Historic Recife

Recife is the state capital of Pernambuco and is situated about midway along its coast line. Although now the state capital, it was not originally; that was Olinda, a short distance up the coast.

Recife is at the confluence of the rivers Capibaribe and Beberibe and is the site of numerous islands in the ‘river delta’. The original settlement from about 1535 was a small fishing village, first mentioned in the Charter of 1537 which established the nearby town of Olinda; and it was simply referred to as the settlement with the reefs for ships, “arrecife dos navios” in Portuguese, hence Recife.

Recife Antigo is one of two islands which comprised the original settlement, the other was the neighbouring Santo Antonio island. The islands and reef provided ideal shelter for shipping which gave rise to Recife’s importance as the port for the then capital of the Captaincy of Pernambuco, Olinda, just north of Recife. When the Portuguese arrived they found the river banks around the new settlement were covered in sugar cane, which became the main export from the area. The first machinery to make a sugar mill was brought from Portugal in 1541 establishing its earliest economy.

In 1630 the Dutch invaded and seized the Captaincy of Pernambuco and, having burned Olinda to the ground in 1631 set about fortifying the islands of what would become Recife. The Dutch were evicted by the Portugese in 1654 and constructed their own fortifications to defend the port.

We started our visit in the Praça do Marco Zero, the large waterfront plaza at the centre of the old town. With Carnival preparations underway there is a stage and various lighting structures cluttering the view, but the place is also infested with street sellers flogging Recife’s trademark rainbow coloured mini umbrellas. Possibly something to do with the ‘rainbow’ on the Pernambuco State Flag.

Pernumbuco State Flag
Pernambuco State Flag
Dona Ermida in Recife
Dona Ermida in Recife

Praça do Marco Zero is also home to the big colourful, 3D RECIFE sign. This was temporarily surmounted by a scaffold and mostly obscured by umbrella sellers, other tourists and a couple of homeless who were using the E as bunk beds!

From there we had a look round a huge craft market in one of the old warehouses and then visited the Cais do Sertão which is a museum to a local folk singer called Luis Gonzaga (1912-1989) who brought the North Eastern style of folk music to the rest of Brasil. Not only did he sing local folk music but his trade mark became the wearing of local dress, which was basically leather armour worn in the Interior as defense against the numerous rather sharp flora. Incongruously, instead of stout leather boots they wore stout leather sandals!!!

I had forgotten that this part of North Eastern Brasil was also the home to the notorious bandit / folk hero, Lampião. (We came across him in Entremontes and Piranhas on our last visit to the North East) Although not given more than a passing mention here Lampião, who was killed in 1938, was a contemporary of Luiz Gonzaga


In the Cais do Sertão one of the staff hand given us loads of useful information about Recife, including where to have lunch, so we set off in search. Almost as soon as we left the main road we were into parts of the neighbourhood which were falling apart and grafitti covered. This is, unfortunately, a feature of many Brazilian cities and although there are isolated hints of renovation they have already lost that battle.

But, hey, it’s Carnival and the streets are draped in bunting and the practice parties have already started.

Malakoff Tower. 1855.
Torre Malakoff (1855). An observatory named for the Malakoff Tower in Sebastopol to celebrate Russian resistance in the Crimean War.

Crossing one of the numerous bridges to São Antonio we stumbled across the Portuguese Reading Rooms, Gabinete Português de Leitura, which is quite an impressive ‘colonial style’ building built in 1912, right next to the derelict office block. The Reading Rooms house a massive collection of old, rare books used solely for reference. Currently there are no efforts at preservation of these leather bound books, but funds are being sought for air con and climate control to help preserve the collection. ……. A story we have heard over and over again.

Across the road from the Reading Rooms is the Igreja da Ordem Terceira de São Fransisco. The courtyard quadrangle is lovely and the church interior richly decorated.

Praça da Republica

Last stop on our wander round was the Casa da Cultura de Pernumbuco. This basically a really cool craft market inside the old prison built in 1850 to house 200 prisoners.

A couple of days later I went to visit the Forte dos Cinco Pontas, with its Recife History Museum. A fairly simple affair but interesting and in a properly restored monument!! It now only has 4 points being rebuilt after the Dutch left in the mid 17th century but the original ‘Five Points’ name stuck!

Recife is one of the oldest cities in Brasil, and now the 4th largest. The new city is all modern high rise apartments and office blocks, but as you leave the ‘up town’ districts conditions deteriorate. The old, historic sections are, unfortunately, in appalling condition; with many of the historic city buildings allowed to crumble and large parts of the ‘old town’ laying derelict and abandoned. In many cases ‘preservation’ is little more than a beaten up information sign in front of a crumbling ruin of a potentially magnificent building.

The historic bits of Recife can best be described as ‘good in parts’, which is a real shame. The city is fantastically rich in history which appears to have been pretty much neglected as the city has expanded and modernised around, across and through the historic monuments. That said we enjoyed seeing what has been preserved.

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