A perfect night out in the harbor district

  • TEXT CHRISTINE WOLLOWSKI

For the Olympics, Rio’s politicians want to redevelop the forgotten neighborhood of Gamboa. This chaotic and creative district close to the port is a lively place well worth exploring. Join us for a night out

The doorway into the night is some shabby steps between high-rise blocks in downtown Rio. de Janeiro It leads direct from the city’s commercial center into a completely different world: Gamboa, Rio’s long-forgotten and neglected harbor and red-light district. For the World Cup and the Olympics, Rio’s politicians want to transform this area into a “wonderful port”, a brightly illuminated, lighthouse project with museums, hotels and a chic pier. On this night, though, it is still dark along the steep cobbled street Rua João Homem, with its narrow houses, neat front gardens and flower pots. A few boys are kicking a ball around in front of a doorway. Is this really still Rio, the chaotic megacity? A group of people lounge on a terrace, the sound of laughter peals through the air, and a panama hat flashes white in the dark. Above the door is a sign: Imaculada.

7-8 pm: Imaculada

Bar, restaurant, gallery, living room: the Imaculada is all this – and a bit more. The faces of old samba musicians look down from the monochrome portraits on one wall. The exhibition is explained on a photocopied A4 sheet; the pictures are unframed and slightly squint, giving the show an imperfect likeability.  Right above my seat the breasts of the bar’s namesake jut far into the room: the Imaculada, the virgin. What if she topples down and kills me? A small sign next to her reassures me: the maiden is made of bronze-painted polystyrene. As a basis for the evening I order fried rice and stockfish balls and take a look round the joint. The next table is occupied by a group of men instantly recognizable as artists; first, because they all wear hats or caps, and second, because one of them is passing round a series of pencil sketches. With all the bathos that comes from imbibing precisely the right quantity of ice-cold drinks, one declares “You are like a brother to me!” Perhaps it’s because of my interested glances, but I soon find myself a part of the family, a glass of cool Ambev is pressed into my hand and I discover that the fraternal drinker is an artist and one of the owners of the bar. After I promise to return, he tells me that live jazz is being played at a new bar on Mauá Square. I never get round to asking whether the bald-headed man in the corner who is scribbling in his notebook and bears striking resemblance to Paulo Coelho is really the best-selling author.

Rio de Janeiro - Map / Karte Brazil / Brasilien

The harbour area Gamboa is located north of the artsy Santa Teresa

© Cristóbal Schmal

8-10 pm: Casa Porto

The colonial-style houses along Praca Mauá stand in a semi-circle, a little like an artfully arranged film set after shooting has finished and the decay has set in. A cardboard sign hangs next to a narrow entrance: Casa Porto. Up the steps, Miles Davis blows his trumpet through a long and narrow room with a light-colored wooden floor and a dark wooden ceiling. Everything is minimalist: small bistro tables, bare white walls without pictures and a glass cabinet in which a handful of snacks wait to be ordered. A small, bearded man fishes ice-cold cans of beer and water bottles out of a freezer chest. The bar is just full enough to be pleasantly comfortable. The crowd is in their thirties, most look like intellectuals, advertising professionals, culture managers. At the back, on the stage, a bass player, a guitarist and a trumpet player warm up for the next set. The jazz they play is cool, without the slightest trace of bossa. But then, why should it have? Just because we’re in Rio doesn’t mean that there can’t be other music styles. It’s very easy to feel at home at Casa Porto, regardless of whether you’re from Rio, Berlin or Barcelona.

10 pm – midnight: JazzIn

At the JazzIn the floor shakes under the energetic jumps and bounces of the dancers. Many moons ago, this venue was a warehouse: the unplastered walls are made of irregularly-shaped natural stones, the roof arches extend far up; videos are being projected onto one of the walls. Anyone not dancing is lounging on one of the red sofas or cushions, watching a film of fields of tulips passing by, as if seen from a train window. The DJ plays Brazilian electro; the mood is jolly – many seem to have been here since happy hour started. The JazzIn opens at 6 pm, coinciding with quitting time for the workers in the offices of downtown Rio. Not all of the 60 sparkling wines on sale are Champagne – but a Brazilian sparkling wine is an excellent accompaniment for salmon teriyaki. Fortified, I wander out and along Sacadura Cabral, passing an astonishing bar on my way: curlicue letters on the shutters spell out “PM”, and a bunch of scantily-clad girls dance to Rio funk and the city’s biggest summer hits as if their lives depended on it. Perhaps another time. Tonight, I feel the pull of Trapiche – one of the city’s most popular samba bars.

A perfect night out in the harbor district
© imago

Midnight – 2 am: Trapiche Gamboa

Samba is the ultimate expression of a deep passion for life. I notice this the moment I step into Trapiche. Not that I would have described myself as unhappy or out of sorts before, but now I practically levitate with happiness. The Trapiche is a long, 10-meter high room with tiles that are so worn you feel people have been dancing here for centuries. A group of musicians sits causally around a long table, playing a wide range of rhythm instruments with a few melodic instruments thrown in for good measure. A woman stands next to them, a singer who doesn’t straighten her hair and has no need to follow the latest diet fad because a gigantic voice like hers needs a certain body mass behind it to unfold its true glory. The band at the table makes everyone at Trapiche happy. Even an elderly gentleman with salt-and-pepper hair who looks as if the rest of his life is a bitterly serious affair sways his hips – perhaps without noticing it. A beauty with a long mane of hair dances, lost to the world, with her iPhone in her hand. Is she telling someone how perfect her evening is? I stop thinking and let myself drift onto the dancefloor. Hoje é o melhor lugar (today is the best place), sings the lady with the enormous voice. She’s quite right.