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Trip Tips: Brazil's retro-futuristic capital hits middle age


A view shows Alvorada Palace, the official residence for Brazil's president designed by architect Oscar Niemeyer in Brasilia April 29, 2014. Photo - Reuters

Brasilia looks like a giant university campus at first sight.

The futuristic capital city built from scratch on savannah ranch land in the middle of nowhere was meant to open up the interior of Brazil and symbolize its rise as an economic power.

Fifty-five years later, Brasilia's modern buildings designed by famed architect Oscar Niemeyer and laid out by urban planner Lúcio Costa are still imposing, an open-air museum on UNESCO's World Heritage list.

Politicians flee for their hometowns on weekends, but the one-time provincial backwater has mushroomed into a bustling capital of 3 million people surrounded by growing high-rise satellite cities and teeming slums.

Its airport is the country's third-busiest, its income per capita the highest in Brazil, as is its divorce rate.

Brasilia boasts Brazil's second-largest and most costly stadium, the 68,000-seat Estádio Nacional, a colonnaded arena that joins Niemeyer's edifices on the capital's civic mall.

The stadium, perhaps destined to become a white elephant since the city has no top-level soccer teams, will host seven games during the World Cup starting in June, including Colombia vs Ivory Coast, Cameroon vs Brazil, Portugal vs Ghana, and a quarter-final.

Brasilia was built for people with wheels and its planners gave little thought to pedestrians. But the city center will be closed off to traffic on game days, allowing soccer fans to walk from the hotel district to the stadium.

Here are some tips for enjoying Brasilia from Reuters, whose 2,600 journalists in all parts of the world offer visitors the best local insights.

UTOPIA LOST

Even if you are not an architect, don't miss Niemeyer's amazing buildings, which seem to float above the ground, lifted only by pillars that curve upward like hammocks.

A stroll from the hotel district will bring you to the National Museum, a windowless dome that would not look out of place on a Star Trek set.

Next is the Metropolitan Cathedral, a Niemeyer masterpiece, even though he was a communist and an atheist. The roof is shaped like the crown of thorns Christ wore during his crucifixion. Bright light pours through a stained-glass ceiling that seems to hover miraculously unsupported. Archangels hang in mid-air. Most of the cathedral is below ground, with only the roof visible from afar.

At the end of the mall, Niemeyer buildings that house the three branches of government face off across a square dominated by the convex and concave roofs of the chambers of Congress. According to popular lore, the roof of the lower house is shaped like a bowl to collect the money politicians reputedly pocket.

For many, the nearby Foreign Ministry building, or Itamaraty Palace, is the most exquisite of Niemeyer's edifices thanks to its tall arches and a spiral staircase with no banister that curls down from the mezzanine into a column-free entrance hall.

For a glimpse of the utopian city Niemeyer and Costa had in mind, grab a cab to Brasilia's Super Square 107/108 South (don't waste time trying to figure out the maddeningly complex though perfectly logical address system they devised for the city!).

The square has its own school, cinema, sports club and the charming little Fatima chapel designed to look like a nun's hat, the first building to be inaugurated in Brasilia.

The model neighborhood had different-sized apartments to house both government officials and workers - a socialist vision shattered by reality as shanty towns formed around the planned city before it was even finished.

LAKE PARANOA

Brazilian writer Clarice Lispector called Brasilia, which is 784 miles (1,262 km) from the nearest ocean, "a beach with no sea" because of the brightness of its light.

It may not have a beach, but the Brazilian capital has a man-made lake so large that it sports more motor boats and sailing boats than many coastal cities.

There is no better place to escape to on a hot day in the dry season (May to November) for a jet-ski ride or kite-surfing when the wind is up.

The favorite watersport is stand-up paddle-boarding or SUP (pronounced "soupie" by Brazilians). To rent windsurf or paddle boards, catamarans and kayaks, try Katanka next to the golf club and paddle under Brasilia's landmark three-arch bridge over the lake. (www.katanka.com.br)

Visitors to Brasilia vividly recall its vast cloudless skies that stretch to the horizon and awe-inspiring sunsets. Catch a sunset aboard the Mar de Brasilia excursion boat and sip a beer while a guide recounts Brasilia's history on the 90-minute trip. (www.mardebrasilia.com.br)

AMAZON FISH AND TAPAS

Time for some grub. Your sunset cruise will drop you at the Pontão, a busy lakeside bar and restaurant area.

For something more exotic, head for Dom Francisco restaurant for delicious grilled "pirarucú," the largest fish in the Amazon river. Anthony Bourdain highlighted the prehistoric-looking creature with black-green scales on his travel and food TV show. Chef Francisco Ansiliero prepares pirarucú with a Brazil nut sauce and tucupi, a yellow purée made from an extract of wild manioc that has to be boiled for hours to eliminate poison. (www.domfranciscorestaurante.com.br)

If you want beef, the favorite food of Brasilia's inhabitants who are known as Brasilienses, the place to eat is Rubaiyat, which also has a superb wine cellar. Dig into a chunk of succulent Tropical Kobe Beef and enjoy the view of the lake. (www.rubaiyat.com.br/restaurantes/rubaiyat-brasilia)

For the hip side of Brasilia, Universal Diner is great fun with its kitsch decor, vinyl LP placemats, 80s music and a pink Volkswagen Beetle hanging over the entrance. Chef-owner Mara Alcamim serves an aphrodisiac dish called "sexy shrimp" with a brie and red caviar sauce accompanied by a strawberry-and-sage risotto. (www.restauranteuniversal.com.br)

Beer drinkers should hang out at gastro pub Loca Como Tu Madre - inspired by Spanish film director Pedro Almodóvar - where chef Renata Carvalho offers 90 types of imported and local brews to wash down the mean tapas she cooks with Brazilian ingredients. (www.locacomotumadre.com.br)

SPIRITUAL NOURISHMENT

For a city often criticized as a soulless void, Brasilia has a lot to offer, from Pentecostal temples built with marble to Islamic and Buddhist places of worship.

An Italian priest named Dom Bosco prophesied in 1883 that a thriving capital would arise in a new promised land here, and numerous cults have sprung up, from UFO seekers to users of the hallucinogenic ayahuasca, the sacred vine of the Amazon Indian.

Thousands have flocked to seek faith healer John of God in the town of Abadiana outside Brasilia, including Oprah Winfrey.

In need of a spiritual lift? Try the spiral walk inside the seven-sided pyramid of the Temple of Goodwill, an ecumenical belief started by a Brazilian radio journalist in 1950. Members of the rock band Guns N' Roses did just that when they visited Brasilia on tour in March. (www.tbv.com.br/english/)

The temple's portraits of humanity's benefactors make up an incongruous group, ranging from Socrates, Lao-Tse, Joan of Arc and Karl Marx, to Gandhi, Charlie Chaplin, Evita, soccer great Pelé, John Lennon, Princess Diana and Formula 1 racer Ayrton Senna.

One last tip: avoid driving in Brasilia. Brasilienses think they are Ayrton Senna when they get behind the wheel.

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