuguese swear words and generally having had a splendid time.

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Day 4

Pretty hungover, so today seems like a nice day to just hang about the neighbourhood parks and sit in the sun. I had breakfast with Christina, then she left to get her flight to Porto Alegre. My flight to Chicago isn’t until the evening, so I am solo for the next 8 hours. I have to write my post cards and find some place to post them (why does nowhere sell stamps!!), so that will probably keep me occupied for at least half of that time…

So, São Paulo in a nutshell. An impossible task, but I’ll go ahead anyway. Sã0 Paulo is not a city that you tourist in. São Paulo is a city that you live in. Even if you just pass through for a few days – while you’re there, you’re living there. You become immersed in its culture and it’s vibrance. You hang out in neighbourhood bars and get to know your waiters, you drink coffee on the street and watch 11 million people get on with their lives, you do your goddam laundry and have a great time doing it, you hang out with locals and learn to swear. And you forget you’re only here on vacation. São Paulo might not be winning any mainstream beauty contests this week, but I can tell you with absolute certainty that São Paulo does not give a shit.

Airport update: I have pão de queijo (Brazilian cheese bread) and my life is now complete.

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