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Natal: culture, beaches, good food and history in northeastern Brazil

Victor Gouvêa

Alexandre Avilla

Sunny and diverse, the capital of Rio Grande do Norte perfectly embodies the best of what Northeastern Brazil has to offer

 

In the middle of the road there was a dune.

It was grandiose and it was there before all else, on the corner of Brazil, a work of nature. On one side, the Três Reis Magos Fort, built by the Portuguese in the 16th century to mark territory conquered from the French – on Christmas Day, and hence its name (“Natal” being Portuguese for Christmas). On the other side of the sand mountain, the paradisiacal Ponta Negra Beach, the summer getaway for residents that was incorporated into the old city in the 1990s, creating a new personality. We invited four illustrious natives of Rio Grande do Norte to connect these two versions of Natal, one for the tourists and another for the locals, in a single capital.

 

The sights with Roberta Sá

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Cashew fruit desserts with syrup, roasted nuts, cookies, tapioca starch. Whenever Roberta Sá goes back home, she prepares a load of the sweets that she grew up with to take with her to Rio de Janeiro, where she lives. Alternating between “oohs” and “ahhs,” she reveals the best place to find traditional treats: the shop Cantinho Sertanejo. Since she hasn’t lived in the city for nearly 20 years now, Sá doesn’t deprive herself of what might be called “gringo activities.” She tops off her basketful of purchases with a visit to the Natal Tourism Center, a yellow Neoclassical building from the 19th century that once was an orphanage and a prison and which has served as a home to artisan shops since the 1970s. Large doors and windows let the breeze in, refreshing hot afternoons. There, she finds some of her favorite products, including delicate handmade embroidery from the region of Seridó and caftans, colorful tunics that people wear on the beach.

 

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With these items in her bag, it’s time to see Ponta Negra, the beach that originated a new area in the municipality. The perfect water temperature and view of Morro do Careca, the dune that’s a Natal landmark, urge visitors to take their time. “I love hanging out here, sitting under the tent at Old Five, having a beer and enjoying a sunny day. They serve you in your reclining chair, by the edge of the ocean,” she sighs. She wraps up the day with some tapioca at Casa de Taipa, in the same neighborhood. The menu there has 26 flavors (the most popular is the shrimp with pumpkin, known here as “jerimum”). Savor it with your feet buried in the sand and you’ll understand why the singer misses living in Natal.

 

Culture with actress Quitéria Kelly

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Artists, musicians, poets and bohemians in general always find their haven. In Natal, this place is the neighborhood of Ribeira, a port area that has old mansions and a charming decadence. In the cobblestone streets, actress Quitéria Kelly blends in with the circulation, greets acquaintances and enters the theater at Casa da Ribeira for yet another night of performances. “Making art in Natal is an act of resistance, since we’re competing with the beach,” she affirms, showing her skin which hasn’t gotten a tan in a while. The theater itself is standing out of stubbornness, conserving the history of a century-old bakery in the neighborhood. The year 2017 marks the 10th anniversary of its renovation, just like Grupo Carmin, founded by Kelly, which presents award-winning plays that address what it means to be from Natal, the Northeast and Brazil. In the same way, Espaço Duas in Ponta Negra is another reference of local culture, which the actress also recommends. On the residential street, you can hear a saxophone rehearsing, a clue that there’s art hiding there too. They keep an events calendar updated on their Facebook page, which includes everything from bazaars of independent publishers to small shows – featuring local artists only.

 

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But Kelly isn’t unfair with the competition, and also recommends a good beach. Since it’s at the edge of a different time zone, the sun rises and sets earlier in Natal, around 5 a.m. and 5 p.m. The best thing is to head out early, around 7 a.m., to enjoy Camurupim Beach, around 40 minutes from the city, where natural pools form at low tide due to a barrier of rocks. On the way back, stop at Mirante dos Golfinhos, where you can see dolphins in the water playing and jumping in between fishermen’s boats in this singular setting among the region’s cliffs. Those with any energy left should follow the actress’s tip for music and head for Rastapé, a traditional forró pé de serra party with accordion, triangle and zabumba drums. A great place to mingle with the locals, look for a partner to dance forró or simply watch the outdoor performances put on by couples cutting a rug. Just be sure to experience the vast (and lively) local culture.

 

History with chef Daniel Cavalcanti

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Cascudo, like the fish, is an upscale bistro in the neighborhood of Petrópolis, but it’s not named after the sea creature. Chef Daniel Cavalcanti’s intention is to pay tribute to Câmara Cascudo, the greatest historian of popular Brazilian culture and a native of Natal. Cavalcanti shows off his copies of the master’s most important books, such as História da Alimentação no Brasil [“The History of Food in Brazil”], a bible for anyone looking to understand the country’s nutritional traditions. Originally from Currais Novos, in the state’s backlands, he worked at the award-winning restaurant D.O.M. in São Paulo and later spent a season in Spain. “We have to travel far away to discover that we need to work with what is ours,” he says. One of his favorite pastimes is visiting the mansion from 1900 where Câmara Cascudo once lived. In the sitting room, the typewriter upon which Cascudo composed over 200 works is on the display and the walls feature the signatures of such illustrious friends as composer Heitor Villa-Lobos. Invited to take part in important projects outside of Natal, Cascudo declined, saying, “Someone has to stay behind to take care of  things of no economic use.”

 

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During his countless studies, the most illustrious Natal native probably visited the Mercado da Redinha, just as Cavalcanti does nowadays. It was there that a regional classic was born: the “tapioca com ginga,” made with leftover fried fish and served with manioc flour. The chef took his family to try the dish right at the source, and then visit Dunas Park, the second largest urban park in Brazil. Preserved as an Atlantic Forest biosphere reserve, it contains three trails — 0.5 miles [800 m], 1.5 miles [2,400 m] and 3 miles [4,800 m]. Right at the entrance, the Bosque dos Namorados welcomes less athletic visitors with its picnic areas and an open amphitheater which hosts live shows on Sundays surrounded by dunes.

 

Culinary arts with businesswoman Clara Medeiros

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Unanimity is for the few. But if there’s a consensus in Natal, it has a name and an address: Camarões, the most beloved restaurant in town. When Clara Medeiros’s father founded the first of the four locations, she was just 2 years old. “I grew up inside Camarões and along with it, eating its dishes every day and getting to know the customers,” she says, and attributes the success of the enterprise to the close relationship with the customers. And the menu too, of course. The Grelhado das Dunas, for example, is a seafood smorgasbord, with lobster, shrimp, squid and octopus, brought to your table steaming on a hot plate, immediately explaining the reason for the lines that form at the door every day. The 30-year-old businesswoman also profits from other culinary experiments in the city, including the restaurant at Hotel Manary, the most charming in Natal. At the edge of the beach, they serve more contemporary dishes, like grilled shrimp with molasses, and dried beef and pumpkin risotto, accompanied by quality wines. The hotel itself, incidentally, is a great place to stay, with an excellent location, spacious rooms and elegant beach décor.

 

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But we aren’t just talking about Natal’s sophisticated side. One of the most traditional bars, 294 is simple and direct. It has colorful tables, speakers blasting samba and 6,000 crabs cooked in coconut milk each month, duly whacked with hammers until their meat is exposed, a typical sport in the Northeast. Tourists don’t make it here, Medeiros warns, one more reason to explore another facet of the city. To burn the calories consumed during a great Natal meal, she takes her dogs for a walk along the Via Costeira on Sundays. The long avenue that connects old Natal to the new city, tucked in between the dunes and the sea, is partially blocked to traffic on weekends and invaded by skateboarders, cyclists, occasional athletes and families, such as Medeiros’s, that built the most beloved business in Natal.

 

LATAM has direct flights to Natal departing from São Paulo, Brasília and 2 other destinations.

 

Special thanks to: Secretaria de Turismo do Rio Grande do Norte Setur RN and Hotel Manary.