With Arms Wide Open

Tuesday 27th  March 2018

Our mornings have now settled into a wonderful routine of lazy breakfasts down by the pool followed by some serious lounging until midday. Our 5 nights here has afforded us the luxury of a slower pace.

The tranquillity this morning however was shattered by the loud nasal whine of a new guest staying at Mama Ruisa. She was in a group of three and she wouldn’t stop talking with her unattractive accent cutting sharply through the normal drone of their conversation. 

Shortly after midday we got a taxi down to Forte de Copacabana, a fort built on a rocky outcrop at the Southern end of Copacabana beach. It was built in 1908 as part of a coastal defence strategy.

We walked through the fortified gate, expecting to pay someone an entrance fee, but there wasn’t a ticket booth anywhere to be seen. There were plenty of soldiers walking around. The fort itself is now a museum but there is still a military presence here.

The first thing we came across however was an outpost of Confeteria Colombo serving food out on the terrace. We were ready for a spot of lunch, but all the tables were taken. Fortunately a little further up there was another café called Café 18 do Forte, a historical reference of which we were to learn more about later.

We sat down overlooking the bay. It was the perfect spot to begin our day at Copacabana. We could see the entire arc of the famous sands, ending with Sugarloaf Mountain.  Not for the first time we had to pinch ourselves to make sure we weren’t in a dream.

The menu was varied and interesting. After much deliberation we opted to share a selection of bruschetta. The toppings were very imaginative. We shared the standard tomato and mozzarella, then Julie had the one with a fishy paste topped with pears, whilst I had the one with marinated raisins. They were so delicious.

There wasn’t much in the way of activity on the water. A lone paddle boarder and a single sailboat was all we saw. All the action was on the beach.   

We were in no rush to leave. It was gloriously peaceful here, and fascinating, looking out towards the crowded beachfront, with its high-rise properties and the scrambled favela of Babilônia behind them.

Eventually, of course, we left Café 18 do Forte and continued towards the fort.

The fort, for the most part was an unattractive mound of concrete, however there was a small courtyard with a fort-like façade, painted white, dazzling in the sun.

We stepped inside, once again expecting to pay someone something. There were two soldiers sat at a table near entrance, but they paid us no attention.

Inside felt like an underground bunker, a warren of small rooms, with no windows and low ceilings. The first room we came across had a mannequin dressed in the uniform of the time standing guard at the door. Inside there was a television with a short information video about the fort playing on a loop. 

Despite being in Portuguese it brought the fort to life with the fascinating story of a revolt that took place here in 1922. 

It was the scene of a failed attempt at overthrowing the old republic government by a faction of the army after their commander-in-chief Marshall Hermes de Fonseca was thrown into prison for criticising the systemic corruption in government.

There was a coordinated effort but the only ones to successfully start the rebellion was Fort Copacabana, led by his son Captain Euclides Hermes de Fonseca.  On the 5th July 1922 they turned the artillery towards the city, aimed at the Catete Palace, the seat of government, and began a bombardment.

The plan was to advance and take control of the building, but the republic retaliated. Fort Copacabana came under heavy fire from two battleships out in the bay. They received a “surrender or be destroyed” ultimatum.  As it came clear it wasn’t going to end well Captain Euclides told those who wished to leave to do so. Of the 300 garrisoned at the fort only 29 stayed.

He ripped up a Brazilian flag and cut it into 29 pieces, handing one to each remaining soldier.  There was clearly some symbolism to it but I’m not too sure what. He then left the fort to negotiate a cease fire but instead he was arrested and detained.

Those who were still at the Fort, having lost their leader, then decided to go out in a blaze of glory. They left the fort and marched towards Catete Palace. A photograph shows them strolling down Copacabana as people looked on in bemusement. Five of them bottled it and ran away but they gained a civilian who joined their ranks.

The twenty four armed men continued towards the government building, over five miles away. They didn’t get far. Between them and their objective was over 3000 troops.

Half way down Copacabana, at the intersection of Avenida Atlantica and a street now called Rua Siqueira Campos, renamed after the lieutenant who led this ill-fated march, they met troops and a shootout ensued. Eighteen died, six surrendered.  The revolution was over.

However, 42 years later in a coup d'état the army did take control and what followed was twenty years of military dictatorship. Not quite what the young idealistic lieutenants had in mind with their small rebellion.

We continued to walk through the rooms of the fort, the most interesting of which was a mock-up of the nerve centre with faceless mannequins busy sending and receiving communications. Others were plotting the data on a large semi-circle table.  The whole scene reminded me of a Kraftwerk album cover, especially as they were all dressed in more industrial boiler suits rather than military uniform.

Other rooms had a stockpile of ammunition, a large generator that looked more like a steam train, and a tool box with a spanner the size of my head!

Another interesting part was a restored section of the bathrooms, where the washbasins appeared to be segregated. Perhaps I was mistaken, but to me it looked like the higher ranked could use those on the left and the “inferior” soldier had to use the right-hand side.

We walked through the dark wood cladded officer’s office and then back out into the sunshine. All in all we had probably spent half an hour inside.

But that wasn’t the end of our visit. Steps led up to the top of the fort, where we could walk across the thick concrete roof towards the huge double-barrelled cannon set on top.

It was a mammoth weapon capable of firing a 445kg shell, (a few of which we saw stockpiled inside), a distance of over 20 miles. The big guns were pointing not out towards the sea but back across the bay. The Catete Palace would have been within easy reach!

We didn’t spend long here. It felt odd walking on the roof. Julie was a bag of nerves.

As we left the Fort, through the main gates we read above the arch the words “Si vis pacem para bellum” which roughly translates into something like “If you want peace prepare for war”. A very contradictory statement but sadly one that all nations follow. You keep the peace by showing you can defend yourself. (Although I have read that Costa Rica does not have an army!?)

Anyway, moving on. To our right was the beginning of the most famous stretch of sand in the world. Barry Manilow probably had a lot to do with that. It’s not the best beach in the world, but everyone has heard of Copacabana.   

We marched down the wavy mosaiced promenade, wondering what to do next.

Almost immediately we came to a bronze statue welcoming us to the beach with a beaming smile. He was Dorival Caymmi a famous Brazilian singer who lived his later years here at Copacabana. He was instrumental in the musical Bossa Nova movement popularised in the 50s and 60s.

It reminded me of my electric organ when I was a child. It was one of those organs that was also a piece of furniture, the size of a sideboard. I remember it had a bossa nova switch and it was my favourite rhythm. In fact, I can still vividly remember playing “King of the Road” over the exotic Brazilian beat. I used to enjoy tinkling the plastic ivories. Shame I didn’t stick at it.

Anyway, we couldn’t refuse Dorival’s invitation to his beach, so we decided to spend some time on the sand.

We walked a little further up, to where we met another bronze statue. This was of a famous Brazilian poet Carlos Drummond de Andrade. He was sat on a bench with a quote that said, “No mar estava escrita uma cidade” which translates as “In the sea was written a city”

We took the next entrance onto pitch number 162 and hired a couple of desk chairs and a parasol from the Edson family for R$40.

They served us poor caipirinhas but we didn’t care. It was just perfect. We sat down and chilled out.

It was first class people watching. It wasn’t just the beachgoers. There were also plenty of beach vendors walking up and down.

This one guy carried this parasol high above his head from which he hung a huge selection of clothes. We couldn’t see him at first, he was hidden beneath it all. That must have weighed a tonne!

When he came across someone who showed interest, he placed the parasol down which was then the perfect height for someone to browse through his beachwear collection as if they were in a department store.  

Another guy rolled up with his trolley and made a roaring trade serving hot corn on the cob. There were hat sellers, drink sellers, bikini sellers. I even got offered some drugs.

After only about 30 minutes we fell into shade. The sun was behind us and one of the taller buildings was casting a shadow right over us and only us. We looked left and right, and they were still in glorious sunshine.

“It won’t last long” I said as we waited for the earth to rotate on its axis just a little bit more. However, after another 20 minutes of waiting patiently we gave up and decided to move ourselves.

We made a b-line for the water and dipped our toes into the surprisingly cold Atlantic Ocean. No more than our toes got wet.

There wasn’t a rule to say you had to hire a deck chair, so when we found our spot, we laid down our towel flags and sat down. Neither of us are sun worshippers. Lying in the sun all day doesn’t interest us, but I must say we did enjoy simply sitting there listening to the crashing waves and the background chatter.

There wasn’t much in the way of people watching as the sand here had formed a bank. There was a 5ft drop right in front of us. We could only see the top of people’s heads as they walked past.

Around 5pm we brought our beach time to an end because of thirst more than anything else. The downside of going independent with our towels was that there was no one to serve us drinks.

We returned to the promenade, near to another sand sculpture of bikini clad women lying on their front presided over by a bearded god-like figure. Really strange. What was a little freaky was the female sand figures were actually wearing thongs and one of them had a long black wig.

I dropped a few coins in his collection bucket before joining Julie in the beachside bar called Foodies Quiosque Rock in Rio. The tables were covered with the names of random rock bands from AC/DC to UB40. I guess they've all played at the Rock in Rio music festival.

Rehydrated with Antartica beer we crossed the road in search of a Havaianas store. We had come to the conclusion that with 6 grandchildren the easiest and cheapest option was to buy a pair of flip-flops each. We messaged Hannah for their shoe sizes and then converted them from UK to US sizes.

We found the Havaianas on Rua Xavier da Silveira and spent £38 on five pairs. (We had already bought a pair for Freya.)

With a bag full of flip-flops we walked further into the neighbourhood looking for somewhere to eat.

On the corner of Rua Aires da Saldanha and Rua Bolivar we came to Botteca da Garrafa or Bottle’s Pub. “Let’s eat here” I suggested. What drew me wasn’t the extensive vegetarian menu (because there wasn’t one!) but the football on the TV.

Most people were sat outside, on stools, looking in, which looked a bit strange. We chose to sit inside so we could have the comfort of chairs.

The menu wasn’t veggie friendly. All I could eat was cheese. It felt like being back in France. I ordered a side order of grilled cheese to go with my cheesy chips. At least Julie was well catered for, and she enjoyed her chicken fillet. Although she struggled a little with the peculiar side dish of peas, onions and strips of ham over a nest of matchstick fries. A culinary triumph it was not!

My griddled cheese was also a disappointment. It was a squeaky halloumi like cheese, but they had forgotten to griddle it! Halloumi softens up nicely when warmed but when eaten raw it is rubbery and squeaky. I chomped through a couple of chunks with some intense sun-dried tomatoes.  Clearly whoever put it on the menu had never eaten it!

At least my cheesy chips were perfect. Big fat fries topped with oozing melted cheese.

With a bucket of Bud for refreshment we watched Spain thump Argentina 6-1 and Brazil beat Germany 1-0. They were international friendlies, and a complete waste of time, especially if you were on the loosing side. When the beer ran out it was time to pay and leave.

I was relieved when my card worked. It had been refused earlier in a supermarket. 

We hailed down a taxi which sounds quite dramatic, but it was very straightforward. There were plenty of yellow cabs passing and with the traffic stopping at the lights it wasn’t difficult to catch their attention.


We set off leaving Copacabana behind, driving through the tunnel into Botafogo and onwards towards our hotel. It was difficult to recognise places in the dark but once we felt the cobblestones beneath our wheels, we knew we were in Santa Teresa.

The night was still young, but we decided not to go out in a blaze of caipirinhas and samba. Instead we retired to our balcony, shared a bottle of wine and soaked in the city from our lofty location.

Tonight was our last in Brazil. We felt disappointed to say the least. There was no missing home yet, we could have done another week at least.  

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