When sugar was king, in the late 16th and early 17th centuries, Pernambuco was the richest state in Brazil. Sugar plantations and mills – engenhos – were centered in the region around Olinda, and Recife quickly developed as the ideal port for the export of the product.
Slave labor was easy to come by, and political power came in the wake of economic dominance. When the economic importance of sugar dwindled, it was largely replaced by cotton, but by the mid-17th century, finds of gold and precious metal in the state of Minas Gerais were getting all the attention. The capital of the country was moved south, from Salvador, near the sugar plantations, to Rio de Janeiro, closer to the rich gold-mining areas, and Pernambuco and its capital, Recife, never regained their former glory.
Although political and economic power have moved south, Recife is once again becoming a booming center, this time for the fast-growing tourism industry. In 2014, Recife will be one of the host cities for the FIFA World Cup and is building a new 46,000-seater stadium, Cidade de Copa, in São Lourenço de Mata. When the World Cup was last played in Brazil, back in 1950, Recife was the only city in the northeast to host games.
The name Pernambuco comes from the indigenous Tupi word paranampuka, which means “the sea that beats on the rocks.” Indeed, the sea has played a major part in Pernambuco’s history. Now, it’s the beaches that attract large numbers of visitors, generating an additional and much-valued source of income. Pernambuco’s coast stretches for 187km (116 miles) between the states of Paraíba to the north and Alagoas to the south. Visitors will find many glorious beaches, with sunshine and warm waters for most of the year.
Recife is the capital of the state of Pernambuco, a metropolis of 1.6 million inhabitants. In 1537, the Portuguese settled Pernambuco. A Dutch invasion a century later, under Prince Maurice of Nassau, brought with it a new era of art, culture, and urbanization to the town. Recife was once a maze of swamps and islets that Prince Maurice made habitable through the construction of canals. Now there are 39 bridges spanning the canals and rivers that separate the three main islands of Recife, and the port area has been restored.
Highlights include the Teatro Santa Isabel, a neoclassical building dating from 1850; Boa Viagem, the city's most beautiful beach and where the better restaurants and bars are located; and the Capela Dourada (Golden Chapel), said to contain more gold than any church in Brazil save for Salvador's Igreja de São Francisco. Another diverting stop in the working-class district of Várzea, is the Oficina Cerâmica Francisco Brennand (tel: 81-3271 246; www.brennand.com.br), the workshop and studio of one of the northeast’s best-known artisans (b. 1927). It is famed for Brennand's beautiful, hand-painted tiles, pottery, and vaguely erotic statuary, all eagerly bought both by local people and tourists.
Time has stood still in Olinda, which stretches like an open-air museum across the hills overlooking Recife. The town is a treasure trove of Baroque art and architecture and, as such, was declared a World Heritage Site by Unesco in 1982 (although many of the buildings are still awaiting restoration). Narrow streets lined with brightly colored colonial homes, serenely beautiful churches – including Praça do Carmo, site of Brazil’s oldest Carmelite church (1580) – sidewalk cafés, and shops displaying ornate signs wind through the 17th-century setting of Olinda’s hills.
To the north of the of Pernambuco, the best beaches are found on Ilha Itamaracá, 53km (33 miles) from Recife, where local people spend their weekends. Halfway across the bridge to Itamaracá sits a police checkpoint, a reminder that part of the island serves as an open prison for model inmates serving time at a nearby penitentiary. Married prisoners are allowed to live with their families, and all the inmates are engaged in some form of commerce. As you start down the island road, you will see lines of booths and small stores run by prisoners, selling postcards and crafts.
The sleepy village of Fazenda Nova took its place on the map in 1968 when the Pacheco family, with support from the state government, inaugurated Nova Jerusalem – regarded as the largest open-air theater in the world. It occupies an area of 10 hectares (25 acres), and is surrounded by 3.5km (2.2 miles) of stone walls, with seven gates and 70 towers. Nova Jerusalem is designed to resemble the Jerusalem of AD 33 and comes to life once a year, during Holy Week, when the Passion of Christ is re-enacted before tens of thousands of spectators.
Crystal-clear waters and an exuberance of corals, dolphins, lobsters, and colorful tropical fish, as well as wonderfully preserved beaches and virtually no pollution, make the island of Fernando de Noronha a paradise for divers, surfers, and all nature-lovers. In 1988 Fernando de Noronha became part of a Marine National Park covering an area of 112 sq km (43 sq miles). This is the largest of the 21 islands with which Fernando de Noronha forms an archipelago, and the only one that is inhabited. Most visitors arrive by plane from Recife or Natal.
Read more about Brazil in Insight Guides: Brazil
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