Views of Paraty including Praia do Pontal (bottom)
With its island-studded bay, secluded beaches, verdant jungle surroundings, the small town of Paraty is the perfect chill-out place to end our visit to Brazil. We are staying at one of the town’s many appealing guesthouses, pousada Morro do Forte. As the name suggests, it’s on the hill occupied by the old fort, with spectacular views of the town – a patchwork of white buildings, trees and lush gardens. A schooner is moored in the bay, with masts of yachts faintly visible in the distance. Jutting into the sky is the bell tower of Nossa Senhora das Dores church, a black metal cockerel at its peak. As the bell tolls six, we stroll down to the beach for the evening caipirinha. The national cocktail consists of sugar, crushed lime and cachaça, a potent alcohol derived from sugar cane. We order it sem açucar (without sugar) and while away the balmy evening, watching the islands turn misty, the only sounds the sea quietly lapping the shore and ice melting in our glasses.
Paraty is on the Tropic of Capricorn, the same latitude as Queensland’s Rockhampton. It has the same tropical lushness, with familiar flora such as jacaranda trees (native to Brazil), poinciana, palms, heliconia and bromeliads. What might make an Australian feel even more at home in Paraty are the thongs. Havianas are on sale everywhere, from humble street stalls to upmarket boutiques. Brazilians have made an art form of the thong, with multi-coloured mosaic patterns, tiger stripes, Klimt reproductions, swathes of pink cherry blossoms against blue, palm trees, girls from Ipanema, army camouflage, and cartoon characters.
From top - Paraty cobblestones; schooners in the bay; author Marele Day on the balcony of Casa da Cultura; Capola de N. Sra. das Dores; Paraty street scenes; Casa da Cultura interior © Gary Worley
Thongs are not simply part of the laid-back lifestyle, there’s a good practical reason why they are the footwear of choice in Paraty. The town is one of Brazil’s National Historic Sites. The central area consists of charming colonial buildings, white walls with red, blue or yellow door lintels and window frames, some of which date back to 16th century when the Portuguese first arrived. With the discovery of gold a century later, Paraty became an important and wealthy port. The town subsequently fell into decline, and it wasn’t till 1960s with the construction of a coastal road linking it to Sao Paulo and Rio de Janeiro that it took on a new lease of life as a holiday destination for both Brazilian and Europeans.
The cobblestone streets of the historic centre are closed to motor vehicles, which makes them pleasantly quiet, pollution-free and pedestrian friendly. These are not the demure even cobbles of Europe but rocks larger than soccer balls. The ideal footwear for stepping from rock to rock is thongs. One young woman, a new arrival from Sao Paulo or Rio judging by her impossibly high heels, is inching her way along holding onto walls.
Every month there is a festival in Paraty, from Carnaval in February/March when people cover themselves in mud and samba down the streets, through Holy Week at Easter and Corpus Christi processions in June when the cobblestones are strewn with flowers, coffee grounds and brightly-coloured sawdust. An international literary festival is held in July – featuring such A-list writers as Margaret Atwood, Salman Rushie and Paul Auster – followed in August by the Festival da Pinga (another name for cachaça) with visits to local distilleries and sampling of product.
We are here in November. The public holiday for Proclamation of the Republic – 15 November – this year falls on a Tuesday and most Brazilians make a long weekend of it. The festival of the month, held over this weekend, is a film festival. In the days leading up to it we watch two large tents being erected in a square near the port, one a modern white geodesic dome; the other a rectangular shape painted to resemble an old-fashioned cinema, complete with trompe l’oeil of an open doorway revealing a staircase with red carpet.
Cinema tent; view from the Fort track (top right) and (bottom right) a final view of the bay - farewell Paraty
It rains most of the weekend, no-one seems to mind, but it makes indoor activities like watching films even more enticing. There are films from Greece, Argentina, Mexico, China, Korea. The only English language contribution is Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris. It is refreshing to be away from the Anglosphere. A retrospective of Jafar Panahi’s work includes the Iranian director’s Offside in which a group of Tehrani girls dress as boys and try to get into the football stadium to watch Iran play Japan. Noisy, hilarious and hard-hitting the film is banned in Iran. Panahi is currently under house arrest. How much we take for granted. It makes the simple pleasures of Paraty – taking a dip in the ocean, savouring caipirinhas on the shoreline, wearing thongs and shorts, all the more meaningful.
Words Marele Day, all rights reserved
Photographs Gary Worley, all rights reserved
People of Paraty: Casa da Cultura permanent exhibition