Curitiba a city with unique charms
No samba or sunshine yet capital of Paraná state still has plenty to offer
Spain had their only victory at the World Cup finals, against Australia, at Arena da Baixada in the city of Curitiba. Photograph: Getty Images.
Eliz and Tais look over: “Why don’t you sit with us?” It is 30 minutes into Germany’s thrilling game with Ghana, and the only free space in Bar Saccy in Largo da Ordem, Curitiba’s historical colonial district, is by a narrow shelf near the toilet.
Actually that is not strictly true: there is standing room all around, but when you are turned away from a bar in Curitiba – “Absolutely packed,” said one owner – it only means all the tables are taken. Standing is not encouraged, as though the act may disrupt the equilibrium of one of Brazil’s most well-planned and progressive cities.
Eliz and Tais are wearing Germany jerseys and scarfs – Eliz has a German husband and both women have German ancestry. They are living, breathing specimens of the European migrant influence for which the far south of Brazil is known.
As it happens Eliz’s sister is living in Dublin, and Tais, whose complexion would not be out of place in Hamburg or Berlin, hopes to go study English in Ireland soon. As Ghana threaten a stunning upset, they are human parcels of tension and agony with only Germany on their minds.
Tais goes to her car to get a coat – winter time has officially just begun and in Curitiba at this time of year you need to wrap up. The city – capital of Paraná state – sits inland on a plateau more than 900 metres above sea level and its temperate climate is captured by the “I heart Curitiba” T-shirts that feature a heart symbol made up of different weather symbols: Sun, rain, frost. A cancelled flight last week due to fog drove home the message loud and clear.
If it’s samba or sunshine you’re after you might be advised to skip this city of 1.75 million people, which is better known as the poster-boy of Brazilian urban planning. You might not drink from a coconut – but your bus will bring you where you want to go. If this sounds tedious, there is plenty to admire in one of the few places in the country that seems to take seriously the motto on the national flag: “order and progress”.
Former mayor Jaime Lerner is given credit for the planning and transport initiatives that help give Curitiba its serene atmosphere. In the 1960s Lerner had a six-block slice of the city centre turned into a pedestrian zone – an almost sacrilegious act in a country so infatuated with the car. The move has since proven wildly popular.
Not that the private car has been sidelined: from the centre, mile after mile of one-way roadway stretches out on a grid that also gives respect and space to the public bus system. Huge tubular bus-stops pockmark the city centre, offering futuristic shelter for commuters.
Two days later Eliz and Tais take me to Praça Tiradentes – a little central park that marks the spot where the city was founded in 1693. We look up at the Araucaria pine trees overhead and Eliz bends down to pick up a pinhão, a giant pine nut that has fallen from a branch. We are on our way to the daily winter market at nearby Praça Orório to eat pinhões and drink quentão, the regional mulled wine made of red wine, spices – and, inevitably, cachaça.
The Praça Orório market could be Munich in December – except that every food stall (Brazilian, Italian, Polish, German) has a television set showing the World Cup. It is a weird and lovely juxtaposition.
Little groups of Australia fans stand around drinking quentão and sampling with wonder the two-inch pinhões – unpeeled with difficulty, dipped in salt, delicious. Local people queue for regional corn delicacies. Eliz and Tais introduce the visitor to stall workers and draw smiles.
A few blocks away the Praça da Espanha is hosting the unofficial fan fest, with bars and food stalls and a stage for daytime music. It feels sadly inappropriate that “Spain square” was chosen for the gathering, the star attractions in Curitiba’s fixture line-up a busted flush before they even played here.
In one sense Curitiba has been unlucky with its fixtures – Iran v Nigeria, Honduras v Ecuador, Spain v Australia – although tomorrow’s final match here, Russia v Algeria, at last promises drama.
With or without it, in Curitiba’s understated way you can only see the people deeming the multicultural excitement of its World Cup adventure a success.