A week in Salvador da Bahia

By Julie Skurdenis
This item appears on page 84 of the February 2008 issue.

by Julie Skurdenis

I’m not sure how surprised the monks who lived here 400 years ago would be to hear the soft sounds of bossa nova echoing in the cloisters where they once lived and prayed. No doubt, chanting and church music would have been more familiar to them, but I suspect that bossa nova would not have shocked them. After all, I was in Salvador da Bahia, Brazil, where music is an integral part of everyday life. It was probably the same in 1586 when the first Carmelite friars arrived in Salvador 86 years after Brazil was discovered by the Portuguese.

Convento do Carmo

I was spending a week in Salvador da Bahia and couldn’t believe my good luck in selecting as my hotel the Convento do Carmo (Rua do Carmo 1, Pelourinho, 40301-330 Salvador [B.A.], Brazil; phone 55-71-3327-8400 or, toll-free in Brazil, 808-252-252, e-mail reservas@conventodocarmo.com.br or visit www.pestana.com). I couldn’t have picked a more beautiful or a more historic hotel.

View of Pelourinho, Salvador da Bahia’s Old City. Photos: Skurdenis

I had come to Salvador because of its long, rich history. The Convento do Carmo is part of that history and was the main reason I chose Salvador as a holiday destination in the first place.

The land where the Convento stands was donated to the Carmelite friars in 1592 by Cristovão de Aguiar Daltro. A small convent and church were built soon afterward.

After 1660, the present convent and its church began to take shape gradually, not reaching completion until more than a hundred years later. By then, there were two churches side by side, one for the friars and one for laypeople. There were also the adjacent monastic buildings with cloisters, a refectory and dormitories.

Today it is these former monastic buildings that are the Convento do Carmo, opened in 2005 as part of the hotel group Pousadas de Portugal (phone +351 218 442 000 or 442 001, www.pousadas.pt). In fact, Convento do Carmo is the group’s first property outside Portugal.

Three Bahian ladies in distinctive dress — Pelourinho.

The Convento do Carmo oozes history. There are the two spacious leafy interior courtyards, the cool arcades, the intimate private dining room tucked away in a corner decorated with lovely blue-and-white azulejos (tiles), the magnificent sacristy with jacaranda wood drawers in which silver-and-gold embroidered religious vestments were stored and, of course, the two churches right next door.

There is also a crypt beneath one of the churches, and if you’re a guest at the Convento you can request a visit. It’s eerie to walk among ancient monuments and sarcophagi, especially when the crypt caretaker keeps lifting lids off stone coffins: “Here are the bones of a lady who died in 1795.” “These children died 200 years ago.”

The Convento is not all about the past, however. The guest bedrooms are elegantly decorated. My junior suite overlooking one of the cloisters had a beamed ceiling, two supremely comfortable beds and a state-of-the-art bathroom. It also had the original prayer niches beside the windows where the friars once knelt at their devotions.

There are also an elegant bar, an equally elegant restaurant, a spa with an offering of massages, a small circular swimming pool that doubles as a fountain after dark, even a comfortable guest living room with computers.


I had chosen Salvador because of the Convento do Carmo. Almost as important was where the Convento is located, in Pelourinho, the district that is the vibrant heart of Salvador.

Reception room of Hotel Convento do Carmo.

Once you tear yourself away from the Convento, you can conceivably spend all your time exploring Pelourinho with its cobblestone streets, busy plazas and ancient pastel-colored buildings in various stages of restoration. Pelourinho is rich in history and rich in sights.

Not to be missed are a handful of old churches. Foremost are São Francisco, a baroque church that gives new meaning to the word “gilded” (don’t miss the sound-and-light performance, offered most days at 11:30 a.m. and 4 p.m., when all that gold glitters under the play of lights), and the Church of the Third Order of São Francisco, right next door, with an exuberantly carved plateresque facade and gorgeous blue-and-white tile work inside.

On the same plaza as these two, Terreiro de Jesus is the 17th-century ornate cathedral. Close by is the baroque church of Nossa Senhora do Rosario dos Pretos (Our Lady of the Rosary of the Blacks) on a steep cobblestone street with a great view over Pelourinho. It was built by and for black slaves in the 18th century.

More to see

About five miles from Pelourinho is Salvador’s most famous church, Nosso Senhor do Bonfim (Our Lord of the Good Ending/Death), where sellers try to get visitors to buy fitas, colorful ribbons to wrap around your wrist for luck. I succumbed and bought 10. I’m still waiting for the good luck to begin.

Church of São Francisco (St. Francis) of the Third Order in Pelourinho.

Inside are fabulous blue-and-white wall tiles depicting scenes from the New Testament — reminiscent of what one sees in Portugal — and a room displaying wax, plastic and wooden body parts. If one has a heart problem, one donates a miniature plastic heart to Bonfim; if a head problem, then a plastic head. I noticed lots and lots of legs and feet. Tourists suffering perhaps from too much walking?

In the 16th and 17th centuries, the Portuguese ringed the Bay of All Saints, on which Salvador is situated, with forts. One of the most important — captured briefly by the Dutch in 1624 — is the fort of Santo Antonio da Barra, now housing a nautical museum. One other not-to-miss fort is the circular São Marcelo, built out in the bay in 1625.

A few more do-not-miss sights — the Museu Afro-Brasileiro, explaining the candomble religion brought by slaves from West Africa and centered on gods and goddesses called orixas; the fabulous Museu de Arte Sacra, housed in an old monastery; the Solar do Unhão, an 18th-century sugar mill where a nightly folkloric show and buffet are offered, and the Mercado Modelo, with small stalls selling souvenirs.

During my week in Salvador in May ’07, I also made two day-long excursions, one to the 16th-century town of Cachoeira, northwest of Salvador and once the center of tobacco and sugar plantations, and one to Praia do Forte, site of one of Brazil’s most successful giant sea turtle projects, the Projecto Tamar.

On the way to the turtles, we visited the ruins of the mansion built in 1556 by Garcia d’Avila, a Portuguese clerk who rose to become one of the new colony’s biggest landowners.

São Paulo

It would be a mistake to visit Salvador without at least a brief stopover in São Paulo, Brazil’s largest city. TAM flies from New York to Salvador via São Paulo, making a stopover easy. I spent three nights in the city and wished I had planned more.

São Paulo is a huge contrast to Salvador. It’s a high-energy, nonstop city. There are fabulous museums: MASP (Museu Arte São Paulo); MAM (Museu de Arte Moderna), in Ibirapuera Park; Pinacoteca do Estado, and the Fundação Maria Luisa e Oscar Americano. There’s also Oscar Niemeyer’s controversial, austere Monument to Latin America, plus great multiethnic restaurants.

If Salvador is all about history, São Paulo is all about the present and the future.

If you go. . .

Arrangements for my trip were made by Avocet Travel (New York, NY; phone 866/862-2442 or 212/690-7200, e-mail info@avocettravel.com or visit www.avocettravel.com), which offers travel to Brazil and other parts of South America as well as to Africa, Europe and the U.S.

My private tour included a guide and driver for six nights in Salvador, three nights in São Paulo, flights between New York and Brazil, all excursions, transfers, two folkloric performances with dinner, and taxes. My cost was $5,166. Brazil requires a visa. This fee was not included in the above cost.

I flew the airline TAM (888/235-9826). Business-class service was superb — attentive. Great food! Wonderfully comfortable seats tilted back almost completely for sleeping.