trensurb-1280The approach to Porto Alegre was not a journey we were anticipating with any great relish. The major roads, we were told, grow filthy with trucks as you near the city, while staying off the main arteries would force us through neighbourhoods we’d do well to avoid. A little research, though, revealed an alternative, a surprising one given the almost total absence of passenger rail networks in Brazil.

Granted, calling the Trensurb a ‘rail network’ is a stretch; there’s just one line, after all. Still, in a country where rail travel of any type is a novelty, you take your trains any way you can; especially when, at set times each day, bicycles are allowed on board. We made it to the line’s northernmost station in the shoemaking hub of Novo Hamburgo just before the close of the 2-4pm bike-friendly window, each paying a meagre R$1.70 (about 45p, or 40% less than a standard bus fare) for the 40km, 40-minute ride into Porto Alegre. Judging by the amused looks we received as the carriage filled, this isn’t a service much used by touring cyclists. But then given that we haven’t seen another touring cyclist for 1,500 miles, perhaps that shouldn’t come as any great surprise.

 


 

usina-1280More than any place we’ve visited since Rio de Janeiro, Porto Alegre has the trappings of a big city. The centrepiece of its busy downtown district is a thriving market, currently recovering from a recent fire that caused serious damage to its grand, 19th-century building but could have been much worse. There’s a busy cultural programme, including a major art biennial focused on a waterfront power station-turned-cultural centre (pictured above, and much bigger than it looks). There are wine shops, gift stores, craft beer bars; the excellent Lagom bar-restaurant, which we visited twice, even brews its own.

nina-1024Perhaps most pertinently of all, its close-lying neighbourhoods have distinct characters. Moinhos de Vento is the kind of genteel, slightly sniffy district where the cars don’t roar so much as purr, the gardens all have gardeners, and the coats worn by the pet poodles and sausage dogs are smarter than anything in our wardrobe. It’s half a world apart from nearby Cidade Baixa (‘Lower Town’), where artful graffiti dots the walls, and a string of bars, nightclubs and restaurants draws nightly crowds to Rua General Lima e Silva and the surrounding streets. We sought out Parangolé, a delightful bar-restaurant that quietly, politely kicks against neighbourhood fashion by concentrating on acoustic, largely traditional Brazilian music. However, when we visited, we caught Nina Moreno, a pint-sized 84-year-old neighbourhood fixture who sings Spanish-language torch songs with gripping charisma and quite breathtaking musicality. As this story details, she’s had quite a life.

 


 

ruthpark-1280There’s a cycling culture here, though local riders have to keep their wits about them. Vicente Siufi, one of the team at Gaúcha Bike, told us that the lack of a comprehensive network of ciclovias (segregated bike lanes) has meant that cyclists in Porto Alegre have had to adapt completely to the rhythms of the traffic, not always easy in a country where there’s little awareness of cyclists at large and the default urban driving style is somewhere between assertively frantic and aggressively irresponsible. (In a notorious incident in February 2011, a driver accelerated into a pack of more than 100 riders during the city’s monthly Critical Mass ride. There’s some footage of the incident here.)

vulp-1280Still, awareness of cyclists does seem to be on the increase, thanks both to informal riding networks and the more organised likes of Pedalegre. Since June, the city has even had its own bike café. Set up on a quiet residential street by a team of three female cyclists – two of whom, Silvia Pont and Isadora Lescano, are pictured above – Vulp is the kind of place you’d like to have in your neighbourhood. Alongside coffees and cakes, beers and snacks, there’s a DIY workshop open to all, a curated selection of bike-related goodies (clothes, accessories, even a Brooks saddle), exhibitions and other events, and a tangible sense of community. You might even call it a scene.

 


 

pasunset-1280We left the city the easiest way imaginable, taking a Sunday-morning catamaran across the water and then heading south on the wide-open BR-116. All of a sudden, save for the trucks, cars and occasional motorbike that continue to pass us, the country seems deserted: the land is flatter and emptier, the towns both smaller and set much further apart. After a thorough soaking yesterday, we’re currently waiting out a brutal weather front (this morning’s forecast offered the unappetising prospect of 42kmh headwinds and 45mm of rain). Uruguay is next.

from São Lourenço do Sul, Brazil