Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Rooted in Rio – Copacabana Beach and Sitio Burle Marx

Looking at the water feature from the porch of Roberto Burle Marx' home
Living in Rio includes rituals that I love. I do many of these same things when I’m home in Seattle but here in Rio I’m doing them in a tropical haze. It won’t be hard to figure out which ones are a bit different in the city of Rio.

·      Shopping for fresh fruits and vegetables at the outdoor markets, the feiras.
·      Walking along Copacabana beach with its famous black and white sidewalk.
·      Saturday morning workouts on the beach.
·      Drinking caipirinhas at the beach Friday night at sunset.
·      Biking around the lake (Lagoa) and stopping for a coco verde.
·      Sweeping fine sand off the kitchen floor.

The city is vibrant, full of energy and excitement. There are many difficult issues in Rio including (often) dysfunctional politics and endless economic and social challenges – but that could be said of almost anywhere in the world, including my home country. As a retired foreigner, who can afford to live in Rio for a month or more every year since I retired, I feel welcome and very much at home.

Posto 1, Copacabana, Rio
One of my (and my husband’s) favorite activities is participating in a circuit training class on Copacabana Beach on Saturday mornings. If you want to get, and stay in shape, circuit training is a very good option – the class here (bhappFIT), and the one we take in Seattle at our local YMCA, include aerobic, strength and flexibility training. Most of all, it’s fun. It is especially fun in bare feet in the sand. Here is my poem about our class and being on the beach last Saturday:

A Day on the Beach         

It’s a day on the beach
The sun beats down
Hot and burning,
The sizzle of the sand
Sears the soles of my feet.

We arrive at Posto 1
It is 9:30 in the morning.
Under the shade of the trees
Last night’s sleepers
Lie wrapped in a final dream.

We stretch and bend
Rub sunblock on our white flesh
The professor, Bruno arrives
He is, as ever, energized
“Na hora,” he says. “Na hora.”

The class begins.
The whistle blows
And the music blares,
We are three men, twelve women,
One young boy with his mom.

We race through the circuit
Weights fall in the sand
We move sweating, in duplo
Run, squat, lunge; run, squat, lunge.
We plunge in one for all.

First round; second round
Sweat, water, drink,
We do it all again.
Then, we’re done; it’s picture time
We jump together and wave goodbye.

Later we’re back on the beach
In bikini and board shorts
Now it’s 2 in the afternoon
The wind blows the heat away
The sand clings, the beer cools.

“I love this song, baby”
Squalls from the vendor’s boom box
I look up at the towering rock,
Silhouetted against the sky
And dig my toes into the fine white sand.

Plant nursery at Burle Marx Sitio
We are not spending all our time on the beach. My husband is working at the Federal University and I’m writing and editing. Sometimes we do take a day out to explore landmarks. Yesterday was such a day – we had the opportunity to visit the former home of Roberto Burle Marx, the Burle Marx Sitio. The Sitio is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Roberto Burle Marx was a brilliant Brazilian landscape architect (1909-1994) whose vision of built landscapes influenced public and private gardens in Brazil and elsewhere in the world. The Sitio, located in Barra de Guaratiba, about an hour’s drive west of the city of Rio de Janeiro, is a public museum and center for the study of landscaping, botany and conservation. There are places that Burle Marx designed that are more well known including Copacabana Beach with its sinuous mosaics and groves of palms, and Rio’s Flamengo Park, but the Sitio is extraordinary. Its hilly 40-acre landscape, more than three thousand tropical plants, water features and beautiful architecture made me feel that I was seeing through the eyes of a genius. I rarely use such superlatives but the Sitio deserves them. Visits are by reservation only and the guided walking tour takes about two hours. 

Plants growing in the nursey

Our group of five including my husband and three friends (one American and two Cariocans/natives of Rio) joined a group of four, another Cariocan, two American women and one French man. In Portuguese, English and French we learned about Burle Marx’ life and his passion for native plants, botanical design and art. Burle Marx was also a talented artist, architect and art collector. These aspects of the man are well represented at the Sitio.

Grasses and roots

One of his greatest talents was the ability to create real landscape paintings (I mean made of dirt, plants, water, stone, etc., i.e., not a painting on a canvas but in the ground). He did this by massing single species of plants of varying colors, textures, heights and shapes across an area, often interspersing the plantings with a constructed focal point – a stone column, a piece of sculpture, a staircase, a cobblestone path. 

Everywhere we walked our eyes were riveted. The Sitio reminded me of an adage of Japanese gardens – there is no front and no back to the garden; the garden should be equally beautiful regardless of the angle from which you view it. This is more than true at the Burle Marx Sitio. We walked for more than a mile in a broad circle, covering hills and valleys, essentially seeing parts of the same garden from across its 360-degree perspective. 

Burle Marx' porch 
During the tour, we visited four of the buildings on site including his hacienda-style home, the Frank Lloyd Wright-inspired outdoor barbeque venue (a churrascaria in Brazil), an 18th century chapel that he maintained and allowed use by local residents and a reconstructed 17th century building (with the stones taken from a building that was being destroyed in the center of Rio). Burle Marx had hoped to use this latter building as his atelier, a quiet and open studio in which to continue his work. 

Burle Marx' would-be Atelier

Unfortunately he died of cancer at the age of 84 just as the building was completed. The Sitio is an inspiration to anyone who likes seeing gardens integrated with beautiful buildings. The sheer exuberance of the place, its plants and the diversity of colors fills your heart and your mind. 

We left the Sitio and stopped for lunch at a nearby hilltop restaurant where the view across a coastal preserve was as much a feast as the delicious moqueca (traditional Brazilian fish stew). We ended the afternoon with a drive home along the coastline, past pretty white beaches and high surf rolling in from the Atlantic Ocean. Jeff and I didn’t go to circuit training last night. We walked along the Copacabana beach and enjoyed Burle Marx’ gift to the people of Rio. It was a wonderful day.

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