Brazil’s secret belle

  • TEXT ANDRZEJ RYBAK

If asked to consider the beauty of Brazil, Curitiba is not necessarily the first place that springs to mind. But the country’s richest and greenest city has so much to offer. Join us on a walk around the city

It’s a warm summer evening, and the streets are full of both Curitibanos and tourists. To be more precise – the streets of the old city center. Hundreds of people are strolling through the lanes and narrow roads, all of which are lined with art galleries, museums and antiques shops. In the pubs, bars and restaurants around Largo da Ordem square – named after the oldest church in the city – all the tables are full.

This square is the beating heart of Curitiba, a city with two million inhabitants. All the important sights are within walking distance: the late baroque Church do Rosário on Garibaldi Square, the Paraná museum and the university, the neo-gothic cathedral and Paço da Liberdade, the old city hall. Many of the Curitibanos walking around the Largo da Ordem have blonde hair, blue eyes and a pale complexion. Although the city was founded by the Portuguese in 1693, its growth was largely due to the German, Italian, Polish and Ukrainian immigrants who flocked to Paraná in the 19th century. Their influence remains tangible today: Curitiba is considered the best-organized city in the country. Waste disposal services function smoothly, the public transport network is efficient and offers good coverage. Curitiba is the city with the highest life expectancy in Brazil.

It doesn’t get any greener than this

No other city in Brazil has quite as many parks as Curitiba, where statistically there is 50m² of green space per capita. One of the most beautiful parks is Parque Barigui – not only because you have a wonderful view of Curitiba’s very impressive skyline. If you want to meet locals, then Barigui is the perfect place. Particularly at the weekends the Curitibanos come here to jog, cycle, gossip and picnic. And you’re also very likely to meet one of Curitiba’s very special inhabitants: the capybara. The world’s largest rodent can be found here, leisurely grazing on the meadows around the large lakes in the southern part of the park.

The oldest park in the city is the centrally located Passeio Publico, which opened in 1886. In memory of the Polish immigrants, the Curitibanos planted the Bosque do Papa (Pope’s Wood), which was officially opened by the Polish Pope, John Paul II. The descendants of the Ukrainian immigrants celebrate their folk festivals at the Park Tingui, where they have built a wooden Orthodox church in the Ukrainian style.

The German immigrants, who came to Curitiba around 1833, were honored in 1996 with their own wood, the Bosque Alemão. In the park on the grounds which once belonged to the Schäffer family, who emigrated from Germany, you will find the Oratório Bach concert hall. A winding trail takes visitors to the Enchanted House, which was inspired by the witch’s hut in the fairy tale of Hansel and Gretel. The house contains a children’s library and fairy tale readings are held here at the weekend. On the German Culture Square you’ll see a replica of a magnificent façade which once belonged to the palace of the Mila family. From the top of the Philosopher’s Tower at 20 meters you can enjoy a fabulous view over the city.

A temple to modernism

Curitiba is a city with a modern skyline, dozens of office towers and apartment blocks can be seen from afar. You won’t find the typical favelas here, though. The capital city of Paraná is the only major city in the country where there are no rapidly-expanding slums. The city’s affluence comes from foreign investors, including the car makers Audi, VW, Renault and Volvo, which supply the South American market from Curitiba. They benefit from a pool of skilled workers who have trained at the city’s universities and colleges. The University of Curitiba was opened in 1916 and is considered the oldest – and perhaps the best – university in Brazil. The city’s primary schools also regularly head the national league tables. Art also flourishes in this environment, and there are numerous museums and galleries in Curitiba. One of the best is the Oscar Niemeyer Museum (MON). Brazil’s most famous architect designed the “house” himself: it consists of a flat, rectangular building next to which a gigantic eye balances on a 20-meter pillar. The first exhibition rooms were opened in 1967,  and Niemeyer added the spectacular eye in 2002. The museum exhibits countless sketches and projects by the visionary architect, who died in December 2012 shortly before his 105th birthday.

Culture lovers will also be fascinated by the Ópera de Arame. Like a UFO, the building seems to hover above an abyss on the edge of an old quarry  in Curitiba. The concert and theater hall with 2400 seats is made entirely of thin steel tubing and glass. A 50-meter bridge leads visitors to the “Wire Opera House”; it crosses a lake with greenish water which was created by filling in the disused quarry. The fragile-looking structure is surrounded by lush tropical vegetation, and a waterfall tumbles musically close by. The opera house was designed by architect Domingos Bongestabs, a professor of architecture at the University of Curitiba. It was inaugurated in 1992, and took only 75 days to erect. Every year in March, when the International Theater Festival takes place, the Ópera de Arame becomes the most important stage in Brazil. The best theater companies in Brazil and from around the world come here to present their productions. Outside of the festival, the glass building is often the venue for concerts by Brazil’s most famous and popular musicians. Tom Jobim, Chico Buarque and Marina Lima have all performed several times here.

 

Where time flies by

For tourists, according to a survey conducted by the tourist office Curitiba’s Botanical Garden is the city’s main attraction. Curitibanos also love the 28-hectare park, which every morning becomes a popular meeting place for mothers pushing prams. The Botanical Garden is laid out in the style of a formal French garden; a flower bed greets visitors just inside the gates and geometric paths lead them into the park. At the center of the gardens is the glass greenhouse which was designed by the architect Abraham Assad, who was inspired by London’s old Crystal Palace. The iron and glass structure is the city’s landmark. Hundreds of different species of plants and trees grow in the Botanical Gardens, including many indigenous plants and exotic plants from other countries. Behind the crystal palace lies a semi-circular pavilion which houses an exhibition of the works of Frans Kraycberg, a Brazilian artist of Polish ancestry.  The 114 exhibits are a memorial for the environment and a warning for future generations: they were made of the stumps of illegally felled rain forest giants.