Only a decade ago Lapa, which lies just south of the cathedral on the edge of Cinelândia, was a no-go area; tawdry and terrifying, walked only by prostitutes, thugs and drug addicts chasing the dragon in the crumbling porticoes of the colonial and art nouveau buildings. The area can still feel a little edgy, especially on weekdays after dark. But it has undergone an unimagined renaissance. This was once the Montmartre of Rio; the painter Di Cavalcanti wrote poetically of wandering its streets at night on his way home to Flamengo, past the little cafés and ballrooms and the rows of handsome town houses. Now the cafés are alive once more, spilling out onto the streets, and the ballrooms and town houses throb with samba and electronica. Opera is once more performed in the concert halls of the Escola de Música, and the area’s once notorious thoroughfare, Rua do Lavradio, is now lined with smart little restaurants and clubs, playing host to one of the city’s most interesting bric-a-brac and antiques markets on Saturdays.
Although the area is best just for a cautious wander after 2000 at the end of the week, or for the Saturday market, there are a few interesting sights. The most photographed are the Arcos da Lapa, built in 1744 as an aqueduct to carry water from Santa Teresa to the Chafariz da Carioca, with its 16 drinking fountains, in the centre of the city. The aqueduct’s use was changed at the end of the 19th century, with the introduction of electric trams in Rio. Tracks were laid on top of the arches and the inaugural run was on 1 September 1896. The tram is still in use today and is one of the city’s most delightful journeys; it leaves from behind the Catedral de São Sebastião and runs to Santa Teresa .
Bars huddle under their southern extremity on Avenida Mem de Sá, one of Rio’s most popular nightlife streets. Street performers (and vagrants) often gather in the cobbled square between the arcos and the cathedral. There are a number of moderately interesting buildings off this square. The eclectic baroque/neoclassical Escola da Musica da Universidade Federal do Rio de Janeiro (R do Passeio 98, open officially just for performances) has one of the city’s best concert halls. A stroll away is the bizarre baroque façade of another prestigious classical concert hall, the Sala Cecília Mereilles (Largo da Lapa 47) . More picturesque are the mosaic-tiled Ladeira do Santa Teresa stairs, which wind their way steeply from the square and from the back of Rua Teotônio to Santa Teresa. These are much beloved of music video directors and fashion photographers who use them as a backdrop to carefully produced gritty urban scenes. The steps are tiled in red, gold and green and bordered by little houses, many of which are dishevelled and disreputable but wonderfully picturesque. Be vigilant here.
North of Avenida Mem de Sá is Rua do Lavradio. This was one of urban Rio’s first residential streets and is lined with handsome 18th- and early 20th-century town houses. These are now filled by samba clubs, cafés, bars and antiques shops. Any day is good for a browse and a wander, and on Saturdays at the end of the month there is a busy antiques market, live street tango, no cars and throngs of people from all sections of Carioca society. Some of the houses here were once grand. Number 84 once belonged to the marquis who gave the street its name. Further along is what was once Brazil’s foremost Masonic lodge, the imposing Palácio Maçônico Grande Oriente do Brasil, which tellingly has had as its grand masters King Dom Pedro I and one of the country’s most important Republican politicians, José Bonifácio Andrada e Silva....
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