In addition to the business of finance, there are but three reasons to visit São Paulo: football, food and festivals. Every fourth year, when the World Cup takes place, Brazilians embrace these three elements for an intense, month-long monster party. This year, since the games are actually being held in Brazil, mid-June through mid-July promises to be a period of intense fervor.
June is already an important month to Brazilians since it includes the birthdays of three revered saints: São Antônio on the 13th, São João on the 24th and São Pedro on the 29th. To celebrate, Fall Fair-like gatherings called Festa Junina (June Festival) pop up on June weekends across the country to celebrate during the southern hemisphere winter. Also known as Festa Caipira (Hillbilly Festival), it draws men and boys with blackened front teeth, dressed in straw hats, plaid shirts and patched jeans that end well above the ankle. Women and freckle-faced girls wear plaid dresses with lace trim and straw hats over pigtails.
Tradition in São Paulo dictates that a Festa Caipira begins as a mock wedding in a local back yard. Someone dressed as the padre will have already spent hours on a sermon for the crude ceremony. A pregnant bride arrives (invariably a man in masquerade). The bride’s father, carrying a shotgun, follows the groom. A sheriff is also present. After the padre gives his sermon, filled with jokes and risqué puns, the bride and groom set off by horse and wagon with the whole party following them into the street. Off they go to a local field where there is a bonfire, accordion music, square dancing, carnival games and seasonal food specialties.
Corn cake, peanut squares, popcorn and candy apples are washed down with two favorites of the cold season: steaming quentão made from pinga (sugar cane rum), ginger, cloves and cinnamon, and hot wine with spices, apple and pineapple pieces. Despite being outlawed due to the fire hazard, colorfully decorated, homemade hot air balloons are still sent up into the sky, carrying fireworks with long fuses set to go off before the balloon’s fuel runs out. After nightfall, the more daring adult competitions begin, like climbing a greased wooden pole and jumping over the roaring fire. He who climbs highest and jumps furthest gains bragging rights.
The best way to find a local (read: authentic) Festa Junina is by asking your Brazilian friend what his/her neighborhood is organising. If you don’t have a Brazilian friend, there are also professionally organised celebrations that take place in stadiums, including at CTN, the Nordestinas cultural center at Rua Jacofer 615 in Bairro do Limão (neighborhood).
Aside from corn-cake-fuelled, hillbilly-inspired parties, visitors to São Paulo will definitely want to sample the mega-city’s more sophisticated cuisine. The sixth best restaurant in the world as ranked by The World’s 50 Best is D.O.M., serving contemporary dishes with an Amazon twist. With São Paulo being home to the largest Japanese population outside Japan, dining on authentic Japanese cuisine without having to trek to Tokyo is an opportunity that should not be missed, and there are plenty of options here. As well, Brazil’s history has provided for a strong Portuguese and Italian presence that is reflected in the city’s restaurants and popular dishes. For something completely different, be sure to sample the African influence on Brazil’s cuisine. Even the national dish, a hearty mixed meat stew called feijoada, has African origins, which evolved from the slavery epoch.
By the time the World Cup finals start to play out in July, be ready for a big bang that might even blip onto Stephen Hawking’s radar. Brazilians live and breathe the games like no other. Just open your front door and get caught up in the revelry, since you won’t have a choice. The World Cup begins at street level with green and yellow chalk, paint, streamers and flags, and with souvenir sellers weaving through cars stopped at intersections. No conversation will begin with another subject; no room will be without a television playing the games, reviews of past games or previews and predictions of the next one. They’re not just games to Brazilians. They are essential, intense and feverish, every waking hour. But that’s why you’re going, isn’t it? This festive ambush must be experienced at least once, and 2014 is the year to do it.