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TIMELESS PARATI : a Brazilian town retains its colonial past

November 24, 1985|SHARON DIRLAM | Times Staff Writer

PARATI, Brazil — When Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers flew to Rio in that classic film of the '30s, they missed a magic moment when they missed peaceful Parati. --Jerry Hulse, Travel Editor

The coastline of Brazil curves westward below Rio de Janeiro in a voluptuous snuggle of round green hills laced with sandy coves and pretty harbors.

The road is a curlicue along the Tropic of Capricorn. It winds back and forth over the crests of hills, dips within splashing distance of the ocean, occasionally drops (literally) to a single lane--the other lane having slid down the hillside or been buried by a slide from above. Road crews usually are at work somewhere along the 150 miles between Rio and Parati.

But the stunning coastal scenery, the delightful towns along the way and Parati itself are well worth the inconvenience of renting a car in Rio and driving the 150 miles to this village.

Angra dos Reis (Cove of Kings) is the first small port on the route. Fishing and shipbuilding go on in this port town that looks out on a huge bay full of islands--Baia da Ilha Grande. The largest island is Ilha Grande, once an infamous pirates' lair. A sense of timelessness pervades. Angra has existed since 1502.

The chief group of hotels in this region is run by the Hotels do Frade (friar's hotels). They include the Hotel Portogalo and Hotel do Frade.

The Hotel Portogalo sits atop a hill overlooking Ilha Grande Bay. Most guests are in residence for a week's stay, taking their meals in the huge Iberian-style dining hall with its arched tile ceilings and stone floors.

The 100 guest apartments are tidy and simple, the grounds are pleasant and the public areas are tranquil and pretty, garlanded with bougainvillea and opening onto beautiful views of the town and harbor. Chairlifts take guests down the steep hillside to a small private beach; there's also a pool.

Guests at Portogalo pay with beads in the restaurant and bar, including tips, and the waiters walk around with necklaces which they collect. It threw everyone into confusion when a drop-in passer-by wanted a quick lunch on a cash basis ($5), although they did manage to oblige. (Double room, $60.)

Club Mediterranee plans a major resort nearby, and for some reason the hotel owners in the area are all enthusiastic about the competition.

Another hour's drive will take you to the 110-apartment Hotel do Frade, on its own beach that faces the bay. This resort has a nine-hole golf course, pool, two restaurants, and each room has a veranda with hammock. (Double, $50.)

One also passes an atomic power project and industrial plants. They seem out of context among the myriad coves and bays, along a road that twists and dips, and that sometimes seems to curl back upon itself to get another look at where it's been.

Parati is the star attraction on this coastline, and its inaccessibility for so many years is undoubtedly the reason that time stood still here, while the rest of the world ushered in the modern way of life.

Inhabited since 1650, Parati has changed little since its days as a way station for Brazilian gold heading from Minas Gerais to Portugal in the 18th Century. When the road between Rio and Sao Paulo was built over an inland route a century ago, time passed Parati by.

When the coast route was created, bringing Parati into renewed contact with the world, an admiring modern eye rediscovered an authentic colonial town worth preserving, with its cobblestone streets and baroque buildings. Today Parati is a national monument and is considered to be an important example of colonial architecture.

The movies have also discovered the town. The Brazilian classic "Gabriella" with Sonia Braga and "The Emerald Forest" of John Boorman were both shot here.

But for all the attention, life in Parati goes on pretty much as it has for 200 years, with a few concessions to modernity--telephone poles and overhead wires being the most obtrusive to a purist's eye.

White plaster buildings, with brightly painted wood trim or wrought-iron balconies, are bedecked with primrose and coleus. On my visit, an occasional clip-clopping pony pulled a wooden cart over the cobblestones. Men with wide straw hats maneuvered wheelbarrows between the stones. People leaned out their windows, watching the action or talking with a neighbor. Besides its Old World charm, Parati does a lively business with its art galleries, boutiques and shops that appeal to tourists.

I was most struck by the sense of quietude that pervades the town. Clusters of children chatter softly. Groups of adults converse in quiet tones. Background music is the merest whisper behind these muted voices.

An evening stroll yielded musical notes in single file: the plunking of a piano behind a shuttered window, a small church choir in practice, the distant keening of a violin. People strolled about with the slow cadence of those who have no place they have to be.

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