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God’s big tent: the cathedral from morro Santa Teresa

Surrounded by hills or morros, the centre of Rio is crammed with buildings old and new. The old testify to its former glory, the new to a resurgence of prosperity and pride. The view from morro Santa Teresa – named for its convent but known until the mid-eighteenth century as morro Desterro, the hill of exile – is panoramic.

Old Cathedral interior, also variously a Royal, an Imperial and a Carmelite Convent chapel

The Old Cathedral on Guanabara Bay is theatrical in its colours, its furnishings and its configuration, something of a pocket opera house for the pageant of royalty. A witness to Brasilian history, it has seen Royal and Imperial weddings, baptisms, funerals and coronations, and the signing of the Imperial Constitution.

Kingdom to Empire, to Republic and beyond, Brasil is still an overwhelmingly Roman Catholic country, so a new cathedral was certain. Protracted negotiations between Church and State secured a new site, and the modern cathedral was built between 1964 and 1976, to a design by architect Edgar Fonceca, and dedicated to Rio’s patron saint. Not to the glory of King or Emperor, but for the city’s people under the slings and arrows of poverty. Its conical form and its use of concrete remind you of Liverpool Cathedral, but its ziggurat steps are distinctively Latin American. Or is it volcanic in its shape and colour?

At the entrance to the Cathedral, cool polished concrete provides an open welcome

Inside, it’s a huge space, seating five thousand, with standing room for more. Its shape gives you a soaring echoing space – filled when we were there with recorded Gregorian chant – and a beautifully quiet and even coolness too, a welcome relief from the traffic clamouring and grinding its way past the flight of steps below the broad apron.

It is an appropriately contemplative space, a welcome luxury in a crowded city, its cool gloom a refuge and its walls a shield against the everyday.

One of four, this southern panel opposite the main entrance depicts the unity of the Church

The four coloured panels – plastic rather than glass – rise to the arms of the clear Greek cross which forms the summit’s rooflight. Visitors and worshippers move quietly about the space, not a boat-shaped nave but circular. A cool breeze plays softly on your arms and face. Calm descends.

St Francis of Assisi admonishing a dove, by Sao Paulo sculptor Umberto Cozzo

When you rise from your pew, or complete your circuit of the Cathedral, you emerge gently into the heat and light of the day, refreshed, more at peace. Whether or not you are a believer, what the sanctuary offered here is effective, leaving you a little stronger, a little calmer, a little more prepared to meet the world and all its works.

View from morro Corcovado with Hipódromo da Gávea

Rio de Janeiro, named Cidade Maravilhosa by its proud inhabitants, is built in one of the great natural settings for a city – an excellent natural harbour, broad beaches, thickly wooded hills almost to the water’s edge, a lagoon, a warm-to-temperate climate, and abundant flora and fauna.

Flora on the ascent to the summit of Corcovado

A troupe of monkeys in residence in an abandoned hotel on the way to Corcovado

Rio cloudscape from the Corcovado summit

Rio pushes right up to the hills

Rio’s Centro is a poignant mix of grandeur and decay, reminding us that it was once the sophisticated capital of a wealthy country.

Centro street lighting of breath-taking splendour

Facade awaiting restoration, Centro

Plannned in 1602 as an aqueduct, Arcos da Lapa became a viaduct for bondes tram in 1896

Centro Art Deco cinema with tiled capitals

Rio’s great institutions are still in place, albeit with their roles adapted to this century.

Ex-Imperial chapel on Praça Quinze de Novembre, now a Carmelite church

Still a Carmelite hospital, with sculpture in courtyard, Centro

Other institutions adapt too – Scotland never saw a ‘kirk’ like this.

Presbyterian church at night, Rio Centro 

You may wonder where the famous sights of Rio are  – Cristo Redentor, Sugarloaf, the beaches. There are many images of them, and they ARE spectacular, but in this cidade linda (beautiful city), even the everyday and the decayed catch your eye.

One Rio institution which has resisted change is the Bar Luiz. Founded in 1887, the original building is more or less intact – only the name and the address have changed, resisting war, demolition, and renovation. (See its history at

A long day of sight-seeing draws to a memorable close in these surroundings. When we dined there, the waiter told us that the original off-white geometric floor tiles were not replaced as planned, ‘because the customers wouldn’t hear of it’. It is said to serve “o melhor chope do Rio de Janeiro”, the best glass of beer in town. Saúde!

Rua da Carioca, 39, Centro

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