Just a hop, skip and a jump away from Rio de Janeiro is the seaside town of Paraty. This little place is famous for its historic centre – a few streets of well-kept colonial buildings lining cobbled streets, upon which hallowed ground only the footfall of pedestrians and the click-clack of horses and carts is permitted.
When you step over the heavy chains marking the boundaries of the centre, it’s like entering another world. Under a dusky evening sky, white-and-blue bunting flutters merrily between the rows of low, whitewashed buildings, their brightly-coloured shutters and doors illuminated by the decorative lamps on the walls. Although the shops in the rest of the town are shut, here, where the tourists come, they are still open, invitingly lit with beautiful souvenirs, clothes and gourmet food. You won’t find any of the usual seaside tourist tat here; only quality creations, like the charming hot-air balloon decorations which adorn the ceilings of so many of the shops. Restaurants and cafes are full of couples enjoying a romantic dinner, intellectuals scribbling intently, artists gazing dreamily and tourists emailing on their iphones.
Despite the buzz of life all around and the small size of the place, most of the streets are relatively quiet, and it is very easy to find yourself wandering down one in complete solitude. As night falls, the cobbles, worn smooth and shiny, catch the pale yellow light of the street lamp. From the window of a cafe, a stereo is playing an old Bossa Nova song. The evening air is still warm on your skin. It feels like a scene from a golden-age film, one with Cary Grant or Fred Astaire.
You slip unsteadily over the uneven cobbles – perhaps that glass or two of wine isn’t helping either – and the Bossa Nova music slowly drifts away, like a whisp of smoke into the night. Past the church, the sea appears, lapping lazily at the shore, monochrome under the milky light of an almost-full-moon. You walk thrugh the enchanted forest of impossibly green trees, cleverly coloured by discreet lights. Rusting, moss-covered canons still valiantly guard the coastline and small wooden boats bob gently up and down on the water, tethered to the land with thick rope. You breathe in the sea air, that distinctive, marine taste, salty on your tongue, which evokes the merest flits and flickers of endless childhood memories.
A glint and a splash somewhere out across the sea attracts your attention, but the moment you look, all is calm again. Then the whole ocean begins to twinkle and tremble in a rhythmic pattern. You rub your eyes and start to wonder how many glasses of that Malbec you actually drank, before a small motorboat appears, shining a beam of light across the water and chugging towards the shore, the engine casting out its vibrations like a huge net. The boat docks, the engine stops and the sea is calm once again.
You turn and walk back into the little network of cobblestones and lights, back to the warmth and conviviality of the restaurants and shops and you wonder: has a spell been cast over this town? Have I stumbled into a bewitched place? At that moment, you hear the clip-clop of a horse’s hooves and a dark stallion appears, pulling an old-fashioned cart. As it passes you, the driver peers out from under the canopy, gives you a knowing smile and doffs his hat. Wait, did he really doff his hat? You look around, but the horse, cart and driver have all vanished into the night. You hurry around the corner, but the street is perfectly empty and you are alone, under a pale yellow light, with the last notes of an old Bossa Nova song still hanging in the air.