Brazil? Really? Brazil was not anywhere near the top of my list of places I planned to visit someday, really not even in the top twenty. So I felt a little ungrateful that I was not as excited as everyone else.
But, as so many of these adventures do, Brazil just landed in my lap. I was invited to help with Anson's trade show in Sao Paolo, and hey, I've never been to Brazil before. Why not?
So we flew and flew, past Central America, over the equator, through the Amazon rain forest, all the way down to Sao Paulo, the second largest city in the western hemisphere. (A very close second to Mexico City and only slightly ahead of New York City.) We woke up on the other side of the world. What a miracle flight is.
We stood at the window of our wonderful hotel, Luz Plaza, and looked out at Sao Paulo, which stretches as far as you can see. Sao Paulo is HUGE. A few facts: there are 20 million people in the greater Sao Paulo area, which initially flourished in the late 1800s with the growth of the coffee trade, then with industry and construction in the 20th century, and has since become the economic and cultural center of Brazil. Here we were, in the middle of the hive.After an afternoon of lunch at the trendy and delicious Ramona, and a nap to shake off our jet lag at our hotel in the aptly name Bom Retiro ("good rest") neighborhood, we were ready to explore our neighborhood on foot and grab a snack. There was a friendly little lanchonete a few blocks away where we tried our first Brazilian snack food. There are a few lanchonetes on every block, serving bread filled with meat or cheese, kibe, hamburgers, juice, soda, beer, wine, etc. Think of it as the equivalent of an American fast-food restaurant. You can grab some ready-made food and go, or sit at the counter and chat with the owner, who you invariably know because you buy cigarettes/soda/breakfast from him every day.
The next day we got a cab to Praça da Republica in central Sao Paulo, for the weekend arts and crafts market. Apparently, the park is usually kinda sketchy, but on the weekend artists, craft vendors, and food purveyors fill the park and the city comes out to see it. The police also come out to patrol and make sure that the street people don't overrun the potential customers. Maybe a little too much. We witnessed a customer giving his extra food to a homeless guy walking through the food area, and a couple of policeman, not realizing the situation, were on top of him immediately, shooing him off.
The market is organized by category--coins, clothing, jewelry, books, paintings, etc. The vendors were helpful, but not overly aggressive, and their wares seemed fairly priced.
We found this focus on order repeated throughout our experience in Brazil. Like most Southern Californians, the majority of my south-of-the-border experiences were with Mexico, and I expected that same sort of laissez-faire, inscrutable, abstract bureaucracy from Brazil. Not so at all. In fact, our experience of Brazil was very organized, very ordered, very orderly. I loved it.
That's not to say that Sao Paulo was not a big, dirty, crowded metropolis. It was all those things. But I've been to cities in Europe that were much less friendly and completely unfathomable. If you want to do something or get somewhere, Sao Paulo will help you. There will be a sign.
If you take some time to walk around the park you'll find a few huge banyan trees, which remind you that you are in a city that was once a rainforest. For scale, compare it to the man sitting on the sidewalk.Later that day, after a failed attempt to visit an artisanal beer bar in the fancy Jardins neighborhood, we set off on foot towards the Museu de Arte de Sao Paulo, and whaddya know, came across another artisanal beer bar.
We spent a few hours at Aconchego Carioca, tasting Brazilian beers we've never had before, and will likely never have again, such as a collaboration with Brazilian brewery Bodebrown and our own Southern California brewery, Stone Brewing Company, called Cacau IPA. We both agreed this $12 bottle of beer was among the best we've ever had. We brought the bottle back and had it made into a glass.
Our path to the museum also brought us through the Parque Siqueira Campos, a large park surrounded by the skyscrapers of the Paulista district that is designed to recreate the Atlantic rainforest it replaced.
Continuing north through the park to Avenida Paulista we found ourselves in the middle of another craft market, where we picked up a hand-woven rug, a beautiful necklace, and a hand-carved wooden spoon, all for less than $20. Across the street is the imposing Museum of Art of Sao Paulo. Underneath that was a hundred or so antique vendors selling, well, antiques.
Our goal for the day was to eventually end up at Speranza, a famous pizzeria in the old Italian neighborhood. We had to try their house specialty, the pao de linguica, soft bread baked with thinly slice sausage and chunks of cheese, which would have been a perfect meal in itself. We followed with Spaghetti Bolognese for me (of course), and a very convoluted pizza for Anson, which I can't even remember. We were stuffed and exhausted.
It was pricey for an Italian meal, but the service was really great--they are very attentive, pouring your wine, and plating your pasta and pizza for you--and it was quite an experience. We had a great time at our window seat, watching the characters on the street outside, the cars buzzing by on the freeway ramp, the streams of people heading to nearby restaurants.
It's interesting that Sao Paulo has the largest population of Italians outside of Italy, so you'll find a lot of great Italian food. (There is also the largest population of Japanese and Lebanese immigrants.)
As fun as Speranza was, nothing could top Figueira Rubaiyat. This is a restaurant like no other I've been to and probably ranks among my Top 5 restaurant experiences.
The photo above shows the namesake 150-year-old fig tree, whose branches reach all the way across the street and form the architecture of the dining room.
From inside, an elaborate glass roof encases the branches, which step their way from the base of the tree up through the openings in the glass, to the sky. This is one of those places you can't help but gaze all around you and point like a common tourist the whole time. But don't worry, you won't be the only one pointing, and who cares anyway?
Another perspective on the fig tree's branches and supports they rest on.
The food? It was great. My dinner companions all had steak, which they agreed was exceptional. I had an Amazon lake fish with grilled hearts of palm, also great. Above is the plate of appetizers each table starts with--sausage, thinly sliced zucchini with parmesan, olives, chopped crudités-type thing, and little pao de queijo (cheese bread rolls).
You will pay a lot for dinner at Figueira Rubaiyat, but it is worth the splurge. Your food will be delicious, and all the little details of fine dining (like the trio of copper pans with different sauces that they deliver with your entree), make it a complete dining experience.
The most entertaining part, outside of the restaurant itself, was when I turned around and the waiter had zip-tied my purse to the chair. I guess even a restaurant in the best part of Sao Paulo has to be aware of reality.
Our last great dinner was at another famous Italian restaurant, Pizzaria Famiglia Mancini, which one of our cab drivers recommended. There are exactly five restaurants by the Mancini family on possibly the most charming street in all of Sao Paulo, Rua Avanhandava, which is only about three blocks long, strung across with lights, and is comprised of beautiful brick streets, sidewalk bistros, and a few specialty shops. I got the impression you can't go wrong with any of their restaurants.To get to your table, you'll walk past the valet, up the stairs to the host stand, up another short flight of stairs past the bakery while peeking into adjacent dining rooms, around a corner, past the wood-fired pizza ovens, past the live band, then out to the enclosed patio dining room. Again, your head will be on a swivel, trying to take in all that's going on around you.
We opted for a smaller meal this night, after the excesses of the previous days--a mixed green salad, a pizza with prosciutto and goat cheese, and a creamy ham & pea pasta to split between the four of us. Just right.So, the whole purpose of the trip was a trade show for Anson's company, and I soon learned that trade shows in Sao Paulo are waaaaaay better than those in America. For instance, you'll get a caipirinha at the end of the day! Actually, these were compliments of the German pavilion, in which we were exhibiting.
But really, the food is quite surprising. First of all, this is the "concession stand" at the Expo Center Norte. To eat, you'll sit down at a table and a waiter (who you'll get to know over the course of your four days) will take your order and bring your food and anything else you need. Again, even at a trade show, the service is without equal in Brazil. Each day we had the same thing--a juicy sauteed chicken breast with rice and french fries and an orange Fanta. Now, I'm not a big soda drinker, but the Fanta in Brazil is made with orange juice and sugar (rather than high fructose corn syrup) and it's delicious! Be aware, you won't get an American-style coffee there. It's espresso or nothing.
As interesting as Sao Paulo was, after a week in the big city, we were ready for a slower pace and some crashing waves, so it was on to Florianopolis.