LIAM MACKEY: The big man and the mountain

The Christ the Redeemer statue on Corcovado Hill with, in the background, Rio de Janeiro's Maracana stadium which will host the World Cup final on July 12. Picture: Getty Images

Top o’ the world, ma! And top of the World Cup too. Yes, I finally did it.

At the second attempt, your humble correspondent successfully summitted Corcovado to stand at the feet of Christo Redentor, using only my will-power, ingenuity, a bottle of water, some sunscreen and — what was the other thing? — oh yes, a train.

Bear Grylls eat your heart out — and, you know, it’s surely only a matter of time before he does.

Completed in 1931, the iconic Christ The Redeemer statue — all 98 feet and 1,145 tons of it — has been proclaimed one of the new seven wonders of the world, and to visit the city of Rio de Janeiro and not make the effort to ascend the 2,300 feet of Corcovado (meaning ‘hunchback’) is considered, even by the locals — indeed, especially by the locals — bad form bordering on the perverse.

My first attempt, however, began in hubris and ended, inevitably, in abject failure. One afternoon last week, blithely ignoring all the warnings about pre-booking, I dandered the mile up the road from my lodgings in Laranjeiras to Cosmo Velhe, the neighbouring hamlet from where the funicular departs on its 20-minute journey up the mountain.

Conceive then of how I scoffed at the doom-mongerers when, around about 3pm, I arrived at the tiny station to find no queue and a sign announcing that the little red train was now ready to depart. At the counter I asked for one ticket, please, and the lady smiled and said fine, no problem at all, that’ll be R$50 (about €16), thanks very much — oh, and the next available seat is for the train departing at 6.50pm.

Which news rather softened my cough while raising one very obvious problem. Though the mainly sunny skies and always toasty temperature in Rio try to convince you otherwise, the fact is that we are actually slap bang in the depths of the Brazilian winter right now, meaning darkness falls, not like Arjen Robben, but with the minimum of fuss like a stone, at around 6pm — an inconvenience which even I could deduce would rather spoil the celebrated view from the top of the mountain.

The advice of the woman at the station was that, if I wanted to avoid online booking or, worse, the lengthy queues which can always be seen at the ticket kiosks in downtown squares, then I should aim for a 7am arrival to catch the very first train of the day.

Which, earlier this week, is precisely what I did, evoking the spirit of our much-missed friend Con Houlihan, a man who was always up and about early in his wanderings around the world. And as I rambled up the winding, hilly road from the apartment to Cosmo Velhe, I couldn’t help thinking of how much Con would have enjoyed the experience. Needless to say he would have described it much more poetically than I ever could.

He would have written about witnessing one small part of a great city like Rio coming to life in the pale light of dawn, when the crazy traffic had not yet reached its routine crescendo and you could still hear the birds singing in the trees. Of a man setting up his fruit stall on the pavement, the delivery boy from the bakery cycling by laden down with bread and cakes, the yawning proprietors beginning to raise their shutters and, valiantly stealing a march on the gathering heat of the new day, an elderly lady taking a gentle turn on one of the public exercise machines.

Here was a little glimpse into the everyday, unchanging lives of a handful of cariocas but, upon arrival at the train station itself, I was immediately plunged right back into Planet World Cup.

In truth, our modest train might as well have been a football special, league of nations-style, the two carriages awash with the colours and languages and accents of Colombia, the USA, Japan, Nigeria and a host of other Copa do Mundo competitors. On the morning that was in it, a few of the passengers were on the dawn run out of a different necessity to mine: the Nigerian man had a plane to catch later that day to Brasilia where, sadly for him, his team would be eliminated by France; the Americans were bound for Salvador and what would prove to be a truly epic match against Belgium that would leave them emotionally drained but proudly defiant in defeat.

Two guys from Japan were going nowhere but home, their team having finished bottom of their qualifying group with a solitary point, and they were now growing increasingly anxious at a short but unexplained delay in getting our journey under way — understandably so, since they had a flight to Tokyo to catch that evening.

In common with so many of their compatriots on the international tourist trail, they were heavily laden down with expensive camera equipment, most palpably ignoring the commonsense advice for visitors to Rio about the wisdom of making yourself look as untouristy as possible.

Under the circumstances, I thought it charitable not to further burden them with the details of a conversation I’d had with an English-speaking taxi driver down at Copacabana earlier in the week. He hadn’t, he’d said at first, witnessed any serious violence during the World Cup. But then he remembered something.

In fact, yes, there had been one incident: close to Santos Dumont airport. As he raced by in his cab, he’d caught a glimpse of two Asian tourists being held up by a couple of muggers who either had guns concealed under their jackets or were doing a very convincing job of making it look like they had. And this at around five in the afternoon.

Happily, there were no such worries to darken the mood of our merry band as the train chugged up the lushly forested slope of Corcovado, an occasional opening in the trees offering tantalising previews of the crowning ‘boa vista’ to come and, as light suddenly flooded the carriage, extracting involuntary ‘wows’ from everyone on board.

But the real scenic fireworks are reserved for the very top where you can walk around the base of the statue and, quite simply, have the eyes sucked out of your head by a 360 degree view of what its residents call the ‘cidade maravilhos’ — the ‘marvellous city’ — in all its glory.

And, in our case, in all its morning glory, which meant that as well as dizzying views away to the great hump of the Sugarloaf mountain and the beaches of Copacabana and Ipanema, not to mention, down below us, the Maracana itself, we were treated to the added magical effect of the ascending sun breaching a bank of low cloud to turn the water in the bay into shimmering gold.

Like my own native Dublin — and I had to chuckle at the almost impertinence of the thought — Rio is a city blessed by its location between the mountains and the sea.

But there the similarities end and, well, the superlatives begin.

I simply cannot imagine that there can be a more stunning city view anywhere else in the world than the one which unfolds beneath the feet of the swooning visitor to the summit of Corcovado.

And as I turned away from the fans — posing with national flags and arms outstretched in imitation of Christo Redentor towering above them — and took in the sensational panorama one last time before heading back down, I thought of ‘Conao’ — ‘Big Con’, as they’d have it in Portuguese — and wished once again for his company.

And even more for his gift with words.

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