The Christ the Redeemer statue, top left, looks out over Guanabara Bay in this aerial photo taken in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Dado Galdieri / Bloomberg
The Christ the Redeemer statue, top left, looks out over Guanabara Bay in this aerial photo taken in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Dado Galdieri / Bloomberg

Rio’s forgotten downtown a window on Olympic city’s past



RIO DE JANEIRO // For most visitors to Rio de Janeiro, and even for many residents, the city’s historic downtown is a blur, a canyonland of office towers punctuated by the odd colonial-era church – all to be glimpsed through cab windows en route to the beach.

But downtown, known in Portuguese as “Centro,” is Rio’s historical hotspot, a motley pastiche of vestiges of the city’s 450-year-long past.

For visitors capable of prying themselves off Copacabana’s golden sands, the neighborhood is a fascinating detour.

And revitalization projects in the area ahead of the 2016 Summer Olympic Games could help spur its rediscovery.

Centro is where Rio was born, in 1565, during the bitter battle between the Portuguese and the French, and their indigenous allies, for colonial dominance. The Portuguese eventually prevailed and built their outpost on a hill overlooking Guanabara Bay in what is now Centro.

That hill – known as the Morro do Castelo, or Castle Hill for the fortress that crowned it – no longer exists. It was razed in the late 19th and early 20th centuries in response to the then-widespread theory that the mountain spread disease by impeding air circulation.

Today’s visitors can get a feel for Rio’s colonial times at the Convento Santo Antonio, a Franciscan convent that, along with a Jesuit church atop Castle Hill, was a main landmark of early Rio. Tucked behind the entrance to the Carioca metro stop, which on workdays bustles with commuters streaming to and from nearby office towers, Santo Antonio is all austere grace – a simple-lined white complex atop a hill.

The Mosteiro Sao Bento is Santo Antonio’s rich and showy cousin. While the church was founded in 1590 by Benedictine monks, its opulent interior – a Baroque riot of elaborate wooden sculptures covered in 23-carat gold foil – is a product of the 18th century gold rush that was an early peak of Brazilian boom-and-bust economy. A decade-long restoration recently wrapped up, making the gilded church gleam that much brighter.

Down the street is another colonial gem, the Praca XV square. It’s where ships unloaded, and where the Portuguese royal family stayed after fleeing Lisbon and the approaching British fleet. Upon reaching Brazil in 1808, Portuguese monarch Dom Joao VI stayed in the Paco Imperial, a charming stone building on one side of Praca XV that’s been converted into a cultural center, with free exhibitions. And on Saturday mornings, the square hosts an antiques fair where eagle-eyed shoppers can score anything from a four-post bed worthy of Dom Joao himself to a half-used bottle of sunscreen circa 1986.

Should stomachs rumble, one of downtown Rio’s best restaurants, Coccinelle Bistro, is located opposite the Paco Imperial. Run by a Frenchman and his Japanese wife, this lunchtime favorite features bright and fresh Franco-Japanese fusion, served in bento boxes. For more local color, try Confeitaria Colombo, a sprawling art deco jewel of a restaurant near the Carioca metro. With its towering mirrors in elaborate jacaranda frames and fancy fin de siecle tilework, the Confeitaria Colombo is perfect for afternoon tea.

Much of Centro has been under construction as part of the revitalization of the long-derelict port region ahead of the Olympics. Praca Maua square is largely finished, including a new museum celebrating the city, the Museu do Arte do Rio, or MAR. And jutting out into Guanabara Bay, the Museu do Amanha, or Museum of Tomorrow, is taking shape. A $55 million project by famed Spanish architect Santiago Calatrava, the building resembles a great white whale and is likely to open before the games begin in August.

In the nearby Gamboa neighborhood, a modest museum pays tribute to the dark history of slavery. Rio was once the busiest slave port in the Americas, and the Memorial dos Pretos Novos, or New Blacks Memorial, sits where the bodies of up to 50,000 slaves who succumbed during the punishing journey across the Atlantic were burned and dumped. The memorial itself is underwhelming – dusty display cases and fogged-up windows onto archaeological excavation pits – but it’s a moving and sobering stop.

Gamboa is also the birthplace of samba, the syncopated rhythm with African roots that’s become Brazil’s national sound. Soak up the sounds at Trapiche Gamboa, a dilapidated warehouse that’s been converted into a nightclub, with live tunes and fancy footwork. Raucous outdoor samba circles take place Monday nights at Pedra do Sal, a nearby square that was once a slave market and one of the hubs of samba’s birth in the early 20th century.

Pedro Doria, a columnist and author of a book about Brazil’s early colonial period, said that the Centro has been mostly forgotten by Rio residents and tourists alike. With the rise of 20th century beach culture, “suddenly, the emotional center of the city moved” to Copacabana, Doria said. Centro, with its reminders of Rio’s slave past, was rejected as “repugnant.”

But the Olympic makeovers may raise its profile. “It’s where we come from,” he said. “We must embrace it.”

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Losses: 4

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How to play the stock market recovery in 2021?

If you are looking to build your long-term wealth in 2021 and beyond, the stock market is still the best place to do it as equities powered on despite the pandemic.

Investing in individual stocks is not for everyone and most private investors should stick to mutual funds and ETFs, but there are some thrilling opportunities for those who understand the risks.

Peter Garnry, head of equity strategy at Saxo Bank, says the 20 best-performing US and European stocks have delivered an average return year-to-date of 148 per cent, measured in local currency terms.

Online marketplace Etsy was the best performer with a return of 330.6 per cent, followed by communications software company Sinch (315.4 per cent), online supermarket HelloFresh (232.8 per cent) and fuel cells specialist NEL (191.7 per cent).

Mr Garnry says digital companies benefited from the lockdown, while green energy firms flew as efforts to combat climate change were ramped up, helped in part by the European Union’s green deal. 

Electric car company Tesla would be on the list if it had been part of the S&P 500 Index, but it only joined on December 21. “Tesla has become one of the most valuable companies in the world this year as demand for electric vehicles has grown dramatically,” Mr Garnry says.

By contrast, the 20 worst-performing European stocks fell 54 per cent on average, with European banks hit by the economic fallout from the pandemic, while cruise liners and airline stocks suffered due to travel restrictions.

As demand for energy fell, the oil and gas industry had a tough year, too.

Mr Garnry says the biggest story this year was the “absolute crunch” in so-called value stocks, companies that trade at low valuations compared to their earnings and growth potential.

He says they are “heavily tilted towards financials, miners, energy, utilities and industrials, which have all been hit hard by the Covid-19 pandemic”. “The last year saw these cheap stocks become cheaper and expensive stocks have become more expensive.” 

This has triggered excited talk about the “great value rotation” but Mr Garnry remains sceptical. “We need to see a breakout of interest rates combined with higher inflation before we join the crowd.”

Always remember that past performance is not a guarantee of future returns. Last year’s winners often turn out to be this year’s losers, and vice-versa.

JOKE'S ON YOU

Google wasn't new to busting out April Fool's jokes: before the Gmail "prank", it tricked users with mind-reading MentalPlex responses and said well-fed pigeons were running its search engine operations .

In subsequent years, they announced home internet services through your toilet with its "patented GFlush system", made us believe the Moon's surface was made of cheese and unveiled a dating service in which they called founders Sergey Brin and Larry Page "Stanford PhD wannabes ".

But Gmail was all too real, purportedly inspired by one – a single – Google user complaining about the "poor quality of existing email services" and born "millions of M&Ms later".

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5.45pm: Burj Nahaar Group 3 | $350,000 | (D) | 1,600m
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Investment required: $500,000

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