Rio's offbeat little museums

The city's smaller museums, galleries, and gardens show the spirit that animates Rio - and Carnaval

io de Janeiro is famous for its white sand beaches - stretching almost 80 glorious kilometers (50 miles) - and for Carnaval, the ultimate party, held the week before Ash Wednesday.

Visitors might be forgiven for thinking that this is all there is to the city, but they would be wrong. Rio is also home to a number of small, funky, themed museums.

Perhaps the smallest and narrowest in focus is the museum dedicated to the legendary, flamboyantly dressed musical star of the 1940s and '50s, Carmen Miranda.

Although she was born in Portugal in 1909, Carmen's family moved to Brazil before she was 2. Her father found work as a barber, then, in 1926, opened a small boarding house. To supplement the family income, Carmen went to work selling ties, and soon apprenticed as a hatmaker. After being discovered when she sang at a local benefit concert in 1928, she began singing regularly in local clubs.

She appeared in her first Brazilian film in 1932. In 1938, Lee Shubert, an American producer, hired her to appear in the Broadway musical "Streets of Paris." Her best-known films are "Copacabana" and "The Gang's All Here." At the height of her career, she was the highest-paid performing artist in the United States.

The museum is a tiny round hatbox, befitting an artist who barely topped five feet in her stocking feet. It features examples of her ornate platform heels and a collection of the fantastic hats and costumes for which she was famous. Clips and stills from her movies round out the displays.

Although not a museum, the São Bento Monastery and its church, finished in 1641, are also well worth a visit. The interior of the church, usually kept dark to protect the carvings inside, is a riot of bas relief figures covered in gold. With the lights on, it is a blaze of Gothic rococo.

The church is guarded by its own gruff protector, who will gladly relate its history, but has to be cajoled to turn on the lights even for a few moments. Like the gargoyles that often decorate the outsides of churches, he takes his role as protector seriously; the church is a testament to his care.

One of the more unusual of Rio's museums is the Casa do Pontal. Located 44 kilometers (27 miles) west of the city, it is home to the collection of art amassed by Frenchman Jacques Van de Beuque, who, soon after his arrival in the country in 1946, became fascinated by the folk art of Brazil .

The majority of the museum's more than 3,500 figures are ceramic or wood, and range from just a few centimeters tall to life-size. They depict every aspect of daily life: hunting, fishing, shopping, going to work, school, and church. At the touch of a button, many come to life: blinking, singing, and playing musical instruments.

Not exactly a museum, and not exactly a botanical garden, the Sitio Burle Marx is located west of the city, not far from the Casa do Pontal. Formerly the estate of the landscaper and artist Roberto Burle Marx (a distant relative of Karl), it was opened to the public after the artist's death in 1994. It features his collection of exotic plants from Brazil and around the world: more than 4,500, including trees, ferns, and bromeliads.

In addition to the gardens, Marx's house and studio, visitors can enjoy examples of his work, as well as a fine collection of pre-Colombian ceramics. Other pieces dot the grounds, and there is a tiny colonial church that is a gem in its own right.

Of course, Rio has more traditional museums than these - more than 60, including 12 dedicated to local history and 13 to science.

The Museum of Images and Sounds is devoted to Brazil's most famous musicians, from pop to classical. There is also a museum just for the composer Heitor Villa Lobos, and another to celebrate Carnaval.

But none have the character and originality exhibited by the little museums I've mentioned. They resonate with the same joy - and slight craziness - that animates Rio, and gives birth to Carnaval.

If you go to Rio

Here's how to locate the museums mentioned in the story.

• Carmen Miranda Museum Parque Aterro de Flamengo, Avenida Rui Barbosa. Phone (55 21) 551-2597.

• Museu Casa do Pontal, 3925 Estrada do Pontal, Recreio dos Bandeirantes. Phone (55 21) 490-3278.

• Sitio Burle Marx, Estrada da Barra de Guaratiba. Phone (55 21) 410-1412.

• Igreja e Mosteiro de São Bento, Rua Dom Gerardo. Phone (55 21) 91-7122.

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