Oct 2014: Curitibabulous

Hop aboard! We’re taking a tour bus around Curitiba, the state capital of Paraná. This city arguably has the best public transportation in all Brazil so the ride should be moving fast as we see lots of public parks and cultural diversity, and taste some incredible craft beer.

We’re starting in the historic center called O Largo da Ordem, where I’ve lived for the past month in the Curitiba Hostel (which occupies the second floor of the yellow building pictured). Directly beneath the hostel is the oldest bar in the city, Bar do Alemão (German Bar), a wood-tabled beer hall that reflects the influence of German immigrants on this whole southern region of Brazil. (In the nearby town of Blumenau is the largest Oktoberfest in all the Americas.)

The European influence is also apparent in the colorful colonial architecture and focus on pedestrian life with open-air plazas. The cobblestone street in front of my hostel is the scene of a mile-long craft fair every Sunday — said to be the biggest in Brazil — with hundreds of vendors selling foods, books, trinkets. And among the many plazas and pedestrian-only areas around the city — which is unique in a country where cars and motorbikes are usually given the right-of-way — is the 125-year-old Passeo Publico, where I jog most days. The park has a grand entrance modeled after the gate into Paris’ famous pet cemetery, although inside this park is a mini-zoo with real animals such as toucans and other Brazilian birds.

Down a side-street from the hostel is hipster central. This past Sunday I heard a solo guitarist playing Bob Dylan covers at one pub, then walked across the street to listen to a riotous jazz trio (drums, base, sax), while outside in the sidewalk upwards of 100 attractive Brazilians in tight jeans and flannel shirts drank craft beer and ate pizza by the slice.

It’s so Brooklynesque here that even one of the restaurant/bars on this street is called Brooklyn Coffee Shop. Beers from Brooklyn Brewery are also popular around Curitiba, maybe even more popular than in New York City, which I find annoying. It’s not just that I think Brooklyn Brewery makes lousy beer, or that their beer will taste even worse after traveling thousands of miles to the south of Brazil, or that much of their appeal is simply because it’s a trendy name brand; it’s also stealing business from local brewers who are actually making good beer.

The best beer I’ve had is by Cervejaria Bodebrown. Their “Cacau IPA” in collaboration with California-based Stone Brewing is excellent, while their “Perigrosa IPA” made with US brewer Pete Sloseberg ranks among the best beers I’ve ever had in my life. Slosberg — the founder of Pete’s Wicked Ale and a fellow alumnus of Norwich Free Academy — sums up the Perigrosa (“Dangerous Woman”) with this quote on the bottle’s side: “Slap my face and call me mama!”

Among many craft beer stores in the city is Império Cervejeiro, where every week a new brewer visits with a fresh batch of homemade beer and tests it on any willing drinkers, to which I gladly signed up! This week’s brewer had a Belgian-style wheat beer with a hint of cilantro, surprisingly tasty.

I got to talking with the owner of Império Cervejeiro and he invited me out to a great pub called O Pensador (“The Thinker”) to try more local beers. He also invited a friend who is a brewer at Bier Hoff Microcervejaria, who showed up with two big bottles of just-brewed beer. And I was smoking a Cuban cigar.

Now that we’re buzzed on craft beer and Cuban tobacco, let’s hop back on the tour bus. The old colonial architecture in the town center is juxtaposed with a number of modernist-style buildings around the city, though none is more eye-catching than the Museu Oscar Niemeyer, which resembles a giant concrete eye. Niemeyer also designed the federal capital of Brasilia, the UN headquarters in New York City, and a UFO-looking museum outside Rio de Janeiro that I visited a year ago.

You’ve already seen the German influence on Curitiba, and now our tour is looking at some other foreign influences on the city. This pink-and-maroon gate marks the beginning of the Italian neighborhood, which I’m told is full of great Italian restaurants and a few wineries.

In honor of the large Ukrainian population in Curitiba, this giant Easter egg and wooden Orthodox church were inaugurated by Former Ukrainian President Leonid Kuchma in 1995. About half-a-million people of Ukrainian descent live in Paraná, making it the third-largest Ukrainian population outside Ukraine itself (after Canada and the US).

These ethnic influences have added a lot of flavor to the cuisine in Curitiba, and I’ve even discovered several Ukrainian restaurants featuring pierogi and borscht. But my favorite meal has been the regional specialty barreado — a meat stew slow-cooked in a clay pot over low heat, and then served atop a plate of super-fine manioc flour and slices of sweet banana.

Let’s stop for coffee, because Curitiba has some excellent coffeehouses, such as in the first floor of the old city hall (pictured at the very bottom). The cafe serves strong espresso, always with a small pastry and a mini-glass of carbonated water. This is the first city in Brazil that I’ve found with a real coffeehouse culture, perhaps because the south’s colder weather pushes people indoors and also because people in this more affluent region can afford the luxury of good coffee (and beer).

Now we’ll hop back on Curitiba’s famous bus system, which CNN recently highlighted in a news special because it’s become a model for transport systems worldwide. Features such as exclusive bus lanes, triple-long buses that can hold 270 people, and fashionable subway-like boarding platforms have all done a lot to speed up travel time and remove the social stigmas around buses being dirty or low-class.

From the bus system, to the many parks, to the pedestrian-only areas — much of the progressive development of Curitiba is thanks to former mayor and governor Jaime Lerner (himself of Polish descent).

Lerner travels widely speaking about his philosophy of sustainable urban development (here he is in 2007 delivering a Ted Talk). Lerner likes to say that “creativity starts when you cut a zero from your budget,” which is evident in his solution to creating more public spaces. He converted old rock quarries into parks, and then hired “municipal sheep” to cut the grass and had their wool turned into clothing.

I’m yet to see any of the famous sheep.

Lerner sums up his transportation philosophy with this quip: “The car is like your mother-in-law. You have to have a good relationship with her, but she cannot command your life. When the only woman in your life is your mother-in-law, you have a problem.”

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