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URCA, the “in” thing of the moment (condensed).


Published in TAM NAS NUVENS magazine, march 2009 - NewContent.    


By Nathalia Lavigne


For about 3,000 tourists who use the cable car every day during the high season, it is likely that the word “urca” does not signify anything more than the name of the mountain at the first part of the route up to the Sugar Loaf. But, if someone on the way back held back from immediately boarding the bus for a stroll around the district, he/she will discover one of the most charming tourist points.

Surrounded on one side by Guanabara Bay and the sea on the other, the district, in the format of a peninsula and in a corner of Rio de Janeiro, has only 13 streets and four avenues. With eight military units, it is not by chance that it’s been nicknamed “the island of tranquility”. With the exception of one or two petty thieves, crime is rare. All you have to do is walk along a stretch of the Urca Embankment, a 1.5-kilometer-long (1 mile-long) wall that encompasses practically the entire district, to feel the spirit of the place.


There you come across those who carry their barbecue grills and spend the day at the beach, the fishermen not worried about catching fish and couples looking for a romantic sunset with a view of the small boats in Guanabara Bay. It’s place that had stopped in time in the very best sense of the expression. Or, as the resident say, it is a district for living in, not a passageway. Good reasons are not lacking.

The houses, nearly all without fences and with their heritage-protected façades, preserve the same style of when the district was founded 87 years ago after the completion of the landfill works, in 1922. The name Urca actually comes from the initials of the company that handled the project. Long before this, it was on this small stretch of land that Estácio de Sá disembarked with his companions in 1565 to found the city of São Sebastião do Rio de Janeiro.

One of the famous buildings is the Urca Casino, now the IED (Istituto Europeo di Design). Built in 1922 to be a luxury spa, the building in eclectic style with neoclassical traces has been abandoned for over 20 years. At the time of the casino, which lasted from 1934 to 1946, the building on João Luís Alves Avenue received a cast of respected artists. Grande Otelo, Emilinha Borba, Dick Farney are some of the names - apart from Carmen Miranda, who wore for the first time her famous Baiana fantasy costumes in the adjacent Grand Theater and even lived in Urca.

When gambling was prohibited and the casino closed, the building became the headquarters of TV Tupi and the district retuned, once again, to the spotlight. “Once upon a time some compared Urca to a Hollywood studio. Residents came to the windows to see their idols parade through the avenues of the district in Cadillacs and convertible Pontiacs, but were scandalized by stars that showed their legs at Praia Vermelha,” describes the writer José Louzeiro in Urca - O Bairro Sonhado.

The atmosphere of a Hollywood studio, however, returned last month, with the presence of actor Tom Cruise and his family when they visited São João Fortress.

Armando Gomes, 93, owner and founder of Bar Urca, has never been part of the estimated 6,750 residents of the district but is an authority when the subject is the history of Urca - including the extinct casino. Gomes is considered the oldest trader in activity in Rio de Janeiro.

In spite of his advanced age, never a day goes by that he doesn’t visit his business. On a sunny Saturday in February, the Vascan soccer team fan remembers when he worked at the Casino as a guimbeiro, picking up the cigarette butts that multiplied next to those who were without luck. “When they started to lose a lot, many would give me some chips so I’d drop out of sight”, tells Gomes.

Judging by the success of his business, Gomes was never a spoilsport. On weekends it becomes more difficult to get a table at the mezzanine, where the seafood restaurant is located. But the most sought after place on the Urca Embankment is the one in front of the bar, the new summer hotspot of Rio de Janeiro. Not long ago, waiters would take beer and shrimp pastries to clients, against the wish of City Hall and Amour (the neighborhood association).

By the way, for those who have never been on the top of a wall, the hint from veterans is to pick a point close to a concrete post or a signpost when you feel the lack of support for your back. 


A few meters from there, the São João Fortress no longer enjoys the same popularity. Among the small group that makes a guided tour of São João Fortress, the third oldest of the country, a couple of engineers named Leila Borges and Evaldo Zilio say that for the last nine years they have been trying to visit the historic site, built in 1578 at the point of Guanabara Bay. “It was always bureaucratic, one couldn’t visit it on weekends,” they complained.

If the arrival of IED will make Urca a better or worse place, one has to wait for the next round. But those who have never visited the district must hurry. It will never be the same again.




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