This is Brazil's most European city, far removed from the beaches and social despair of Rio de Janeiro to the north. Parisian fashions are often seen on the streets here, a season before New York, and democratic thinking is far ahead of its time.
Its many galleries and museums display cutting-edge contemporary works and artifacts of Rio Grande do Sul's long artistic history. Leafy neighborhoods of luxury high-rise apartment buildings with lush, subtropical gardens cluster around the city's center. Chic, urban gauchos, those fabled cowboys of the pampas, throng fashion boutiques and sidewalk tables of popular restaurants.
Porto Alegre, tucked in Brazil's deep south next to Argentina and Uruguay, perches beside the wide Rio Guaiba, which is not a river but a lake that connects to the south Atlantic. It's the capital of Rio Grande do Sul state and the home of Brazil's gauchos. As Brazil's seventh-largest city, with almost 1.5 million residents, it has long been a cultural and business center, with an educational system considered among Latin America's best.
In the 18th and 19th centuries, waves of immigrants from the Azores, Germany, Italy, Eastern Europe and Japan commingled with the city's existing Indian, Portuguese and African cultures to form an extraordinary mélange of people: industrious, independent, educationally rich — and exotically beautiful.
In the process, the city's diverse cultures and disparate classes have woven themselves into a civic and social fabric that is unique in Latin America. "A city of many and of all," the residents of Porto Alegre say.
I fell for one of those exotic Rio Grande do Sul beauties. My wife, Flavia Bastos, is a gaucha art professor. We traveled to Porto Alegre in December to visit her family and enjoy some of the city's ambient attractions, among them the weekend Brique da Redenção flea market and Feira de Ecologica farm market in Farroupilha Park.
At the markets, which reflect Porto Alegre in all its complexity, urbane gauchos (pronounced gau-oo-shoos) and their rustic cousins from the pampas strolled under the lace-leafed acacia trees. Many sipped electric-green maté tea from gourd-like wooden cuias with silver straws.
Indians squatted beside their baskets, woven with graphic patterns, and round birdhouses, made of dark intertwined vines. Amid a humid fog of sweetness, Portuguese farmers crushed canes of sugar, mixing the juice with lime to make caldo de cana. A ragged blond herb vendor touted the herb mixture funcho, for excess gas and insufficient breast milk, and seven herbs for love and riches. Japanese truck farmers displayed spectacular organic mushrooms and sprouts grown on Porto Alegre's outskirts.
Overhead, a tree flared with deep-red flowers as we sauntered past the vendors and their wares. It was a pastiche of Porto Alegre's cultural mix that included old coins and soccer pins, religious artifacts, vintage Portuguese china, Peruvian bird whistles, minute Barbie doll stilettos in ever-so-fashionable lime green, French Art Nouveau antiques, 19th century country furniture from the German colonies that still flourish in the nearby mountains, old gaucho stirrups, battered leather cowboy hats and ubiquitous gaucho knives to carve the omnipresent hunks of beef.
A tiny blind man with a carved wooden staff sold lottery tickets as behind him amusement park rides whirled in giddy circles. Children's shrieks and laughter mingled with a Brazilian bluegrass band's plangent rendition of "In the Pines."
At a corner of the market, Celia, an African Brazilian woman wearing the typical Bahia dress of a white turban and long white skirt, fried crusty acarajés, balls of white-bean puree stuffed with shrimp and a fish hash made with coconut milk, in golden dende palm oil. She spiked mine with fiery malagueta peppers. As I happily ate one, my ever-fit wife said, "Oh, shrimp, dende oil and coconut milk — that's sure to be light."
I responded with my standard full-mouthed retort — "Research!" — and scuttled out of sight.
Cowboys of the pampas
In the name of research, that night Flavia and I dined at Churrascaria Roda de Carreta, a renowned gaucho barbecue restaurant where meat is served Rio Grande do Sul-style: on sword-length skewers carried from table to table by sturdy waiters.
The 800-seat restaurant, constructed like a pampas ranch building of dark, upright logs and a grass ceiling, is a member of a worldwide gaucho organization, Centro de Tradicoes Gauchas, founded by eight Porto Alegre students in 1948 to preserve gaucho traditions. Today it has more than 4,500 chapters, which stage rodeos, gaucho balls and daily barbecues of leviathan proportions.
During the meal, a gaucho dancer in red chaps and high-heeled boots performed a frenetic folk dance, whipping his bolos to the floor in wild tattoo. The bolo is the gaucho answer to the lariat, three stone balls wrapped in leather and tied with long ropes. On the pampas, a gaucho would whirl the bolo over his head into a wicked velocity, then fling it at a fleeing steer's legs to bring it down.
The gaucho culture began in the 16th century on the violent frontier between the Spanish and Portuguese colonies. The gauchos, descendants of Latin adventurers and Indian women, were landless nomads who became the cowboys of the pampas when the vast cattle-raising fazendas, or ranches, were established in the 18th and 19th centuries.
They called the women prendas — jewels — both for their beauty and obdurate natures.
"People will compliment a gaucha woman who watches out for her family," Flavia said. " 'Gaucha de faca na bota — a woman with a knife in her boot.' "
The gaucho dancer called a gaucha to the stage and snapped his bolo to all sides of her like a circus knife-thrower. She never flinched.
Unlike me. I felt like William Tell's son as the gaucho's rope whipped over my head and the stone bolo at the end of the rawhide passed in front of my eyes in a blur. The crowd laughed and cheered as the band kept up its relentless polka rhythm. As the rawhide stirred my hair, waiters blithely served fillets of beef, New York Strip-like picanhas, zebu cattle hump, rolled and stuffed pork ribs, grilled bread and, from a rapier-thin skewer, chicken hearts, which, at the time, resonated with me.
But Porto Alegre is more than meat and country ways. We went out one night to the bustling bar and restaurant row on Rua Fernando Gomes in the trendy Moinhos de Vento (Windmills) neighborhood. We had drinks at the Lilliput Bar, reputed to have the best beer in town, followed by a candlelighted dinner at Le Bistrot, where we dined under jacaranda trees with pale lavender blossoms.
The restaurant offered Brazilian interpretations of French classics, served by a focused wait staff. My tender fillet of beef with a wine sauce was topped Brazilian-style with young arugula, kind of a densely flavored steak salad. Flavia had grilled lamb chops in a delicate mint sauce with herbed potatoes. The strength of the dollar was apparent. Our salads, entrées, espressos and a half-bottle of fine Brazilian wine cost us 84 reals, less than $30, and no tipping was necessary.
A taxi then ferried us to Bar do Nito, a timeworn Porto Alegre musical institution, with fading tropical murals and sketches of samba luminaries. It's a nostalgic haven where lovers immerse themselves in suadade, an untranslatable Portuguese word that resonates loss and longing. A paunchy elderly singer wearing glasses that slid down his nose strummed his guitar and sang old samba tunes such as "Ai Que Saudade da Amélia," as his accompanist, a small black man in a white button-down shirt, played a cavaquinho, a ukulele-like instrument. Now and again, a drummer sat at the congas. Couples romanced. Dreamy-eyed women sang along.
As our trip neared its end, Flavia and I visited the soaring pink neoclassic Casa da Cultura Mario Quintana. It was built in 1913 as a hotel, and the city transformed it in the 1980s into a lively cultural center with galleries, theaters and cafes. We climbed to the fifth-floor terrace to watch the sun set. I thought of Mario Quintana, Porto Alegre's poet laureate, who lived in the hotel for decades. "Skies of Porto Alegre, how could I ever take you to heaven?" he wrote.
Downstairs, we had coffees in the Café des Cataventos and began ruminating about Porto Alegre's experience with participatory democracy and the remarkable social progress it engendered.
Then and now
Fifteen years ago, the city's problems were formidable: Sewer lines reached less than half of the city, a fifth of the population was without running water, lower-class housing was often nothing more than slums with mud streets, school attendance among the poor was abysmal and the wealthy classes dominated the government.
Then, in the exuberant period of democracy after decades of the U.S.-backed military dictatorship, the left-wing Workers' Party of Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva won the municipal elections in 1989. It has governed the city since.
"We were inspired by a desperate situation," Luciano Brunet, a tall trim gaucho from the mayor's office told us one day in the City Hall. "We finally decided to go to the people and share the problem. The people are not dumb. They said, 'We will support you if we get to help decide how to spend the money.' It has been a journey."
Participatory budgeting was the cornerstone. The process, which takes city budgeting decisions to the grass-roots level, engaged and educated tens of thousands of citizens. The complex, multilayered utopian scheme has delivered major success stories and attracted worldwide attention.
A 1996 World Bank study indicated that 98% of the city had running water, school attendance in poor neighborhoods doubled and illiteracy dropped to 3% — extraordinary in a nation where illiteracy reaches 40%. With the city's help, tidy brick homes began rising in the slums, giving hope and stability to many landless squatters.
Each year, up to 100,000 newly empowered gauchos democratically direct their city in hundreds of public meetings — the larger ones are accompanied by samba bands. "So, you have lots of social life in the city because of this agenda," Brunet said.
As Flavia and I pondered the extraordinary life and civic dreams of her city, we remembered Porto Alegre's motto: "Another world is possible."
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From LAX, Varig and American offer connecting flights (with change of plane) to Porto Alegre. Restricted round-trip airfares begin at $827.
To call the numbers below from the U.S., dial 011 (the international dialing code), 55 (country code for Brazil), 51 (the area code) and the local number.
WHERE TO STAY:
The Sheraton Porto Alegre Hotel, 18 Rua Olavo Barreto Viana; 3323-6000, http://www.Sheraton-poa.com.br . A sleek international hotel in the heart of the upscale Moinhos de Vento neighborhood. Doubles from $148.
Hotel Plaza Porto Alegre, 154 Rua Senhor dos Passos; 3220-8000. A solid downtown business hotel. Doubles $49.
The Parthenon Piazza Navona, 813 Ave. Independéncia; 3311-2581, http://www.accorhotels.com . Has cozy apartments with kitchenettes in the ambient Independéncia neighborhood for $50 a day.
WHERE TO EAT:
Acaraje da Celia, serves the Bahian treat of acarajes for $1 at the Sunday Brique da Redencao flea market at Farroupilha Park, Avenue Jose Bonifacio; 9129-4181.
Churrascaria Roda de Carreta, 5200 Ave. Ipiranga; 3336-0817. Rio Grande do Sul-style barbecue with gaucho dancing and music Monday-Saturday nights and Sunday lunch for about $6.
Le Bistrot, 58 Rua Fernando Gomes; 3346-3812. A charming terra cotta-colored restaurant that specializes in French classics with a Brazilian flair. Dinner for two $30.