Eyes will be on Brazil next year for the World Cup. Pete Thompson gets a taste of what travelling fans can expect in Salvador.
An exuberant middle-aged man jumps to his feet and raises both arms in the air before breaking into a samba dance. As he glides smoothly from side to side, two young women in close proximity join in while singing at the top of their voices.
In contrast, one disgruntled local is clearly in no mood for dancing as a frown spreads across his face.
Salvador is known as Brazil’s capital of happiness, but the majority of the crowd in the recently-opened Arena Fonte Nova football stadium see no reason to be cheerful.
Bahia, the home team, has just gone 3-0 down in an eagerly-anticipated derby match against arch-rivals Vitoria, and it’s not even half-time yet.
The irate Bahia supporter is long gone by the time the Vitoria players and their vociferous fans celebrate a 7-3 win. I had been advised to support the home team, but the final score was never going to overshadow my first taste of Brazilian football.
Throughout the game, passionate supporters had bounced up and down, singing and swaying to the beat of drums in perfect co-ordination. I can only imagine what it will be like to return for a game next summer, when the 55,000-capacity stadium will play host to World Cup matches.
But those who are fortunate enough to get tickets, which go on sale this month, will have much more than football to enjoy in Salvador and the north-east state of Bahia.
The bright lights and sandy beaches of Rio de Janeiro are more often than not the first place tourists flock to in Brazil, but Bahia is arguably the heart and soul of this vast South American country.
Ahead of my first visit to South America, I’d always envisaged Brazilians as being a hospitable bunch. But I was certainly not anticipating being greeted at the airport by a resplendent lady in traditional African dress, who ties a ribbon (known as a fita) around my wrist and tells me to make three wishes.
Wishes made, we embark on the short journey from the airport to the luxurious Pestana Convento do Carmo hotel. Steeped in history, it was originally built as a convent in 1586 and the structure has undergone few changes since then. There are even a few monks living in part of the grand old building and in such peaceful surroundings, it’s hard to believe I’m in the heart of a bustling city.
Salvador was one of the first places in South America to be colonised by Europeans. From 1532, Portuguese settlers brought slaves over to work in plantations and the African influence in the cobbled streets of the old town Pelourinho, registered as a UNESCO world cultural centre, is obvious.
Outside colourful buildings, street vendors sell anything from paintings to traditional Bahian cuisine, such as acaraje, a snack made from mashed black-eyed peas deep-fried in palm oil.
Salvador is populated by more people of African descent than any city outside Africa, and the slaves were also responsible for some of the most impressive architecture in this former capital of Brazil.
I’m taken aback by the attention to detail of the carvings and gleaming gold inside the Sao Francisco Church, which took around 100 years to build as slaves worked through the night. The Rosario dos Pretos, another Catholic church, is a hive of vibrant activity as locals dance and sing between prayers during a lively Mother’s Day service.
I also visit the Bonfim Church in the lower part of the city, which attracts pilgrims hoping for miracles – if England qualify for the World Cup and are based in Salvador, that should probably be their first port of call.
There always seems to be a party in Salvador, but the biggest celebrations take place in February. The city famously hosts the second-biggest carnival in Brazil, with street parties lasting for two weeks, and there’s also a celebration of the sea goddess Yemanja, in which gifts are placed in a boat for fisherman to take out to sea.
While it’s a shame the carnival is not in full swing during my stay, I certainly don’t feel short-changed when I check into the plush Tivoli Eco Resort in Praia do Forte, after a drive of around an hour and a half up the coast. Lounging in a hammock on the balcony of my spacious suite, I gaze at the idyllic view of palm trees, a seductive white sandy beach and ocean waves crashing in.
I later attempt to add the samba to my repertoire of dance moves as a patient member of the hotel’s entertainment staff puts me through my paces, but it’s very much a work in progress. The following morning, large iguanas stroll around on the grass nearby as I laze by a swimming pool overlooking the sea. The resort is a haven for relaxation with first-class service, food and a spa which I float out of after a relaxing massage.
A short stroll down the beach is the Tamar Project, a sanctuary for the preservation of sea turtles where I see up to five species of turtles as a group of local schoolchildren are taught about the importance of conservation.
There’s also the opportunity to feed resident sharks before it’s time for another feast of my own. I’m invited into the kitchen at the Terreiro Bahia restaurant, where two female chefs meticulously conjure up traditional local dishes with aromas that arouse my taste buds. Moseying down the quiet main street in laid-back Praia, I see artists painting colourful pieces, jewellery being made and lucky charms for sale.
But my ribbon is still firmly wrapped around my wrist as I reluctantly board the plane home from a trip that has conjured up more than I could ever have wished for.
Pete Thompson was a guest of TAP Portugal (www.flytap.com; 0845 601 0932) which operates 74 weekly flights from the UK to Brazil via Lisbon and Porto. A return flight in economy from London to Salvador starts from £543, including taxes. Prices for sale until August 31 and for travel between September 15 to December 6.
For more information on Brazil, visit www.vbrata.org. VBRATA (Visit Brazil Travel Association) is a not-for-profit organisation dedicated to promoting Brazil as a tourist and cultural destination in the United Kingdom.