It's not just about athletics and football... Music and fashion are still always the passion when it comes to Rio, as Graeme Green learns on a beachfront walking tour of the Olympic city
This is not a situation I normally find myself in. Two songs are fighting it out for domination in my head as I step out into the morning heat to walk the beachfront of Rio's Zona Sul. The first is Barry Manilow's infectious classic Copacabana, which is admittedly about a New York nightclub, but it overtakes my brain on the beachfront of this famous stretch of sand, while the second is Astrud and Joao Gilberto's bossa nova classic Garota De Ipanema (The Girl from Ipanema), as covered by the likes of Frank Sinatra. Neither of these songs make it onto my mental playlists at any other times of my life, but they're hard to avoid here at the 'source': Rio.
I'm on Manilow's patch first for the start of a walking tour along and into the secret corners of the long stretch of sand, broken up into Copacabana, Ipanema and Leblon. I meet my guide, Guilherme, at the Windsor Hotel on Avenida Atlantica, which marks the start of Copacabana Beach. The pavement of the promenade is decorated in Calcada Portuguesa, the Portuguese-style black and white mosaic waves, a tribute to the ocean off Copacabana, one of the world's most iconic beaches. It's not quite as glamorous as its heyday, but this 4km strip of sand continues to heave with sun-seekers and their colourful umbrellas. Beach life is an integral part of Carioca culture. Rich and poor, young and old. they all head down from their homes to hit the sand and the cocktails at any given opportunity.
We follow the avenue west for a short distance, then turn right at Rua Duvivier, where Guilherme points out Beco das Garrafas (Bottles Alley). "It's empty now except for that strip club," he says. "But there used to be bars here where musicians started bossa nova in the 1960s."
On the corner is Bossanova & Companhia, a small music shop selling bossa nova, samba and other Brazilian music. There are books on Brazil's major players too, including Vinicius de Moraes and Antonio Carlos Jobim who wrote the lyrics and music of The Girl From Ipanema respectively.
We walk back to Avenida Atlantica, then take another right onto Rua Rodolfo Dantas, next to the gleaming white Copacabana Palace Hotel, which has hosted royalty, presidents and celebrities, from Michael Jackson, Madonna and Elton John through to Marilyn Monroe, Elizabeth Taylor and the Rolling Stones – and me.
Strolling along Avenida Atlantica's sunny beachside, we're accompanied by rollerskaters, cyclists and skateboarders. Stand-up paddle boarders are out on the ocean, while highly skilled young men and women playing futevolei (volleyball using head, chest, feet, but no hands) on the beach.
At the end of Copacabana beach, we take a detour to Forte de Copacabana, a fort that previously defended the coast from invaders. "Si vis pacem para bellum" is written above the main archway, which Guilherme translates as: "If you want peace, be ready for war.” No signs of conflict here today; this is a peaceful place, a long walkway that soon feels very distant from the busy, lively beaches, though viewpoints from here look out along the sand stretching all the way along the coast to the base of Sugarloaf Mountain, the more far away sun-worshippers just dots in the distance. From the fort, we can see across to the opposite side from Copacabana to Arpoador Beach, which seeps into Ipanema.
We pass through the Girl From Ipanema park, at which point Astrud Gilberto's tune triumphs over Manilow’s. The outer wall’s covered with graffiti, but the park itself is peaceful and cool. On Rua Francisco Otaviano, Guilherme leads me to a small arcade of boutique shops where locals shop for skateboards, rollerskates, surfboards and swimming gear. It also contains a shop dedicated almost entirely to the Ramones.
“Music and fashion were always the passion," sang Manilow in Copacabana, but that's more true of Ipanema beach and neighbouring Leblon. The beaches feel hipper, younger, filled with ‘beautiful people’, including bodybuilders doing chin-ups and pumping iron at beachfront gyms, or, more often than not, just posing and flexing muslces for passers-by.
We travel in the direction of the distinctive twin peaks of Dos Irmaos (Two Brothers) at the end of Leblon beach, past the luxury Fasano hotel, where the likes of Robert Downey Jr and Beyonce stay on Rio visits. Rainbow flags mark out the gay section of the beach around Lifeguard station 9.
We turn right at Rua Vinicius de Moraes and stop by Garota de Ipanema restaurant, where the music and lyrics of the song writ large on the white exterior. It used to be a bar. “Vinicius de Moraes used to hang around here. He saw the girl from Ipanema, Helo Pinheiro, passing by, on her way to and from the beach," Guilherme informs me. Next door, is another venue called Garota de Ipanema, though this boutique has more right to use the title than most. It’s owned by the actual original Girl from Ipanema herself, Heloísa Pinheiro. She's now in her late 60s and living in Sao Paulo, according to the girls who work at the shop.
Back on the beachfront, we continue towards the Canal Jardim de Ala, which connects Lagoon Rodrigo de Freitas with the Atlantic. It's taken a leisurely three hours to get here from Copacabana. The canal marks the end of Ipanema and the start of Leblon, though the change is almost imperceptible. Here, too, there’s the thumping sound of volleyballs being struck, screams as swimmers diving into the ocean, the crash of the tide against the sunny shore… More than Manilow or Gilberto, this is the real soundtrack of Rio.
Tailormade guided walks of Rio de Janeiro can be booked online with Viator.
See the Brazil Tourist Board's website for more info on Rio: www.visitbrasil.com