Port in a storm

Travel

01 Dec 2012

Once I’d Googled Trancoso and seen the words ‘boho’ and ‘Naomi Campbell’ attached to it, I didn’t want to go. ‘Jeremy, you’ll love it,’ everyone argued. ‘It’s fabulous. You’re so lucky! Naomi! Mario Testino! They virtually live there. And, oh-my-God, the vibe is just a-maze-ing.’
Sounds like purgatory, I said. And what exactly did they mean by ‘vibe’, anyway?

‘Well, you know, it’s so, like, chilled.’ Trancoso was isolated until a road was built 15 years ago, so none of the locals, bless their cotton socks, would recognise a celebrity if one jumped out and bit them. A few Brazilian hippies discovered the place in the Sixties; Sao Paulo television celebrities started going there in the Seventies; now ‘A’ listers from all over the world are going. And like, everyone smokes dope. It’s so cool. And you’ve got native Indians, and blacks, and hippies, and the international jet set all rubbing shoulders, and everyone is so laid back that they’re horizontal.

‘Equality, multiculturalism and weed: the left-liberal dream fully realised. I can’t wait,’ I said bitterly.

‘Oh, do shut up you miserable sod,’ they said. ‘You’ll love it.’

Trancoso is on the Bahian coast of Brazil, 24 miles south of Porto Seguro (‘safe haven’). In 1500, the Portuguese navigator Pedro Cabral stepped ashore there and claimed everything for his country. Jesuit missionaries arrived in Trancoso in 1583. They cleared the bush and built a church over the native burial ground, then built a settlement of 60 houses in two continuous rows on either side. Church, settlement and the grassy space within is known collectively as the Quadrado. Today, horses graze and children and young men play futbol on this homely green space. Apart perhaps from the useful addition of some huge and venerable shade trees, the scene is little changed since the 16th century. That’s the romantic line adopted by the travel writers, anyway: horses grazing, timelessness, Naomi Campbell, hippy lifestyle, a strange energy, pot.

Jacuzzi in the spa treatment room: a place to relax
Jacuzzi in the spa treatment room: a place to relax

I was booked to stay at the UXUA Casa Hotel. UXUA (pronounced oosh-wa) is the indigenous word for ‘marvellous’. Wilbert Das, the creative director of Italian fashion company Diesel, went to Trancoso for a holiday in 2004 and liked the place so much that he bought a casa on the Quadrado from a couple of Swiss hippies. At the height of his success, he retired from Diesel, bought four more historic local houses and designed several others, including a treehouse, and acquired enough land next to the Quadrado to link them together. The UXUA Casa hotel is the result. ‘Oh-my-God, Jeremy!’ said the PR people, when I said that surely I wasn’t going all that way for just another pretentious, new age, boutique hotel. ‘You’ll die when you see it. And the thing is, the UXUA Casa is completely integrated into the community. Wilbert uses only local materials and employs only local craftsmen, and his staff are all Trancoso people, and he gives them full employment rights, and he just puts back everything that he possibly can. You’ll probably fall in love with him. We all have.’ Fucking Ada, I thought.

The discreet charm of Trancoso
The discreet charm of Trancoso

And that is how I went to Brazil, resentfully, not expecting anything much more than jet lag.

When I arrived in Trancoso, the driver deposited me in a muddy lane outside an anonymous door set in a wooden fence. If the front door was anything to go by, I thought, the UXUA Casa hotel is truly unobtrusive. Hotel manager Carlos welcomed me with a bow and led me to my accommodation.

Carlos was, on first impressions, profoundly gay. It shone out of him and was a little intimidating. He was outspokenly free from illusion and he spoke to me as though I held as few illusions about life as he did. His time was entirely at my disposal, he said. Might he  suggest that I joined him for the capoeira class in the morning?

Zé e Zilda house with antique wooden ‘oratorio’ typical of Catholic homes
Zé e Zilda house with antique wooden ‘oratorio’ typical of Catholic homes

He led me past the indoor capoeira training court and a gym. We then trod a curving wood and earth walkway through a dense, but well-swept rainforest. Other paths veered away to left and right. Tropical birds hopped languidly about. The effect on my mind, deceived as it was by the simple door in a suburban fence, was of walking into a kind of Narnia. Next, we came to a library, pool, bar and dining area. After taking another earthen path through a banana grove, Carlos and I arrived at my accommodation.

I was given Wilbert Das’s original casa, which is, in effect, two houses joined by an outdoor kitchen and flower garden, with a back door and seating area on the Quadrado. Seen from there, the façade was merely that of another pretty little house, with a wrought-iron table and chairs in a drift of fallen bougainvillea petals.

During my brief stay, the trailing edge of Hurricane Sandy made it too windy to sit on the beach, so every afternoon I sat at this table outside my house in a timeless Trancoso stupor, with my mouth open. Sometimes, a coach party of Brazilian tourists straggled past going to and from the historic church. Occasionally, a smiling couple would ask me if I would photograph them against the background of my bougainvillea. Afterwards, they’d say, in Portuguese, ‘Nice place you have there!’ or something like that, little suspecting that my rooms extended back for about a mile, like a Bond villain’s headquarters, were extravagantly and artistically furnished, and that they led, eventually, to a swimming pool, bar and library in a private rainforest.

As his employees said, the UXUA Casa Hotel is as near to perfection as it is possible for a hotel to be, and Wilbert Das is an endearingly self-effacing individual. He eats with his staff because he prefers it and he likes to hear all the gossip. They find it uproariously funny that the tall, softly spoken Dutchman in the sunglasses has the smallest ego of them all, and yet all these famous people and big shots come all the way to their humble village to see him.

Each employee will tell you that their lives have been utterly transformed for the better since Wilbert Das arrived, and his hotel is indeed a showcase of the better kinds of artisanal arts and crafts that Trancoso has to offer. Once I glimpsed him coming out of a potter’s house and making off (with a furtive, fanatical air) with a flower vase to place in some carefully chosen spot in his hotel. American Vogue did a cover-piece about the UXUA Casa this year. The female journalist had such a marvellous time, and wrote such a glowing piece, confided Wilbert, that it was rejected by her editors for being too ridiculously enthusiastic.

The high season in Trancoso, when the celebrities go, is November to February. The climate, hurricanes aside, is pleasant all year round, but looking for any sort of action out of season is a waste of time, because there ain’t none.

‘So what’s this bloody vibe everyone keeps talking about, Wilbert?’ I said at breakfast one morning. He considered my question seriously. ‘There really is one here, I think,’ he said. ‘It’s a kind of energy. Some people buckle under it and have to leave. Others are restored or even healed by it.’ ‘Explanation?’ I asked. ‘I am a realist,’ he said. ‘But some say that the church was built on a sacred indigenous burial ground, and I think that maybe this has something to do with it.’ ‘Surely you don’t believe that could have anything to do with anything,’ I said, amazed at such credulousness. Wilbert shrugged and stirred his coffee.

‘As you English say, “Stranger things have happened at sea”,’ he said. Personally, I think it’s just the sea air. But whatever it is about Trancoso, you can certainly relax there.

UXUA Casa Hotel in Trancoso, Bahia (www.uxua.com) is from £275 per night. Flights to Salvador from London on TAP Portugal (www.flytap.com) are from £674 per person including all taxes and surcharges. Further information on Brazil at www.visitbrasil.com


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