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Carnival atmosphere: festival at Paraty
As book lovers from around the world descend on Paraty for a star-studded festival, Rory Ross finds out what gives this sleepy, whitewashed Brazilian town its novel appeal
(Rory Ross, The Independent)

On 9 August, the fourth Paraty International Literary Festival kicks off in this immaculate colonial hamlet on the coast of Brazil. Paraty, a mere dot on the map, is roughly equidistant between São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro. It's the sort of backwater you might think would struggle to host a game of Scrabble, let alone an international literary festival. And yet, for a few days each year, Paraty becomes the centre of the book world. Air-conditioned tents line the banks of the Pereque-Acu river. Bandwagons roll in. Star-spangled authors touch down to mingle with their adoring public.

Brazil is not known for its bookishness. Indeed, it is thought that Brazilian publishing houses outnumber Brazilian bookshops. Tellingly, this year's festival was shifted from its traditional July slot to make way for the World Cup. But while Brazil's book-reading public may be a relatively small, anoraked faction with closet footballing tendencies, it still represents a sizeable number from a population of some 180 million. And that sizeable number is mad about authors.

Visiting scribes to Flip (the Portuguese acronym for the Paraty International Literary Festival) have included Salman Rushdie, Julian Barnes, Paul Auster, Martin Amis, Joanna Trollope and Michael Ondaatje, and they thrill to the rock-star treatment. Julian Barnes recalls Eric Hobsbawm ( "enormous in Brazil") being chased by fans down Parati's cobbled streets. Paraty is, of course, used to celebrities. Its perfectly preserved 17th-century colonial architecture has featured in more than two dozen movies, most famously Gabriela, Clove and Cinnamon starring Marcello Mastroianni and Sonia Braga, based on the novel by Jorge Amado, one of Latin America's greatest writers, to be posthumously honoured at this year's Flip.

Among the readings, soirées, seminars, signings, lectures, gala dinners and workshops, you might glimpse the publisher Liz Calder, who created Flip in 2003 with her husband Louis Baum. She is more familiar in Britain as the co-founder of the Groucho Club and of Bloomsbury, which publishes Harry Potter. Yet Brazil seems to be the bookends to her professional life. A model and journalist in São Paulo in the Sixties, she began revisiting in the Nineties, publishing Brazilian authors Machado de Assis, Buarque, Patricia Melo and Milton Hatoum.

Having successfully launched Rushdie, Barnes and Anita Brookner on the path to literary stardom, she is doing the same for Parati. Flip, which Bloomsbury co-sponsors, already rates as a major cultural event. In 2004, when Calder received an Order of Merit for services to culture from President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, it drew 12,000 fans.

Anoraks will know that Paraty has form, being the hometown of Julia da Silva Bruhns, mother of Thomas Mann. "It has brought quite a material improvement to the off-season economy," says Calder from her solar-powered compound of cottages just outside town on the road to Rio, where she spends three months each year. "It brings a big crowd from Rio and São Paulo at a time when normally the restaurants are not full. The other effect it has had is on education. There are hundreds of schools in the area." I ask what Fliphas done for Brazilian literature. "The idea was to provide a spotlight on the riches and importance of Brazilian literature, both in the Portuguese market and beyond," she says. " Very little Brazilian literature is translated into other languages and so this is a way of..." Whereupon the telephone line went dead - for the third time. Perhaps the sun had gone in and cut off the power.

No need to love books to love Paraty. It is a beguiling spot, gleaming in brilliant whitewash beneath the cloud-wreathed peaks of the Serra do Mar on the Costa Verde, so-called because of the rain, especially in March. Paraty looks out over the Ilha Grande bay, which stretches to the horizon like a flawless blue looking-glass mounted between jagged emerald headlands and studded with islands.

Paraty was established in this labyrinth of bays and islands in order to be easily defendable from pirates. Its early role was as a port from which gold mined in Minas Gerais, 800km inland, set sail for Europe. Indeed, Parati's sensitive strategic role kept it under wraps for years, despite it being Brazil's second most vital port. A coffee rush followed the gold rush, but that lasted only until slavery was abolished in 1888.

By the 1940s, Paraty was all but forgotten. Her population had shrunk to a mere handful. Only in 1975, when the road from Rio to Santos was built, did her faded architecture once again come to light. Now Paraty, whose name comes from a Tupi Indian word meaning white fish, has been reborn as a base for some of the cultural riches of this fascinating nation.

As you stroll about, sipping a chilled coconut, you'll see that Ken Livingstone's traffic planners could learn a trick or two from Paraty. The core is a tiny, 30-block grid of terraced houses interspersed with baroque churches. Ordinarily, it would take five minutes to cross but for the mountainous cobbles that once ballasted ships. Getting about poses a genuine logistical challenge. Since cars are banned - not that they'd be much use - you have to travel on foot. The cobbles once fitted perfectly, until 1976 when a telephone company dug them up to lay cables, but couldn't work out how to replace them correctly. I wondered if it was the same telephone company that installed Liz Calder's line.

Just as Paraty was a conduit for gold, so the streets are basically one big drain. The tide, abetted by tropical squalls, bears away a cargo of sweet wrappers, beetles, bottle caps, coconut husks and cigarette butts.

Don't expect a brash resort. There's no beach as such, and international brands are conspicuously absent. A few innocent harbingers of tourism have alighted here: one-off boutiques, eccentric contemporary art galleries, junk jewellers, souvenir pedlars, internet cafés, bookshops, bars, restaurants, clubs and cachaça merchants. Should you wish to stock up on Indian masks, carvings and musical instruments, this is the place to come. At least the shops are a welcome respite from the treacherous paving. Paraty has been saved by its very lack of beach and easy access. The tortuous drive from São Paulo is a four-hour yomp across a precipitous mountain pass. As for the telephone lines... you'd be better off with a message in a bottle.

Cachaça is the local speciality, a sugar-cane spirit drunk neat or mixed with sugar, lemon and ice to make caipirinhas. It also fuels cars. A useful phrase is the Portuguese for "Fill her up, guv". The Empório da Cachaça sells hundreds of brands, some flavoured with fruits and spices, others raw. The leading local brand is Maré Alta, a subtle cognac-like spirit distilled by Prince Joao Braganza d'Orléans de Bourbon. He is a descendant of the last king of Brazil, and lives in a house (available for rent) on the Parati waterfront.

In a place so unspoilt, so green, so calm and so quiet that you can hear the jungle grow, you'd never guess that two of the most populous and unruly urban sprawls are rapidly bearing down on you from either side: São Paulo 330km to the south-west and Rio de Janeiro 230km to the north-east. In Paraty, however, the only thing that teems and throbs is the Mata Atlantica, nature's* *unruly jungle metropolis, a chaotic contrast to Paraty's austere architectural uniformity. The Mata Atlantica is Brazil's rainforest and national treasure. Eco-priorities hereabouts deem that while a murderer may walk free, an accidental brush with a stray item of Mata Atlantica wildlife could land you a stiff jail sentence. Should you so much as touch a tree, you can expect at the very least a swift visit from a police helicopter. The Mata Atlantica once blanketed the entire coast right up to Bahia. Urbanisation and agriculture has accounted for 60 per cent of its original covering. Ironic, then, that the publishers of the Harry Potter series, which has wiped out more trees than any other book, should sponsor a literary festival bang in the middle of one of the most pristine and revered rainforests.

The breathtaking and complex coastline of the Ilha Grande bay demands serious attention. It is a dramatic blue-green landscape of ominous mountains and pulsating jungle, with myriad islands, coves, anchorages, beaches, granite outcrops, forests and waterfalls where you can hike, swim, fish, sail, dive or do nothing except watch the scenery float by. The best way to explore Ilha Grande is first to find Paraty wharf, which you can't miss if you hearken to the samba hits blaring from the flotilla of schooners, island-hoppers and water taxis. Hire the vessel at the farthest extremity of the jetty, on the principle that its owner will be hungriest for business (the same principle works with restaurants), and head out to sea.

You will soon pass several islands, some privately owned with villas on them, others little more than places to drop anchor and swim. One island, a bromeliad-covered granite outcrop called Ilha do Pico, belongs to Bruno Barreto, the Brazilian film director whose wife Amy Irving was once married to Steven Spielberg. Barreto is a refugee from Buzios, which is rapidly being supplanted by Parati as the weekend spot of choice for discerning Brazilians. The water here is as flat as a bath and about as warm. Apparently the local algae is sold to Paris and used in beauty cream.

You'd struggle to find a spot so beautiful and so meteorologically blessed, yet with so few traces of humanity. You get a sense of the pristine vastness of Brazil. Beaches are scarce. If you want a swim, just ask your captain to stop the boat, and jump in. Lunch is not a problem. Either you pack a picnic, or you steer towards a tiny cluster of boulders sticking out of the water called Catimbau, where you'll find Eh-Laho, a bizarrely located restaurant. It's the only restaurant in my knowledge that prints its geographical coordinates on its business card. Should you lean back in your chair too far - especially after you've inhaled the smoke of specific substances readily available hereabouts - you may well topple into the waves.

On board my schooner, I met Yara Castro Roberts, who runs the Academy of Cooking and Other Pleasures in Parati ("other pleasures", by the way, refers to her students). Roberts shared with me her encyclopaedic knowledge of Brazilian culture, with footnotes supplied by her American husband, Richard. The conversation ranged from the various Brazilian emotional states of being (alegria, which means joy and happiness; saudade, a nostalgic sadness; and banzo, an African sense of loss bordering on despair that comes from being disconnected from your culture). She explained the racial mix of the Brazilians (a cocktail of Portuguese, native Indian and African, seasoned with dashes of Japanese, Italian, German, Lebanese, Dutch and French) and the national character (African joy meets Indian introspection wrapped in Portuguese nostalgia, all harmoniously co-existing across one vast all-singing, all-dancing, all-footballing, peace-loving, happy-happy-happy nation beloved by everyone). Then there was the Brazilian sense of humour (which I didn't get), the whys and wherefores of samba (a type of syncopated dance rhythm based on African music that takes many forms) and the go-go-go Brazilian economy (booming in petrochemicals, orange pulp, paper, mining and aerospace).

Finally came Afro-Brazilian cults, with their complex interweaving of superstition and established religion: "In Brazil, you can be Catholic, but still believe in Candomblé and Macumba." My cruise around the Ilha Grande bay became a cruise around Brazilian history and culture, and I emerged thinking Brazil to be one of humanity's finest achievements.

For lunch, we anchored in a secluded fjord ringed by jungled mountains that plunged into the sea, which looked so primeval that I half-expected pterodactyls to burst out from the undergrowth and fly off. I confessed to Roberts that Brazilian cuisine had never really done it for me; at least not in Britain, where it seems to suffer chronic homesickness. It would be callous to dismiss the entire gastronomic corpus of a country three times larger than Europe - with so many interlocking regions, each with their different styles of religion, exercise regime and breed of dog - in a few sentences. So, naturally, I did.

"I've often thought Brazilian food was blotting paper for cachaça, " I said, "and goes a long way to explain why the Brazilian people have such trim fig..."

"Brazilian cuisine is unknown as a concept," purred Roberts, putting on a look of benign sufferance that masked something steelier. " Every Brazilian dish contains a cross-section of African, Portuguese and Moorish influences adopted into the mainstream. The backbone of Brazilian cooking is the manioc root, similar in function to corn in Mexico and potatoes in Europe. Each region has its own style of cooking: the Amazon has yellow manioc and aromatic fruits; in the North-east, we eat seafood and jerk meat; Bahia is all about Indian and African influences; Minas Gerais, which is inland, has a basic, hearty, rustic cuisine, like European; and in the south, which is cattle country, you have churrasco [steak]..."

Think of every conceivable combination of Brazilian region, ingredient and ethnic influence, and Roberts will give you chapter and verse. "São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro are critical culinary nodes," she continued. "Paulistas have developed an interesting cuisine thanks to waves of immigrants, whereas Rio has retained its regionalism. Paulistas eat like Europeans, in set-piece meals at home. Cariocas, on the other hand, eat and drink on the run, at restaurants and in bars. In Rio, being seen and leading the outdoor life takes priority over eating well; in São Paulo, the reverse applies. Rio and São Paulo are like different countries."

That evening, Professor Roberts and her brigade of fairy sous-chefs rustled up a Brazilian feast at her Academy of Cooking and Other Pleasures. We began with gilo puff pastry. "Gilo is a vegetable typical of the Cerrado region [where we were], very popular in Brazil," she said. "It looks like a small green eggplant." Next arrived chicken flambéed in cachaça then simmered in wine and stock. To follow, Pequi rice with pequi béchamel; pequi, an aphrodisiac fruit from Cerrado, is used in sauces, stews and with rice. Then came a salad from the Brazilian savannah: pumpkins, cinnamon, lettuce and cashews. To finish: guava paste soufflé. It was mouthful after mouthful of history and culture, every bit as exotic as Brazil itself. Give it a few more decades and I'm sure Brazilian cuisine will be holding its own at the top table of world food. All we need now is a Paraty Food Festival.

Carnival atmosphere: festival at Paraty

As book lovers from around the world descend on Paraty for a star-studded festival, Rory Ross finds out what gives this sleepy, whitewashed Brazilian town its novel appeal
(Rory Ross, The Independent)


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