You couldn't blame Salvador if it felt cheated. In any other country it would come top of the list of beautiful cities.

Salvador has a strikingly lovely location set on a hill looking across a beautiful wide bay. It has wonderful beaches facing the ocean. It has historic buildings galore. It has even be said that an excessively high proportion of Salvador's population is good-looking. Salvador has everything a city needs to come top.

Rio's rival

And Salvador certainly would be top in Brazil if it wasn't for Rio de Janeiro, which has been dealt the same cards but in spades. To rub salt in the wound, Salvador might still be Brazil's capital but for Rio, which grabbed that status in 1763.

Under the skin, Salvador is so completely different from Rio you would think they belonged on different planets. Rio's spirit of self-deprecatory but unmistakably attractive style, its jeito, is as light as the glint of sun on surf or the smile of girl in a cafe. It dances in the air for everyone to marvel at in the 'marvellous city'.

Salvador doesn't so much want to be admired as to be different and to be itself. Salvador's soul is energised by something more visceral, more primal, more plainly vital. The effects can be positive and exciting, or sometimes unsettling, one can't easily be sure. Salvador certainly is different.

A diet of Antropofagia

It's as though Salvador has swallowed the world, metabolised it into its own flesh, and presents it to us, altered. Salvador even has a word for this. 'Antropofagia' (literally 'cannibalism' in Portuguese) is a particularly Salvadorian description of its habit of absorbing and adapting the outside world. It is an idea that dates from the 1920s and which later, for example, underlay the music of Tropicalismo, Salvador's answer to Rio's samba and bossa nova. Tropicalismo swallowed Euro-American pop styles, digested them with African Brazilian influences, and produced a new music with a new energy.

The same idea goes back to the arrival of the Portuguese, in a very literal way. Originally there were two schools of thought among the settlers. Some believed that the resident Aimoré and Caeté people should be elevated, converted and made equal partners. Others preferred them to be subjugated, enslaved and made to do the hard work. The debate was settled when the first governor and the first bishop (both of whom actively subscribed to the second school of thought) were killed and eaten. The subjugation idea subsequently gathered enough momentum that those of the Aimoré and Caeté who were still free to relocate, sensibly evaporated into the interior.

Salvador's slavocracy

The settlers had to find new workers. Such were the profits from sugar that they could afford to import them, in the form of slaves, from Africa. The first slave market in the New World was built in Salvador, and soon roughly half its population was African and at work in the plantations.

Over time, the slave trade brought more African people to Brazil than to any other country in the Americas - a wretched statistic at the time, but one that hugely enriches Bahia's cultures today and helps to mould its different identity.

Getting to know your way around Salvador

The Pelourinho and Salvador's Cidade Alta (upper city)

Salvador's upper city, built on the crest of the hill above the bay, was the defensive and administrative centre of the colony.

At the heart of Salvador's upper city is the Pelhourinho district, built in the hey-day of Salvador's slavocracy. In most colonial towns a whipping post, or pelourinho, was installed right in front of the main church, which helps to show what the new arrivals from Africa were up against.

Such was Salvador's wealth that the Pelhourinho, and the surrounding streets of the upper city, contain the largest collection of colonial architecture in Latin America. It is a very important UNESCO World Heritage site, ranking with Old Havana in Cuba, and Cartagena in Colombia.

After many years of abandonment and decay, the Pelhourinho is being restored and reborn. It includes palaces from the very beginnings of European settlement in the 16th century and from later baroque periods, an impressive Cathedral, churches and convents from the 17th and 18th centuries, and a large number of houses from those periods, many with fine stucco decorations - all set out to the original 16th century street plan. Much has been done to revive these wonderful streets, and much is still to do.

Supreme among Pelhourinho's many churches is the Sao Francisco, one of the richest in Brazil. Its extravagantly carved baroque interior is heavily gilded with 800kg of gold leaf below a wonderful painted ceiling. Another highlight for sightseers is the Jorge Amado Foundation, dedicated to Brazil's leading author, and the City Museum next door, with its eclectic mix of Bahian artefacts. The unusual African-Brazilian Museum displays a collection of religious, spiritual and artistic objects and photographs. Bahia's African culture is also celebrated in the highly professional Folkloric Ballet of Bahia, which showcases capoeira, stick fighting, fire-eating, traditional local songs, and Candomble dance rituals.

Today's Pelourinho is lively and getting livelier. Amongst a smattering of tourist shops there are artisan boutiques, lively bars, quiet cafes playing jazz and bossa, community projects, and a lot more. Hotels have opened: modest guest houses, a grand hotel, and several stylish boutique hotels that will be in the next 'Wallpaper' guide.

It's a great place for a stroll and you could easily spend a whole day here, perhaps fortified by delicious acaraje (black-bean fritters stuffed with shrimp and onions) enticingly sold on the street by large black ladies decked in white frills and lace.

Salvador's Cidade Baixa (lower city)

At the bottom of a precipitate cliff below the upper city, by the wonderful bay, is a narrow strip of bustling commerce: docks, piers, warehouses, offices and thrumming streets.

Tired of the long side-sweeping journey to reach the 70m of cliff that divides these two parts of the city, the city long ago commissioned the extraordinary Lacerda elevator, which conveys you from one to the other in a couple of minutes in restored art deco splendour while you gaze out across Salvador's magnificent bay.



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Holiday designs that visit Salvador

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Some of Salvador's hotels

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