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Rio grows old gracefully

Rio grows old gracefully
RIO de Janeiro,  a world of glamour and excitement. A playground for the rich and stunningly beautiful. Where bronzed bodies toast under endless sun and nights erupt in riotous samba sessions.
So I dare you to ask me what it was like. It rained endlessly. A chill wind ruffled Copacabana beach. Perhaps I just wasn't rich or beautiful enough, because even the enigmatic statue of Christ looming over the city took one disdainful look and hid behind a misty shroud for most of my holiday.
But a city with grime, congestion and noise suits me better than any holiday brochure veneer, so it was a thrill to discover that Rio has real character beneath its painted face.
The city is built around a series of hills, with the wealthy clustered in the valleys while the shanty towns have been driven back to cling precariously to the foothills.
But the first thing you notice about Rio is the fabulous public transport system. I arrived after a three-hour bus trip from the coastal town of Buzios, over glorious mountain ranges with lush vegetation hinting at the power of the mighty Amazon.
At Rio's bus station an abundance of vehicles vie to take you on anything from a 20-minute flip downtown to a bum-numbing 52hour marathon to Belm, on the northern coast. Armed with a map and a Portuguese phrase book, I jumped on an air-conditioned coach and was deposited 45 minutes later just one street away from my hotel in Ipanema.
The buses will take you from anywhere to everywhere for 70c, with the drivers weaving recklessly across the roads like kings of the tarmac.
One of our adventures took us to a funfair well off the beaten track. Yet being flung upside down and defying gravity from every angle was put into perspective by the white-knuckle bus ride home. Darkness had descended as our bus made a tortuous journey high into the mountains, then plummeted down around hairpin bends.
All the major attractions involve hills of some sort, and even in the rain Rio has plenty to offer. And no-one raises an eyebrow if your skimpy beach clothes are mismatched with a pair of sturdy walking shoes.
Sugar Loaf Mountain caught us out completely. Visitors take a cable car to the first peak of 215m, then another up to Sugar Loaf itself, whose 394m peak juts out proudly above the ocean.
Mist that had been threatening all morning finally descended, and our cable car entered grey cloud as we approached the summit. I was finally standing on one of the most famous landmarks in the world, and I couldn't see five feet in front of me.
We saved Christ for a sunnier day, and caught the clanking cog train up Corcovado. The views are simply stunning, with Rio laid out like a bathing beauty waiting for wolf-whistles.
To one side are mountains marching their way across this enormous country. From another angle are Ipanema and Copacabana, then a port and yet more beaches. Hills erupt everywhere between clusters of suburbs, and the whole picture is a spectacular contrast of vivid green, sparkling blue and twinkling rooftops.
For a closer look at the countryside, we took a bus through to Petropolis, a glorious old town high in the hills. We went more for the scenic journey than the destination, but the town proved equally rewarding.
Thousands of people clogged the streets, shopping, eating and generally chilling out. As we wove among them we heard buskers playing Brazilian music, wearing black fedoras and gaudy ponchos. 
Food is another pleasure as local restaurants tempt with enormous buffets and as much meat as you can eat. But I preferred to graze on salgados, a generic term for savoury pastries with a variety of shapes and stuffings.
Besides, my hotel's eclectic breakfast filled me for the day, with fruits, eggs and ham, coconut-flavoured semolina and chocolate cake all on the same plate
The juice bars are also a delight, offering Amazonian fruits so obscure that some don't have a Portuguese name, let alone an English translation. One purple concoction, aai, was so thick that it literally stood taller than the glass.
Come nightfall, people head for Copacabana to play volleyball on floodlit beaches, drink a pint or two of chopp, and browse around the fleamarket. It's all rather genteel, given Rio's image of frenetic non-stop action.
After decades in the limelight, Rio is growing old gracefully.