Rio de Janeiro police strike threatens Carnival festivities, then fizzles

A police strike in Rio de Janeiro just a week before Carnival threatened to wreak mass chaos upon Brazil‘s largest festival celebration. But just one day in, Rio’s state government announced that the strike had “failed”, with just a small percentage of officers taking part.

“It is very difficult to talk of a protest movement without participants,” said Chao Francisco, union president for the civilian police in Rio, reported the AFP.

The strike, which involved military police, civilian police, and firefighters, was intended to bring attention to low wages and came on the heels of a deadly 11-day police strike in Bahia. Residents feared that a Rio police strike would lead to similar violence, during a time when millions flood the streets in celebration.

After the strike was announced on Friday, the Rio city government quickly clamped down on organizers, arresting 17 police officers and threatening disciplinary action against hundreds of others associated with the walk-off. In Brazil, it is against the law for police officers and firefighters to unionize and strike.

With Rio hosting the upcoming 2014 World Cup and 2016 Olympic Games, all eyes are on the city to ensure that city officials can handle major events like Carnival, which officially kicks off on February 17th. The city has 14,000 soldiers on stand-by.

[via AFP and CBS News, Flickr image via JorgeBrazil]

Gadling picks the world’s best “second cities”

We like winners. Whether it’s the winning army of a war or the world’s fastest 100 meter runner, we lavish attention and praise on the victors and relegate the losers to the dustbin of history. The same is true of travel – the most important travel cities like New York, London, Sydney and Tokyo are favored by visitors while lesser-known destinations are skipped, scratched from the itinerary or just plain ignored.

The destinations we visit win our attention for good reason. They’re typically the biggest cities – meaning they have the best restaurants, biggest museums and largest inventory of hotels. Yet when we travel to only the “most popular” or “biggest,” we ignore a fundamental truth of travel. What we know about a place has as much to do with what we’re told as it does with what we actually find once there.

With that in mind, Gadling is bringing you a compilation of our favorite “second cities” – large urban areas that are among the biggest in their country but frequently overshadowed by more famous capitals. The following picks boast many of the same amenities that make their bigger rivals so famous – top notch cultural institutions, unique local charm, great cuisine and nightlife. How many have you visited? Take a look below:

  • Second City #1 – Osaka, Japan – travelers love to talk about Tokyo, but focusing exclusively on Tokyo does serious injustice to the city of Osaka. What Osaka lacks in population, it more than makes up for in its citizens’ lust for life and sheer zaniness. Along the streets of Osaka’s Dotonbori district you’ll find a raucous party of eating and drinking that is virtually unmatched anywhere on earth. In addition to the city’s famous Takoyaki octopus balls and grilled snow crab, Osaka also boasts cultural attractions like Osaka Castle and the Momofuku Ando Instant Ramen Museum.

  • Second City #2 – Gothenburg, Sweden – Stockholm is unquestionably Sweden’s capital and its largest city. But not nearly as many have been to Gothenburg, the country’s second largest metropolis and home to Sweden’s largest university. The large population of students means Gothenburg has a surprisingly fertile arts and culture scene, frequently rivaling its larger sibling Stockholm for an unassuming, fun experience – all at a fraction of the price.
  • Second City #3 – Krakow, Poland Krakow has slowly become of one Poland’s greatest tourist attractions in recent years, steadily easing out of the shadow of much larger Warsaw. Unlike Warsaw, which was leveled by bombing during World War II, Krakow retains much of its historical architecture – a unique feature that will have first time visitors in awe.
  • Second City #4 – Melbourne, Australia – neighboring Sydney might boast the Opera House and stunning harbor views, but Australian visitors ignore Melbourne at their peril. The city is packed to the brim with top-notch shopping, hidden laneways and world class events like the Australian Open tennis tournament.
  • Second City #5 – Wellington, New Zealand – Auckland might appear to dominate New Zealand’s economic and cultural agenda, but in truth it’s modest-sized Wellington that’s really calling the shots. In addition to being New Zealand’s capital city, Wellington has a world-class museum at Te Papa, killer food and what might be the best cocktails this side of the Pacific.
  • Second City #6 – Montreal, Canada – any visitor that’s been to the capital of Canada’s Quebec province can tell you: Montreal will give Toronto a run for its money any day of the week. In addition to hosting two fantastic music festivals each summer and bohemian nightlife, Montreal is also full of plenty of French colonial architecture and charm.
  • Second City #7 – Chicago, USA – a list of “second cities” would not be complete without Chicago, arguably the birthplace of the term and perennial competitor to bigger American cities like New York and Los Angeles. Make no mistake about it though: Chicago might be called the second city, but it has first-city amenities, including amazing museums, some of the best food in the U.S. and plenty of friendly residents.
  • Second City #8 – Salvador, Brazil – picturesque Rio de Janeiro and glitzy Sao Paulo may get all the attention in Brazil, but it’s Salvador that’s really stealing the show. The city’s laid-back citizens, fantastic beaches and historic colonial architecture make it strong competitor for best place to visit in Brazil. Plus, if you want to go to Carnival, Salvador hosts some of the country’s most authentic celebrations.
  • Second City #9 – Galway, Ireland – true, rowdy Dublin has the Guinness Factory and Book of Kells. But don’t forget about Galway, a gem of a town along Ireland’s wild and windy West Coast. Galway’s position as home to many of the country’s university students, rugged natural beauty and frequent festivals make it strong contender for Ireland’s best-kept secret.
  • Second City #10 – Barcelona, Spain – if you’re among the many travelers already raving about Barcelona’s many charms, this pick comes as no surprise. Madrid might be the cultural and political head of Spain, but it is freewheeling Barcelona that is its heart. Between the picturesque city setting nestled between craggy foothills and the Mediterranean Sea, top-notch nightlife and shopping, warm climate or the burgeoning arts scene, there’s a lot to love in Barcelona.

Did we mention your favorite second city? Think we missed a hidden gem? Leave us a comment below and let us know what you think.

Get a guide for the Marrakech medina

When I hit the ground in Marrakech, Morocco, last week, I wasted no time in passing through the gate and heading into the medina (the old part of the city). After all, I’m a seasoned traveler, and I know how to read a map. If I did get lost, I reasoned, I could see the Koutoubia Mosque from just about anywhere in the city — it’s the tallest building around (by law) at 77 meters high. Less than an hour later, I was in a covered, narrow alley and couldn’t see natural sunlight, let alone Koutoubia’s minaret. My map, which only showed streets, was worthless. Even on the streets, the map was little help, as there is a dearth of street signs.

Suddenly, I realized I shouldn’t have dismissed the hotel manager’s suggestion that I hire a guide for the day.

Several hours later, I found my way outside the medina, only to realize I was on the wrong side of the city, and walked around the outside back to my hotel. My wife was furious. I was irritated. And, I realized what my plan for the next day would be. It involved the experience of a local pro, Mustapha. I don’t regret paying the $25 for his extremely helpful services.

I know what you’re thinking … it’s what I thought. Guides are scammers. You feel that you can navigate a city on your own. If you’ve read any travel literature on Marrakech, you know that the guides exist only to bring you to the souks (shops) that pay them the highest commission. So, you’re being guided right into a high-pressure sales situation. In reality, all these perspectives hold a bit of truth.

As soon as I walked into the medina the first day, I was pestered pretty regularly by many “freelance” guides, some of whom claimed to work for major hotels. He was incredibly persistent, offering to take me around the city. Here’s a hint. If you don’t meet your guide in the hotel, he doesn’t work for one. As you get deeper into the city, they drop the hotel charade but have plenty of other stories. One explained that he just wanted to practice his English. In fact, when I responded to him in French, he kept going in English. I knew the situation but applaud his tenacity (now, at least). Avoid these guys. They will take you directly into the souks, and that’s all you’ll see.

When I met Mustapha at the Hivernage Hotel and Resort, he was clad in a jacket and tie. His English and French were heavily accented but more than sufficient. And, he smiled. He asked what I wanted to see. I listed off places like the Saadian tombs, Bahia Palace and Jemaa el Fna (the medina’s main square), and he dutifully noted them. When I finished, he added, “And the souks?” Yes, the souks …

Immediately, I saw a difference. Mustapha hailed a taxi and got us a good price. We went directly to the spots I wanted to see, and his explanations brought them to life. It turns out that I was near every major attraction on my list the previous day, but I never would have found them. With my guide, it was quick and painless. He also pointed out the differences among the people who walked by, providing some insights into the ethnic groups of Morocco. Buildings without exterior windows or balconies, for example, were from Berber inhabitants, while those with windows and balconies facing the streets were built by Jewish settlers. I never would have figured this out on my own.

The little touches were nice, as well. As we approached the Saadian tombs, Mustapha saw a large tour group approaching. Instead of taking us to the window to pay our admission fee, he nodded in its direction and led us straight into the building. He took us to the prized places quickly. When I turned around, I saw a large crowd behind me. I would have spent plenty of time waiting but instead had a prime position for as long as I wanted. On our way out, we went over to the window and settled up. If I had tried to pull this off on my own, I don’t think I would have gotten far (had I even thought to try).

When I saw what looked like rather ordered graffiti on the walls throughout the medina, all I had to do was ask. Mustapha explained that there are 32 political parties in Morocco, and each is allotted a specific space on the wall to use for campaigning. I didn’t understand the message at all, but at least I got the drift.

As we navigated Marrakech’s winding streets and narrow alleys, I did notice that fewer of the freelance guides approached us. A few of the bolder ones did make the effort, but Mustapha dismissed them quickly. Also, he let me know how I could break the rules. Most of the hard-core locals don’t like having their pictures taken, but he’d give me a look when their heads were turned, so I could get the shots I wanted.

Of course, you know where we wound up …

A good portion of our day was spent in the souks, which are intricate mazes of small shops located all over Marrakech. I don’t enjoy shopping, so I was bored to tears, but I did find some of the presentations (and that’s what they were) insightful. My wife enjoyed the experience thoroughly. I do think that these were Mustapha’s favorite spots — that’s just the cynic in me. But, since there was a trusted relationship, you didn’t feel worried using a credit card or having goods sent to your hotel (or shipped home) later. Morocco’s is a selling culture. You just have to accept that when you step inside the city’s walls. The trick is to find any advantage you can. In this regard, having a guide helps. A lot.

When I let Mustapha know that I was finished shopping, he brought us by Jemaa el Fna for some photo opportunities and then promptly back to Hivernage. The time had come to pay the piper, and like every interaction, it was a negotiation. I asked how much, and he replied that I should pay whatever I liked. Eh, I kicked the rate quoted by the hotel up 20 percent. He earned it.

LA Times on Bahia

One of the best trips I’ve ever taken was a long, long trek up the coast of South America. I went so far, actually, that I ended up back in Los Angeles having made the entire trip over land and sea. But one of the absolute highlights of that trip was when I found myself in the Brazilian town of Bahia. Bahia provides a mesmerizing mix of Afro-Brazilian, indigenous and Portuguese culture that comes alive in the music food and architecture of the place. I was there during the annual Carnival celebration, about as riotous (in the good way), libidinous and extravagant an event as there is on the planet. And as and you can tell from a piece I wrote about the experience, it was once in a lifetime.

There is so much I could say about Bahia, but I’d fill up many pages doing so. So go over to the Los Angeles Times and check out the piece that writer Janet Eastman did on the town. It captures marvelously the sights, smells and sounds of the city.