On the coast fifty miles east of Sao Paulo is the port of Santos, the largest in Latin America. When Paulistanos say they are going ‘to the beach’ for the weekend, they are heading east, though many go to the more chic beach resorts further up the coast. Stuggling through the traffic on Friday and Sunday nights is part of the routine. But if you can go earlier or later than the crowd, it’s an easy trip by Metro and bus.

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Bus station Jabaquara

Taking the Blue Line or Linha Azul to its end at Jabaquara, and a Cometa bus to Santos Ponto da Praia had me on the beach in less than two hours. The descent to sea level through the rain-forest or Mata Atlântica which spreads over the hills is exciting and scenic.

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On the descent into Santos

Santos and surrounds are home to a mere 1.5 million people, much smaller than the Sao Paulo area’s 27 million. The modesty of its dimensions is part of its appeal after the Paulistano urban sprawl.

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Bust of the Duque de Caxias, modest compared with his 12-storey monument in Sao Paulo

Built on the coffee trade, Santos is a sprawling expanse of shipping containers and port service businesses. It remembers earlier trades too.

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O Pescador, Ricardo Cipicchia, 1941, near the Aquário Municipal

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1908 Sailors’ School – Escola de Aprendizes-Marinheiros – now Museu de Pesca

Fishing is still part of the scene, though not as economically important as it once was. While the Chinese container ships plough through the water to trade Brazilian goods with the world, visitors and locals throng the beaches, jog or ride bicycles along the seafront, and sit eating, drinking and talking in the restaurants.

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At the harbour’s mouth …

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… the view north

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Looking south from Ponto da Praia

With some judicious ordering you can have fish and chips for lunch.

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Restaurante Aquario’s Chopp

Santos has the usual apartment blocks overlooking – some might say spoiling – the sea view, and a long landscaped walk beside the water.

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Beach palms

The occasional villa survives, usually as a commercial property.

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Fin-de-siècle town house

The early apartment blocks are not entirely utilitarian – balustraded balconies and ocean-going Deco glamour make an appearance.

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A sea front corner block …

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… seems to invite a landmark response

Some later buildings make effective use of colour and ornament too.

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The ramp doesn’t obscure the exuberant detail of the entrance

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And around the corner …

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… the Santos answer to the Sao Paulo Copan Building

The more recent blocks look positively dull by comparison; even the newer landmark buildings seem to be trying a bit too hard.

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Clube de Regatas Saldanha da Gama

It’s a pleasant discovery to encounter the Chorinho no Aquario, a local music series now in its fifth year, setting up on the Praça Vereador Luiz La Scalla. It features well-known Santos and Sao Paulo singer Nadja Soares with a band of locals and guests, singing jazz and choro standards in a free-wheeling style.

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Nadja Soares sings choro, MPB (Música Popular Brasileira) and jazz standards

Later in the evening she appears at the Casa Verde Bistro – more living room than restaurant – in the Encruzilhada neighbourhood in Santos.

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Corner of R. Monsenhor Paulo Rodrigues and R. Júlio Conceição, Encruzilhada …

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… with the Green House upstairs

Local regulars drift in and greet each other warmly. And when the singing begins, it feels even more like a party in someone’s living room.

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More than hearts and flowers behind the green door

The repertoire of artists such as Milton Nascimento from the time of the dictatorship in Brazil is sung with real fervour, and by the whole room. This music stirs strong memories.

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They can sing for hours behind the green door

Brazil has the capacity to surprise at the most unexpected moments. In a genteel upstairs room in a quiet part of Santos, I hear an echo of a more turbulent time, when songs and guitars were pitted against torture and dictatorship. I go home thoughtful, reminded once more of how central music is to the life of Brazil.