MANAUS, Brazil —It's that special time in the late afternoon when the light turns golden and life seems to move at the pace of a bygone era in the square that anchors this Amazon city's opera house.
Children clamor to catch soap bubbles sent aloft by a vendor, tourists pedal by the African House on three-wheeled bikes as patrons sample juice made from the fruits of the rain forest, and the stand in the corner of the plaza turns out bowl after bowl of steaming tacaca soup.
Entering the pink opera house with its neo-classical and Greco-Roman flourishes is like stepping back into the 19th century when the rubber industry made Manaus Brazil's golden city the richest in the entire country.
It was a time when the "aroma of rubber perfumed the air," when women sent their gowns out to be laundered in Portugal, the best opera companies in the world visited and rubber barons lit their cigars with currency, says Roberio Braga, secretary of culture for Amazonas, the largest state in Brazil but one of the most sparsely populated.
But like a candle in the wind, Manaus burned so brightly only briefly, from 1879 to 1912. Then the rubber industry sputtered out, after rubber tree seeds were smuggled out of Brazil and planted by the English in Malaysia, Sri Lanka and British colonies in Africa. When England undercut Brazilian rubber in the world market, Manaus fell on hard times.
The famous opera house was shuttered for decades. "We had a very poor period. Everything was devalued," Braga said.
But the renovated opera house is once again a cultural hub, home to the Amazonas Symphony Orchestra and open for guided tours and performances, including some that are free. And Manaus is once again hoping for a star turn when it hosts four World Cup games from June 14 to June 25, with the United States playing Portugal on June 22.
"This is a special opportunity, so we must take advantage of it. This is not so much a financial windfall, but an opportunity to promote our state" and cement its reputation as a cultural and tourism center, Braga said.
There's plenty to see in Manaus starting with the Teatro Amazonas (Avenida Eduardo Ribeiro). Finished in 1896, it boasts a dome with 36,000 pieces in the colors of the Brazilian flag, the original painted stage curtain imported from Paris, and a driveway made of rubber that muffled the sounds of horses and carriages during a performance.
The Murano crystal chandeliers were imported from Italy, the pine floors noted for their acoustic properties came from Lithuania, the gilded mirrors were sent across the ocean and up the Amazon from France, and the furnishings brought in from France and Italy. And if you crane your neck toward the ceiling, the view mimics what you would see if you were looking up from under the Eiffel Tower.
The S'o Sebasti'o church, whose bells toll on the quarter hour, sits on the opposite corner from the opera house, and it's worth popping in if you're in the neighborhood.
Around the square are bars where tables are drawn out on the sidewalk and patrons take their time nursing ice-cold bottles of beer, restaurants that serve freshwater fish from the Amazon. At art galleries, cafes and souvenir shops, you'll find dolphins and monkeys carved from exotic woods, woven baskets and jewelry crafted by indigenous groups.
Familia Sulaiman, Rua 10 de Julho 603 has a good selection of handicrafts and good prices. For high-quality items, try nearby Galeria Amazonica, Rua Costa Azevedo 272.
The weather in Manaus is tropical, so after you've finished your tour of the opera house, stop by Sorvete Glacial for cones or scoops of ice cream that you buy by the weight. My favorite combo was acai made from the berries of the acai palm, maracuja (passion fruit), and cupuacu a custardy white fruit that tastes a bit like pineapple meets chocolate meets apple.
Though it sounds counter-intuitive to drink a hot soup on a steamy day, don't leave Largo de S'o Sebasti'o without stopping by Tacaca da Gisela for a spicy concoction of mandioca broth, tapioca paste, the lip-numbing jambu leaves and dried shrimp.
Mix it all together and you have tacaca, a signature dish of the Amazon. The curious melding of tang, tartness and briny shrimp is flavor heaven. It's served in the waterproofed shell of a gourd with a little wooden pick to stab the shrimp and jambu.
Walking across the black and white mosaic tiles of S'o Sebasti'o square will put you in the mood for another must-see attraction. The wave-like patterns represent the Meeting of the Waters.
Just east of Manaus, the Rio Negro joins the Rio Solim'es (the name given the Amazon River around Manaus and west to the Peruvian border) but when the two rivers meet, they don't mingle.