Built on three rivers that are crossed by as many as 123 bridges, Recife (pronounced Re-SEE-fee) is known as the Venice of Brazil. Populated by about 1.5 million people, this beautiful city on the eastern bulge of South America's largest country was named for the arrecifes, or reefs, that follow its coastline. A growing metropolis with sparkling beaches, a historic center of old ornate churches and the picturesque sister city of Olinda, Recife is a little-known treasure.

Planning to visit five sights in Brazil last March, my husband, Daryl, and I could learn everything we wanted to know about São Paulo, Rio de Janeiro, Iguacu Falls and the Amazon. But information about the country's fourth largest city was slim. Even Fodor's Web site did not include Recife in its listing of Brazilian destinations. We were making the trip because my husband wanted to revisit the city where he had lived several decades ago.

Other reasons to visit, however, include seeing evidence of the rich history of Portuguese and Dutch colonization of Brazil's first capital, and touring the nearby, former mining town of Olinda. Travelers also will enjoy visiting the beautiful, palm-lined beaches, although Americans who are unaccustomed to skimpy beachwear should be forewarned that Brazil is on the cutting edge in that regard. The baroque churches and palaces and open-air markets also captivate visitors.

We also stopped by the new temple of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

Arrival

We landed in Recife near midnight. Picking up our bags in just five minutes, we joined the man holding a sign bearing our name. We had pre-arranged for someone to meet us.

Having learned Portuguese in the 1960s, my husband communicated quite well. However, speaking Portuguese isn't necessary for visitors. Fluent Spanish will also get travelers by, and many native Brazilians speak some English. Students and others enjoy talking with Americans to practice their English.

We stayed at the International Hotel — only five minutes from the airport. The bright sun, rising over the Atlantic and sending shafts of light through our floor-to-ceiling window, woke us at 6:30.

A complimentary breakfast was served poolside. We were already familiar with the typical Brazilian breakfast and enjoyed numerous uncommon (at least to us) fruits and freshly squeezed juices, including a pale green vitamina, or milkshake of avocado whipped with milk. Also available each morning were the makings for a breakfast baru, a sandwich made with small hard rolls, ham and cheese.

As promised, our resident guide Paulo met us in the lobby at 8:30 for a private tour by van of Recife, so we could get our bearings before setting out on our own later. A guide for more than 20 years, Paulo spoke English very well, which was fortunate because my husband was still a bit challenged in translating the language he had been so at home with decades earlier.

Sightseeing

The main thoroughfare, Avenida Boa Viagem, is lined with elegant apartment buildings, hotels, restaurants, and, on the ocean side, a wide sidewalk. The waters of five-mile-long Boa Viagem beach, the Copacabana of Recife, come almost to the sidewalk when the tide is in. In this wealthy section, a "sculpture law" requires that owners and builders hire local craftsmen to create works of art to keep them employed. So the tiny courtyards of the buildings feature sculptures poking above the surrounding garden walls.

A mixture of high-rises, colonial churches and markets, Recife's city center is divided by rivers, canals and bridges into three areas. The oldest bridge was built in 1537. Paulo took us across the Bacia do Pina (Basin's Rim) Bridge to Republic Square in the old city, where 19th century baroque buildings surround a bricklined plaza adjacent to the city port. We saw an almost storybook sight of a restored shopping district of two- three- and four-story buildings, whose pastel façades were reflected in the river, Rio Capibaribe.

We visited the Casa da Cultura, once a prison built in 1855 and now a gift shop featuring native wares. The small former cells with white-washed walls and thick iron doors are individual shops, where craftspeople sell lace, brightly painted clay figures, carved wooden boats, and leather and woven straw items.

Olinda, a small city to the north built on a small hill, boasts beautiful views of the ocean and the Recife port. It is also filled with colonial-era churches. Paulo told us that the Portuguese built churches of stones taken from the coastline reefs, cemented with a mixture of whale oil and molasses.

Misericordia Church, built in 1540, features a terra cotta tile floor, movable wooden benches and a wall of blue tiles that tell the story of the Portuguese discovery of Brazil. The ornate gilded interior includes tables covered with purple cloths with deep white lace and white clothes with heavy purple fringe. The ceiling is a mass of lavish biblical paintings, and mosaic tiles cover the floor.

In Olinda we shot a photo of an aging, seemingly abandoned church, which sits atop a grassy knoll and whose crumbling façade somehow appealed to us. Paulo was unsure what the church was. Looking at photographs in my husband's old album some weeks after returning home, we were surprised to find a black and white shot of the same church — a Catholic seminary — he had taken 30-some years ago.

Feeling a bit more at home following the tour, we were keen to venture out on our own, with much to do within walking distance of our hotel.

The beach

We headed for Recife's beach, its biggest tourist attraction. We went there morning, afternoon or evening every day of our stay. Many families were on the crowded beach, which was peppered with red and white sun umbrellas.

Young men played lively games of soccer-style volleyball. They cooled off at the cabana with chilled coconut milk. The bartender hacked a hole through the top green skin and brown shell and stuck a long thin straw in it. Freshly picked, the coconuts are heavy and the milk sweet and good. Children would rescue the discarded shells and heave them against the concrete wall trying to break them open to get at the white meat and scrape away the coconut with a piece of the brown shell.

Vendors roamed the beach selling swimsuit coverups, towels, sun lotions, hats and all kinds of food and drinks.

Some cars sport a 3-inch-square yellow decal with a red T in the rear side window, designating the car as a trade vehicle or vendor. The owner opens his or her hatchback, pulls out a striped awning to cover the bumper, sets in place a stainless steel rack with bins and a shelf and turns the car into a snack shop.

Shopping

Several blocks from our hotel was the largest mall in Brazil, Recife Centro, with ground and underground levels spread in four directions. Anchoring one end of the mall, a hyper-market sold towels, toiletries, tires and maid's uniforms. A young man on inline skates and wearing a safety helmet zipped around cleaning floors with a long-handled broom and dustpan.

Sipping on Brazil's tangy popular soda, Guarana, made from the guarana berries grown in the Amazon, we enjoyed people watching here almost as much as along the beach. Many young women wore bare or revealing clothing, not so much for exhibitionism, we decided, but for style and variety of dress.

Medical help

Our tour guide told us that Recife is second only to the city of São Paulo for its number of hospitals and exceptional medical care. We were to learn firsthand the validity of his information. Waking up Saturday morning with swollen, red eyes — an allergic reaction caused by an unfamiliar sunscreen — I knew we should seek medical attention before leaving early Monday for the Amazon, where little help would be available. At the recommendation of the concierge, Daryl summoned a physician, on contract to the hotel, who offered to come to us.

Unlike many Brazilians, who have little sense of time, the young Omar Sharif-life doctor arrived in less than 30 minutes. Sitting down by the bed, he introduced himself as Cesar and we shook hands. He was courteous, soft-spoken and slow speaking, whether in Portuguese or English, which he spoke well because he had completed an internship in Texas. He took out a small flashlight and spent a minute or two examining my eyes, then recommended a medication and produced samples from his black bag. He wrote a prescription for an ointment to give me some topical relief and called a pharmacy to have it delivered. The drugstore driver arrived in 15 minutes, charging a minimal amount for the product and delivery.

The LDS temple

Eager to see the new temple, and with my eyes nearly back to normal, we got a taxi at the hotel Sunday morning and told the driver: Rua Dr. Jose de Goes #262, Parna Mirim. "Do you know this place?" we wanted to know. Nova? Asked the driver. Yes. Grande? Yes. Bonita? Yes. (Even I understood these Portuguese words.) The driver said he knew the place. The drive north through quiet business and residential streets took about 20 minutes and cost 15 Brazilian reais, or about $8.

The temple grounds are surrounded by black wrought iron through which we could see the progress on the gleaming white structure, topped by the gold angel that had been placed just two days before. Originally scheduled for dedication that weekend, the temple was still surrounded by scaffolding and building supplies littered the site. The dedication occurred in December.

Being Sunday, only security personnel were on site. But a number of neighbor men sat on a concrete garden wall across the street gazing at the structure and its spacious grounds set in the midst of high rises and highways. Striking up a conversation, two of them offered to show us the way to the nearest LDS chapel.

March is reportedly a good time to visit Brazil because temperatures start to cool. Despite the autumn weather, temperatures were hot and seemed more so with the humidity. Most shops, hotels, restaurants and cars are air-conditioned, but many churches are not.

Walking with the two Brazilians half a mile to church in our dress clothes in the heat and humidity was draining. And entering the church provided little respite. Doors and windows were thrown open and ceiling fans ran at top speed.

The people at the church and throughout the metropolis were as warm as their weather and eager to visit with Americanos who had come so far to see their city. Though having been cautioned about possible troublesome situations, we felt completely safe and witnessed nothing unsavory. Such was our experience throughout Brazil, though we were circumspect in our travels.

Our few days in Recife gave us a wonderful taste of the character and beauty of this still somewhat undiscovered city, a microcosm for huge, growing, changing Brazil.


Ann Taylor Hobson lives in Salt Lake City.