Finally I can see it: the Brazilian coast! Because I feel more comfortable on earth than in the sky, I can’t stop staring down at the rainforest and endless palm beaches. I wonder if this is what Geraldo Dannemann first saw 142 years ago, when, after months at sea, his crew called out “Land ahoy!”
The tobacco specialist from Bremen, Germany emigrated to Brazil in 1872, and found what he was looking for in the state of Bahia – more specifically its Recôncavo region: perfect conditions for growing tobacco and proximity to the harbor of Salvador, a booming port city.
My journey will take me there, and I will follow in Geraldo Dannemann’s footsteps. In conjunction with travel designer Marco Tardi, Centro Dannemann has created the one-of-a-kind expedition “Bahia Life – Recôncavo Experience” that promises to transport the adventurous traveler to another time and place.
Our expedition’s launching point is Salvador da Bahia, Brazil’s one-time capital city. Travel guide Fred Bomsucesso accompanies me to my hotel, feeding me the first facts about the republic’s third-largest city: “Salvador has three million residents.
Its historic name is São Salvador da Bahia de Todos os Santos (on the Bay of All Saints), and the first European seafarers arrived at the bay on November 1, 1501.” Fred’s knowledge of this place is comprehensive, his love of the region heartfelt. A world traveler, he speaks fluent German, having worked for Dannemann in Germany for several years. When we arrive at the luxury historic hotel Pestana Convento do Carmo, a former Carmelite convent, I fall into the soft armchairs at the bar.
The first European seafarers arrived at the bay on November 1, 1501.
Water splashes in the distance, fans whirr, ice cubes clink – our time travel has already begun. And what have I been looking forward to for the past several hours? A Dannemann Artist Line Reserva and a caipirinha. One sour note: smoking indoors is not permitted in Brazil. My consolation is that, here, life takes place outdoors, anyway. After enjoying a gourmet meal, I retire to my room to prepare for what is sure to be an intense day. Luckily, the hotel’s stylishly outfitted rooms have nothing in common with monks’ cells; they are comfortable and quiet, despite the crowds of people outside, boisterously celebrating Samba National Day until the wee hours.
Lower and Upper Towns
Fortified by a delicious breakfast of tropical fruit, we’re ready for our first outing. Our route to Salvador’s Lower Town leads us through Pelourinho, heart of the Upper Town. I can’t get enough of the colorful, elegant colonial buildings that line the streets. Until the 1980s, the quarter was in disrepair; many buildings have since been renovated. With 3,000 houses from the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries, Pelourinho represents Latin America’s largest architectural collection of colonial structures, and was designated a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1985.
On a detour through Ribeira, the colonists’ summer holiday area, Portugal’s influence is omnipresent: its typical blue-white tiles decorate many of the houses. It’s a hot day, but a pleasant breeze from the Bay of All Saints keeps us cool, as does an ice cream cone. Fred attempts to translate the selection, but there are no German equivalents for many of the exotic fruits.
As I taste my way through the options, my palate nearly explodes with so many unfamiliar flavors. Back in the car, I notice a profusion of colorful ribbons tied to our driver Marcello’s rearview mirror. Fred explains, “Those are wish ribbons from the Afro-Brazilian Candomblé religion, which has its origins in West Africa. Called Bonfim ribbons, they’re tied to special places or around the wrist. Three knots stand for three wishes; when the ribbon falls off, they will be fulfilled. Different colors represent the religion’s nature deities.”
African culture and religion have strongly influenced Salvador and the surrounding regions. Eighty percent of the population descend from slaves; their religion, cuisine and history have been preserved and blended with the colonial rulers’ culture. We visit one of the many churches, Igreja do Nosso Senhor do Bonfim, namesake of the wish ribbons. Millions of ribbons flutter from its doors and windows in the Atlantic wind.
Onward to the São Joaquim market, near the harbor. Here, you not only find a number of exotic specialties destined for Bahian cooking pots, but also everything you might need for a Candomblé sacrifice: herbs, vessels, animals, sculptures, and jewelry.
Retreating from the market’s lively hustle and bustle, we reinvigorate ourselves at the Senac cooking school’s restaurant, where a bountiful buffet invites us to try Afro-Brazilian specialties.
I am especially keen on acarajé, fritters made from a bean dough mixed with shrimp, popular street food. They go perfectly with vatapá, a puree of fish, cashew nuts and dried shrimp.
We enjoy a cigar and a coffee next to the gigantic elevator that connects the Upper and Lower Towns, taking in a spectacular view of Salvador and the bay.
On this evening, samba is once again in the air – but this time, I join in. There’s hardly a day that goes by without dancing.
Through the World’s Second-Largest Bay
In the harbor of the nautical center near Modelo market, we board a saveiro, a schooner that has been transformed into a floating resort. Saveiros are the region’s typical wooden boats, used during the 16th and 17th centuries by the Dutch and improved in North America during the 18th century. The four-person crew mixes cocktails on demand for us – it’s the perfect time for a Dannemann Zigarillo Speciale Brasil. The voyage leads us through the Baía de Todos os Santos, the world’s second-largest bay. First, we stop at the lovely Loreto and Tapera beaches. While the ship’s chef prepares an excellent lunch of crab, I take a moment to unwind and process the trip’s many new impressions.
Our shooner takes us along Geraldo Dannemann’s
actual historic trail.
We soon reach the harbor of Itaparica, Brazil’s largest island, with its endless sand beaches and lush green vegetation. After a pleasant tour of the island’s historic center, followed by dinner on the beach, we spend the night aboard our floating hotel, gently rocked by the waves.
Up the River to Terra Dannemann
Our schooner takes us along Geraldo Dannemann’s actual historic trail; after a splash in the water at Araripe beach, we travel to the mouth of the Rio Paraguaçu. Dannemann shipped his tobacco between the Recôncavo region’s towns and Salvador along this very route. We anchor near Salamina village, home to many quilombolas, descendants of former slaves. A village resident offers us cashew-fruit juice. I’ve never seen the plant before, nor have I ever tasted something so scrumptious and refreshing. Onward up the river, past colorful rock formations, palms, and beaches, we arrive at another quilombola village, São Francisco do Paraguaçu.
Ruins of the Santo Antônio do Paraguaçu convent soar high above the river, radiating an ambivalent attraction. Children dance in front of the Franciscan monastery in the warm afternoon light, but the mysterious ruins of the baroque convent tower behind them. It was here that slaves were held in a cellar room, constantly exposed to the tides of the nearby river. Back on the schooner, we head a short way upriver, anchoring at the peaceful fishing village of Santiago do Iguape.
A little wistfully, I enjoy the last evening aboard our ship with the cheerful crew, which once again spoils us with an excellent meal. A typical Brazilian emotion has begun to surface within me: saudade, a kind of gentle melancholy, a nostalgia for a special experience that won’t happen again. The Americans call it the blues. But the smoke signals of a good cigar carry away my pensive mood, motivating me for the next day: a visit to a rainforest village and, in the evening, to the Terra Dannemann.
Following the Path of Freedom
We sail on to Kaonge, a rainforest village located on a fertile, high plateau above the river. The locals give us a glimpse of their everyday lives, as well as into the production of manioc flour, palmoil and a medicinal yarope syrup.
The “Mãe de Santo” (a spiritual leader) and village elders tell stories of the quilombolas in slavery, their struggle for liberation, and how they continue to fight for autonomy within their own territories.
The Brazilian constitution now guarantees their right to land, but conflicts with large landowners continue. The women prepare a meal of oysters, and as a farewell, they demonstrate dances to African music, including samba. I learn that samba is actually an African rhythm, intended to bring the dancer into a trance.
We must move on. The headwaters are too shallow for our larger boat, so we switch to a more nimble motorboat. We make a quick stop in Coqueiros, known for its ceramic handicrafts.
Women here produce thousands of plates a day by hand, according to old Indian techniques. Farther along the river we pass ruins of colonial mansions and lonely, dilapidated private chapels.
The vegetation has changed – the sand beaches have disappeared, mangroves sprawl into the river, fishermen in dugout canoes toss out their nets. Nestled into a hill, Cachoeira appears before us.
“Cachoeira was founded by sugarcane plantation owners and is one of Brazil’s oldest and most important colonial cities,” describes Fred.
Stunningly beautiful colonial houses attest to this. We disembark, arriving at an open-air exhibition of local artists, an indication of the city’s lively art scene. Marcello chauffeurs us to our next stop, the Terra Dannemann’s Fazenda Santo Antônio do Retiro, a farm and guesthouse with breathtaking views of the Rio Paraguaçu reservoir. After enjoying a latenight Artist Line cigar, I fall into bed in my marvelous cottage suite.
On the San Antonio tobacco farm, I learn about all the steps of tobacco cultivation within a day, thanks to experts who knowledgeably explain each stage. Tiny little grains of seed, smaller than poppy seeds, are placed in my hand. In only a few weeks, meter-high plants will have grown from them.
Agronomist Carlos Eduardo Santana shows me the plants at each stage of growth: the delicate seedlings; in the greenhouses, the plants that are almost 15 cm tall, which now will be planted in the field; and, finally, the strong plants outside. Even though cigars are still traditionally hand-rolled today, the farm’s modern and innovative technology is impressive, particularly its cutting-edge irrigation system.
“With this system, I can control exactly how much water each plant receives,” explains agronomist Carlos Eduardo Santana, showing us the sophisticated automatic control system. Despite huge distances between tobacco fields and the company’s numerous employees, Dannemann manages to maintain a true family feel here in Brazil. At Terra Dannemann, the staff works enthusiastically; in turn, the company advocates for its employees and for the region.
Its special projects focus on education, culture, and environment. In fact, our next program highlight is a Dannemann environmental project. After enjoying a Brazilian barbecue, we ride through the Mata Atlântica to a forest that is part of the “Adopt a Tree” reforestation project, founded by Dannemann president emeritus, Hans Leusen. Even though the trees are only 13 years old, they are already re-attracting previously displaced animal species and wild plants. In order to achieve biodiversity of species that is true to nature, 56 native tree species are available to be planted by patrons. Anyone who wants to, can plant a tree. It’s a moving moment when I place a purga de cavalo in the ground and become a tree patron in the heart of Brazil. Because each tree bears a nameplate, it can be visited throughout its lifespan.
We are warmly welcomed at the company’s mothership, the Centro Dannemann in São Félix. Esther Egli guides us through the Centro: “The front section is used for cultural events. In the rear section the traditional cigar manufactory is located.” We marvel at the skills of the charuteiras as they roll the vintage cigars Artist Line Reserva. We get a chance to have a behind-the-scenes look over the shoulders of the charuteiras as they work.
Every step of their method is competently explained and Esther translates my questions for the rollers. Later, cigar sommelier Cesar Araujo joins us for a Dannemann Artist Line Reserva Robusto and some shop talk about taste and strength. It is only a short walk from São Félix into the center of Cachoeira via the old railway bridge. We visit the Irmandade da Boa Morte: the women of this sisterhood are descendants of freed slaves and demonstrate syncretism in practice.
The sisters worship the orixás (‘Orisha’), Candomblé gods, as well as the Virgin Mary. This blend of African religion and Catholicism is found throughout Brazil, but is especially common here in Bahia.
Fitting with this fascinatingly peaceful coexistence of two religions, we spend our last night at the Hotel Identidade Brasil. Each of its six rooms is dedicated to a Candomblé god and decorated accordingly. A feeling of saudade creeps in again, but then I see the Bonfim ribbon tied around my wrist, given to me earlier that day by a Dannemann charuteira. My three wishes are simple: to return again soon to Salvador, to Bahia, and to Brazil.
Available for two to six people, the luxury tour Bahia Life – Recôncavo Experience was designed especially for culturally curious cigar lovers by Dannemann and Cultour Travel Design Brasil. Price and detailed program are available upon request. The trip takes seven days, not including arrival and departure days. The best months to travel to Bahia are September to March.
This article was published in the Cigar Journal Spring Edition 2014. Read more