Salvador de Bahia, Brazil: Spirited away

In Salvador de Bahia, locals throw one hell of a party every Tuesday, writes Ute Junker.

Hands are waving in the air, the band is laying down the beat, but it isn't until the grooving grannies shimmy down the aisle that the church service really gets going. The Tuesday night mass at Our Lady of the Rosaries is not one the Pope would recognise.

Guided by traditional African instruments, including drums and berimbau, the congregation is worshipping by singing, chanting and clapping to the beat.

Think gospel church set to a tribal beat and you're heading in the right direction.

Particularly enthusiastic worshippers - often older men and women - show off their dance moves, carried away by love of the Lord, by the beat, or by both.

Our Lady of the Rosaries could only exist in Salvador.

This church was built on traditional Portuguese lines by slaves wanting their own place to worship - look closely at the marble and gold interiors, and you'll see they're painted wood - but, like much else in Salvador, its flavour is distinctly African.

There's a reason for that.

This northern city was once the country's main slaving port, and the African influence is still unmistakable. Skins are darker here, rhythms are tribal, and the city's favourite dishes rely heavily on African ingredients such as coconut, ginger and coriander.

Then there are the churches. The Church of Senhor de Bonfim is another Salvador original, a place where Catholicism has a distinctly voodoo-like veneer.

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The church's interior is festooned with replicas of body parts, donations from thankful supplicants whose medical conditions have been healed by the power of prayer.

As at many of Salvador's churches, the gates outside Senhor de Bonfim are festooned with colourful ribbons that pay tribute to distinctly non-Christian deities.

In Salvador, Catholicism coexists with an even more fervent devotion to Candomble, a form of worship brought from Africa.

Candomble's powerful orixas, or spirits, remain Salvador's most potent religious force. There may be 169 Catholic churches in Salvador, but the number of places of Candomble worship is estimated to be around 1400. Not that you'd necessarily know one if you stumbled across it.

In the gutter at a crossroads, a local points out what appears to be the remnants of a tramps' party - a couple of cigars, some cigarettes, a box of matches and bottle of rum.

He explains this is actually an offering to Exu, the powerful messenger who mediates between spirits and humans.

Similarly, watch a local opening a bottle of cachaca - Brazil's beloved sugar cane rum - and you'll see that he first pours a small measure into the street.

Yep, that's also an offering to Exu. Exu, it seems, is a spirit who likes to kick back a little.

Exu is just one of the many spirits worshipped in Candomble. In Salvador's Afro-Brazilian Museum, two dozen of them are depicted on beautifully carved wood panels. Alternatively, head for the city centre lake of Dique do Tororo, where seven-metre statues of eight of the most powerful deities appear to dance on the water. There is Oxala, the father deity, the feisty Iansa, goddess of wind and storms, Oxossi, in charge of forests and hunting, and Oxum, goddess of rivers and fresh water.

My closest encounter with the spirits comes at a performance of the Folkloric Ballet of Bahia.

The words "folklore" and "ballet" in close conjunction excite me about as much as the combination of "root" and "canal", but a local assures me I'll love the performance - and he's right.

The dancers, clad as the spirits, are colourful, fierce, and electrifying. This is religion at its rawest, created by people buffeted by forces beyond their control.

The dances of the wilder deities - the god of iron, the goddess of storms and the god of illness - make the hair on the back of your neck stand up.

Salvador's spirits aren't the only ones partial to a bit of dancing. Every Tuesday night, Salvador puts its party face on to celebrate the festival of San Antonio.

Wander the cobblestoned streets of Salvador's colonial heart, Pelourinho - its name, which means whipping post, is another grim reminder of the city's past - and you'll find plenty of ways to party.

For many, the first stop is the service at our Lady of the Rosaries. From there, some head halfway up the hill to where Bahian performer Geronimo plays an outdoor concert on the steps as he does every Tuesday. In a nearby street, all-girl troupe Banda Dida are drumming up a storm: hair tossing, drums pounding.

You could wander the streets for hours, finding a new distraction on every corner, but eventually, it's time to get some dinner. Follow the locals and head for Rio Vermelho, a neighbourhood packed with restaurants. The pick of the

bunch is Casa de Teresa (Casadetereza.com.br), which excels at Bahian classics such as moqueca, a seafood stew rich in flavours like coriander, coconut and tomato. Alternatively, there's Paraiso Tropical (restauranteparaisotropical

.com.br), a restaurant set in lush gardens owned by one of the city's most talented cooks. Beto Pimentel, a former agronomist, is passionate about local plants, and is constantly working on new ways to showcase local produce.

Over lunch, Beto explains how he grows all types of plants on his two plantations, and gets samples tested to check whether they are suitable for human consumption. Today he's excited about a new discovery, a fuzzy leaf that smells like popcorn. He's already working on ways to showcase it - another of Salvador's unique flavours.

The writer travelled courtesy of LAN Airlines and Classic Safari Company.

TRIP NOTES

GETTING THERE

LAN Airlines has a fare to Salvador de Bahia via Auckland, Santiago and Sao Paulo for about $3210 low-season return from Sydney. Melbourne passengers pay about $100 more and fly Qantas to Sydney or Auckland to connect; see lan.com. LAN has the same fares on the non-stop flight from Sydney to Santiago in codeshare with Qantas.

STAYING THERE

Convento do Carmo is a converted 16th-century monastery with five-star luxuries. Rates start at 522 reals ($249). See pestana.com.

MORE INFORMATION

visitbrasil.comclassicsafaricompany.com.au

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