I decided a couple years ago that, before I turned 40, I wanted to visit South America, thereby visiting all the inhabited continents before middle age (or the "old of the young", I am told). It seemed somehow fitting of my wanderlust to close that circle, and at the same time of recognising the milestone.
Russ joined me for the first stop, São Paulo, Brazil's economic and cultural powerhouse. The city is massive, the centre of a conurbation of 28m people, with a further 14m in the surrounding state, accounting for fully 1/3rd of Brazil's GDP. And yet, outside the recent World Cup matches hosted in its stadium, you rarely hear about it, as it's so in the shadow of its flamboyant neighbour to the Northeast, Rio de Janeiro.
Glancing at pictures of the cities, it's easy to see why; São Paulo has none of the topography or beaches that make Rio so dazzling. However, this concrete jungle is a much more manageable and nuanced collection of neighbourhoods than its profile belies. Spread out across rivers and rolling hills, you casually and imperceptibly slip between different areas and moods of the city, each of which feels complete and content.
One facet of Brazil in general, and São Paulo in particular, that you never hear the end of is crime. Brazil is a middle-income country, with an outward veneer of Western prosperity. Underneath, though, lies third-world inequality, and the desperation that brings. My guide book suggested 'accept the fact that you might get mugged, and never carry more with you than you need', couching the suggestion in terms of empathy towards Brazil's poorest. Everyone we met in São Paulo told us to be careful, especially in the centre where we were staying. There are outward signs of this reality everywhere: nearly every home and block of flats was surrounded by gates, even in the exclusive areas, and there are security guards everywhere. No cashpoints are open past 10:00pm to guard against theft, and the centre was completely shuttered on Sunday.
But Russ and I had no problems, be it the luck of the draw, or the inadvertent wisdom of our door-to-taxi-to-door travelling habit. Each night we explored a new area, trying a new restaurant for me to fail in finding vegetarian food, followed by several new bars, nearly all of which we enjoyed. The people were happy and friendly, and the city carried off a really good vibe. Throw in heaps of modernist architecture, and I was quite smitten. São Paulo is, I think, a city that deserves a little bit of Rio's famous spotlight.
Flying into São Paulo, the city spreads out endlessly in all directions.
The skyline of São Paulo (from Wikipedia).
We stayed in a modernist building right on the central Praça da República.
With a swooningly appropriate modernist interior.
Central São Paulo lay outside our balcony.
The streets of central São Paulo are gritty with the bustle of a megacity.
The city has more than tripled in size since 1960, and it shows with only the occasional pre-modernist structure poking through.
Sao Paulo's Niemeyer icon, the Edifício Copan (at right), was unfortunately shrouded for maintenance, but its elegant silhouette was still impressive.
Though modernist architecture prevails in the centre, the city's architecture is varied, including an Art Deco football stadium.
Russ and I overlooking a surprisingly green São Paulo from its highest hill.
The city is one of urban art; you see it everywhere.
And the classic kind, too, such as at the Brazilian Museum of Sculpture, a Brutalist dream. (I once read a travel article about São Paulo where, after telling a Brazilian woman he was going to the city rather than Rio, she exclaimed "You must be an artist!")
Like many other financial centres, as the city has grown and wealth has concentrated within it, São Paulo has started developing a second business cluster, with all the glass and glimmer of recent decades.
Leaving the area over the city's newest bridge reveals yet another view of the endless city.
São Paulo has the largest Japanese population outside Japan, numbering almost 1.5m, and a very large Japantown to show for it.
Avenida Paulista, the traditional spine of the city.
You can't escape the crush of the city in São Paulo, where even bars and restaurants clamour for space many floors up in highrises.
But once inside, the views are often stunning!
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