Beyond the tunnel
Going to or coming from the airport, you can pick out the church, Igreja da Penha, sitting atop a very small mountain. And you can see it from a lot of other places…
Strangely enough, the word penha, or mountain (related to penhasco, crag)– came into Portuguese from Hebrew. The small church dates to the 17th century, though you’d hardly know it now. Still, it’s very pretty, with astounding views.
It’s confusingly named for a version of Mary called Nossa Senhora da Penha (Our Lady of Peñafrancia), glimpsed in 1434by a French monk on a rock called Penha da França, in northern Spain .
People walk up the steps to Rio’s Penha church as penance– though there’s a cable car, if you prefer.
Those who ask for favors from Nossa Senhora da Penha make sure to recognize her good works. At the bottom of these steps there’s a souvenir shop where you can buy wax body parts and leave them in a museum room upstairs, as a thank-you. The room also features cases of wedding gowns, photos, chopped-off pony tails, curls and braids, military medals and uniforms…
The area surrounding the church was also once home to a quilombo, a community of escaped slaves. Thus the museum has some slavery equipment.
The church and the neighborhood of Penha have suffered neglect in recent years. But as weapons use has diminished in the nearby favelas of Complexo do Alemão and Vila Cruzeiro, it’s become easier to live in and visit the area.
Industry in Penha such as the Cortume Carioca, a tannery once owned by the father of Brazil’s famous landscape architect, Roberto Burle Marx, drew Portuguese and German immigrants. Like many Rio de Janeiro factories, the tannery went out of business in the 1990s.
The Festa da Penha takes place in October and November, with food booths and dancing in the areas leading up to the church. The first samba, Pelo Telefone, composed in 1917, is said to have premiered at the Penha party.
Partygoers and pilgrims aren’t the only ones who go to Penha…
October is the month of Brazil’s patron saint, Nossa Senhora de Aparecida, who also favors motorcyclists. Last Sunday, these Harley enthusiasts were revving their engines and receiving a blessing before heading off to the sanctuary in Aparecida do Norte, in the state of São Paulo.
The Transcarioca dedicated bus corridor will run through Penha.