With Arms Wide Open

Sunday 25th  March 2018

No alarm, no early morning plans, what joy. We had nothing planned until the afternoon. We had a blissfully lazy morning.

When we finally surfaced we popped to reception where we met Valeria and asked for breakfast down by the pool. It was just too warm on the balcony.

Nothing was a problem to them. They were extremely pleasant staff.

We heard our breakfast coming as Thiago flip-flopped his way down the steps carrying a large tray. There was plenty of fresh fruit, cereal, yogurt, toasted bread, scrambled eggs, fruit juices and strong black coffee, more than enough.

We were joined for breakfast by the hotel’s resident cats, the beautiful grey Mademoiselle and the more elusive Princess the black and white cat.

We spent the morning lounging by the pool. Having had a pretty full-on itinerary we were happy to take the time to do nothing.

The pool area was a wonderful relaxing place, although it wasn’t long before I was getting a little restless and started walking around photographing the flowers. To be fair they were impressive and worthy of attention.

Eventually, much to my pleasure, it was time to make a move. We got changed from our lounge-wear and waited for our taxi on the balcony where I had a mild panic when I couldn’t find the e-mailed voucher for our Maracana tickets.  My phone just wouldn’t download the attachment. I hate technology when it doesn’t work!

Thankfully it was all fine on Julie’s phone. Panic over.

The taxi driver arrived on time. His car was filled with good luck charms. Images of saints and family covered the dashboard, reflecting on the windscreen. I was surprised he could see properly. Countless prayer beads swung from his rear-view mirror causing more of a distraction than protection.

He was very pleasant despite the way he looked. I know you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover, but a Fluminese football club crest tattooed on his neck was a little hardcore!

We were on our way to the Flamengo district, specifically the Hotel Nuovo Mondo for our pick-up. Not realising how close we were we arrived at the hotel at 1:05pm. It only took us 5 minutes!

With our pick-up not scheduled until 2pm we went for a walk to the beach, crossing the empty four lane freeway. It felt very odd strolling casually across a road that would normally be so busy. Rayol did say yesterday that on Sundays they shut the road to encourage a more family friendly environment for the locals to walk to the beach, Praia do Flamengo.

It was lovely and peaceful because of it.

In Portuguese the word Flamengo means Flemish and that’s how this beach got its name; from an attempted invasion in 1599 by Dutch explorer Oliver van Noort. Whilst there is a difference between being Dutch and Flemish, back in the 16th century and on the other side of the world they could be forgiven not to have known.

There was a wonderful atmosphere on the beach with families playing football, swimming or simply walking up and down the shoreline as we were doing. There wasn’t any organised sun lounger hire so people either brought their own or sat on beach towels.

I don’t know why Copacabana and Ipanema get all the attention, Praia do Flamengo was as good as any beach with a fantastic view of Sugarloaf Mountain.

It even had proper football goals, not just the makeshift volleyball nets. Add the fact you could see Christ the Redeemer from the beach and that was all the boxes ticked!

We left the beach and found a little bar, just off the promenade. A little thirsty we ordered two cold beers which came in these polystyrene sleeves to keep the beer at the optimum “just out of the fridge” temperature for longer. Genius idea!

And, in a clever subliminal way, the name Antartica beer made them seem even colder!

We sat, people watched and wondered if the locals here were called Flamengoes? Then laughed out loud at our own joke.

What we did notice was no matter where you looked there was always someone kicking a football. This country has taken to the game like no other. It’s a national obsession. They’ve won the World Cup more times than any other country, although when they hosted the tournament in 2014 it ended disastrously with a humiliating 5-1 thumping by Germany.

With ten minutes to go we headed back to the hotel pass the synthetic football pitches and sat outside to wait for our pickup. Another couple joined us, he was from London, she was from New York.

At 2pm this guy walked up holding a clipboard. It had our names listed on it so we didn’t have to show the e-mail voucher in the end!

We got into his car, which he drove a short distance to where a mini bus was waiting for us. It was a strange arrangement. Why didn’t the mini bus just pick us up? 

Anyway, we were on board and on our way to the Maracanã football stadium!

There was probably about 16 of us on board. A guide from the tour company asked us all to introduce ourselves. We had another Brit on board, Dutch and Spanish couples, and Brazilians from out of town.

When we turned up at the stadium my first thought was “Shit. It’s the wrong one!” Only when we got the tickets in our hands did I realised that the Maracana was also known by the name Estadio Mário Filho, in honour of a sports journalist who was an important part of the campaign to build the football stadium in this particular neighbourhood for the 1950 World Cup.

We walked through the turnstiles and followed our guide into the bowels of the Maracanã. He was taking his job seriously, waving a little orange flag so we didn’t lose him, even when we were all stood right next to him. Well, all but the London/New York couple who had already gone their own way.

He showed us section 119 where our tickets were valid. There weren’t any seat numbers, so we could pick anywhere we liked.

This side of the stadium was right in the fierce sun. After a brief walk out to see the pitch we returned inside for some shade. We had an hour to wait before the 4pm kick-off.

There was a great atmosphere inside with fans of both Fluminense and Botafogo mingling trouble free. It was good to see as there is a bitter rivalry between opposing fans in Rio.

It was quite noticeable how many couples who supported opposite sides!

When these two teams meet it known as the Clássico Vovô or the Grandfather’s Classic because it’s the oldest local derby game in Brazil. The two teams first met in 1905!

There were plenty of places to sit, albeit on stools which aren’t Julie’s favourite chairs and there was a bar serving hot food and drinks. We needed something to eat but all they had for me was a packet of crisps. Julie had this god awful microwaved hamburger which she struggled to eat. At least the two large Brahma beers were nice and cold. 

The atmosphere cranked up a level when a band started to play.  It was turning into a wonderful party and the game hadn’t started yet!  To the soundtrack of Nirvana and Pink Floyd opposing fans played this bizzare game of “football” with a large green sheet and a beach ball.

No one could touch the ball only propel it by tugging at the sheet. The object of the game was the same, to get the ball to cross the goal line but I don’t know how the hell they could judge if it was a goal or not. Thankfully is was played in very good spirit.

As kick-off was approacjing it was time for me to pick a side to support.  Being a neutral is boring. The real excitement comes when the game matters. So, because of the taxi driver’s tattoo and their kit was red, white and green (the colours of the Welsh flag) I decided to back Fluminense.

I even decided to put my money where my mouth was, nailed my colours to the cross and bought a shirt.

With ten minutes to kick-off we went outside to pick our seats. Our guide had earlier given us a tip. He said “Choose seats nearest the pitch because they will be first into the shade.”

We settled into seats at the end of an aisle, a dozen rows up, pretty central near the halfway line. I was so excited. This was a realisation of a childhood dream. To watch a derby game between two Rio rivals at the Maracana stadium.

It may have been embarrassingly expensive and we probably could have just turned up and bought tickets at the gate but it was still worth every penny to have this experience.

The new modern all-seater stadium has a 78,000 capacity.

For the final of the 1950 World Cup, where Brazil lost 2-1 to Uruguay records show 173, 850 officially attended the game but some put the figure at almost 200,000!

Today it wasn’t even half full yet the atmosphere was buzzing.

The match kicked-off with Fluminense attacking the goal to our right.

It was an entertaining game with plenty of silky skills on the ball. We didn’t have to wait too long for a goal as Pedro struck in the 12th minute. Fluminense 1 Botafogo 0

The crowd, or at least half of them, went wild.

The sun was incredibly warm. Julie decided that we need some added protection and went inside to buy a baseball cap to cover our heads. They only had the one, so we took it in turns to wear it whilst the other wore the sweaty t-shirt I had taken off earlier as an improvised head scarf. 

The first half settled down into an even game with both teams creating chances. The Fluminense goal keeper was putting in an inspired performance to keep Botafogo at bay. The crowd were just as entertaining as the match. It really was a wonderful atmosphere.

Half time arrived, and we shot inside for some shade and cold beer.

Back out for the second half and the game settled into almost a carbon copy of the first when in the 12th minute Fluminense scored again. A simple goal for Marcos Junior after a wonderful chested pass from Pedro.

Starving hungry we bought a bag of Biscoito Globo from a vendor walking up and down the terraces.  On the packaging they had a stickman with a globe for a head and images of the Eiffel Tower, the Leaning Tower of Pisa, a castle which was apparently in Portugal, and Rio’s very own Sugarloaf mountain.

We were excited to try them. These snacks are a Rio institution, the locals adore them. They turned out to be a light baked doughnut shaped “biscuits” made from manioc (cassava/yuca) starch, and what tasted like wood shavings. We struggled to swallow and discreetly returned the half-chewed pulp back into the bag.

Mid-way through the second half the sun was setting behind the stands which made it easier to follow the game.

Botafogo dominated much of what was left but in giving all to attack they left themselves exposed in defence and in the final minute Fluminense broke quickly with Jadson who emphatically scored their third.

Moments later the final whistle blew. Fluminense 3 Botafogo 0 

(Here’s a link to some highlights from the game.  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=z_tENslyom4 )

We didn’t hang around to watch the cup presentation as our guide quite clearly said we’ll meet back 5 minutes after the game and warned “Be there or we will leave without you”.

All of us were at the meeting point on time except for the Londoner and the New Yorker. Instead of leaving without them we wasted time whilst our guide went looking for them. He never did find them.

When we got outside the stadium it was dark. We had joined another group and followed our guides back towards out bus back to our drop off point, which for us was Hotel Nuovo Mundo in Flamengo.

Travelling back to Flamengo only then to have to find our way back to Santa Teresa seemed daft so instead we hailed a taxi.

“Largo dos Guimares, Santa Teresa” I said in my best Brazilian accent which impressed Julie who thought I sounded practically local.

Moments later we were being shaken up the cobblestones of the old neighbourhood and dropped off near to the Explorer Bar.

The night was still young. I mean it really was. It hadn’t even started at 6:20pm. We quickly popped back to the hotel to get changed into something less football related and bounced straight back out again.   

We walked to the square to find a restaurant called Café do Alto, highly rated on TripAdvisor which always gives you confidence.  

It was an unpretentious place with a charming local feel to it.

Julie went all adventurous and ordered a dish called Rubacao, a traditional red rice dish from Paraiba state. It had plenty of sun-dried beef on the plate which was very strong in flavour. She was unsure if she liked it or not.

I went for a vegetable Moquecas, a dish that I had eaten, even cooked before.  I was given some cornmeal to sprinkle over the top of it to add season and texture (I’m guessing).

The only thing wrong with my dish was that there wasn’t enough of it. I could easily have eaten twice the amount! It was delicious.

After we had eaten we moved on to Portella, the bar on the corner. It was quiet inside with only a handful of people sat in one corner. They tried to make the place look busier by having a few wooden mannequins, but it didn’t work.

There was no live music tonight so after one round we left.

Of course, we still had a thirst, so we stopped at the Explorer bar on the way back to the hotel where we had without a doubt the worst caipirinha in Brazil. It must have been the tourist-lite version. We had a few here last night which were fine but tonigt I’m sure they forgot to put any cachaca in it.

Anyway, after we finished our lime and soda we returned to our hotel. It was certainly quieter out in Santa Teresa this evening. No raucous party going on somewhere.

Back in our room we flicked through countless Brazilian TV channels before falling soundly asleep with the remote control still in my hand.

 Next Day >>>  

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