When the world of São Paulo is just too grey and depressing; when it has been raining for days or when the stress of the traffic has become too much, I head, in the early morning, for a very special spot. Although the site is hardly inspiring — a large expanse of concrete covered, in part, by an unfinished flyover — on Tuesday and Friday mornings, from before dawn, this patch of asphalt is a treat for the senses, an oasis of tropical colour and smells, far removed from the relentlessness of the city.

This is São Paulo’s flower market, known as Ceasa, part of the Ceagesp complex of fruit and vegetable wholesalers that make up the world’s third largest produce market after Paris and London. Starting before first light the flower growers set up shop on a grid that is marked by the concrete columns of the flyovers. The stalls are numbered but it is easier to locate them using the hand-scrawled numbers on the columns, odd to the north side and even to the south. This is essential because you can’t carry all you want to buy in one go and it is best to wander around first to make a selection and note the location.

The wandering is the delight. Although professionals arrive at dawn and are mostly long gone before I show up after 8.00 am, the place is still packed with plants and flowers of all shapes and sizes, including full-grown palm trees, and you still have a couple of hours before people start packing up.

There are fields of ground cover from heathers to impatience, ornamental bamboo trees, hanging plants, orchids, dahlias, jasmine, bougainvillea, hibiscus and many other exotics I don’t know the names for. And they are so cheap, compared to western prices, that you are tempted to redo the garden weekly. An ornamental bamboo, for example, about 2 meters high with a breathtakingly elegant curve, can cost about 60 reais (US$22.00) and enough impatience to brighten a 3 meter border will only set you back about US$18.00. On one end there is also a medley of garden accessories, from pots and planters to features such as fountains and troughs, also reasonably priced.

My strategy is to stroll, notebook in hand. When I decide to buy, I pay (you can bargain a little if you a buying in quantity) and then write down the number of the column nearest to me. I will come back and collect the plants when I am ready to leave. At that time I engage the services of one of the many carregadors with their hand-pulled wooden carts.

I think it is this fleet of wizened men, some well into their seventies, in their mustard uniforms that gives the market its sense of time-worn tradition, a feeling that is rare in a city where shops and restaurants open and close in the blink of an eye. Clearly I have to admit to a certain rosy sentimentality here. Ceasa has only been in its present location for 35 years and the hand-drawn carts are a definite reminder of São Paulo’s developing world economy.

But Ceasa would not be the same without them or their owners’ sense of the spatial possibility of plants. Somehow 10 boxes of impatience fit beside two palms, a jasmine bush, bunches of cut flowers and five earthenware pots. It costs R$10.00 to hire a carregador who then follows you around as you retrace your steps gathering up what you have paid for.

Once every thing is arranged in the back of your car you have time for a last stroll and snack. Many stalls near the two car parks that bracket the market sell Brazil’s traditional pastels, the deep-fried pockets filled with your choice of cheeses, meat, chicken or vegetables. They seem to taste especially good after walking the market aisles. And then, reluctantly, you have to head back into the real world of São Paulo life. The good thing, however, is to remember that Ceasa is always there, twice a week, a real escape inside the city.

Directions: Take the Marginal Pinheiros heading north to Avenida Dr. Gastão Vidigal, Vila Leopoldina, and enter the market through Portão (Gate) 13.

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