Jan 1, 2004
David Rich 1500 Words with Sidebars
Once upon a time the world was young and its gold not yet discovered. In the late 1600s on an expedition through unexplored Brazil a Jesuit servant pocketed beads of a blackened metal, of course later discovered to be gold. The only clue to the bonanza's location was a phallic shaped mountain that provided the single clue to its eventual rediscovery in 1698. Zoom, the rush was on for the largest gold deposits in the western hemisphere, dwarfing the gold mines of California and Alaska. The result was stupendous wealth that built the most photogenic towns on the planet.
The unbelievable riches of Brazil's Minas Gerais State not only refurbished Lisbon but also financed the British industrial revolution. Without the discovery of this gold we might still be milking cows. As in all gold rushes it outdistanced sustenance and became famous for miners dying of starvation with pockets full of gold nuggets. To build Lisbon and finance European commercialism the Portuguese crown exacted a 20% tax, which in aggregate amounted to over 100 tons of gold. Tax evaders were thrown in dungeons or exiled to Africa and much gold was hidden in hollow statues of saints. Come with me and I'll show you a few of the half dozen mind-blowing towns in the hills of Brazil, courtesy of Midas-gold.
I landed in Sao Joao del Rei 200 miles north of Rio and it was jam-packed with fine churches and mansions stuffed with antiques, always floodlighted at night, even more colorful during the holiday season. The Rio Lenheiro cuts through town center under stone-arched bridges built in the 1700s. Sao Joao is presided over by the first-tackled project of Brazil's Michelangelo, a complete story unto himself.
Note well the name of Aleijadinho (1730-1814), more accurately Antonio Francisco Lisboa, son of a Portuguese architect and slave mother. He lost the use of his extremities at age 30, strapping hammer and chisel to his arms to attain international prominence. His best stuff is in Sao Joao del Rei and the now famous former capitol of Ouro Preto.
Aleijadinho's masterpiece is incongruously in Congonhus, now a largely industrial town. His best work, The Prophets, was carved over a five-year period when the master was old and terribly crippled on top of his original handicaps. The Brazilian poet Andrade described the superman impact of The Prophets: "...the way the statues, of human size, appear to be larger than life as they look down upon the viewer with the sky behind them...[their fluidity is] magnificent, terrible, grave and tender." Further up the steeply sloping hill behind the magnificent Prophets sit six miniature chapels with sculpted domes seeming to float on air.
Sao Joao del Rei boasts Aleijadinho's first completed church, Igrejado Sao Francisco de Assis, along with a half dozen other nearly as superb churches dotted around this town of 80,000 people. For antique train fans Sao Joao offers a scenic ride on a train built in 1880s Philadelphia, garishly painted and meticulously maintained for the 13 km journey to the equally marvelous colonial town of Tiradantes, "tooth puller" in Portuguese. It's namesake hero pulled the teeth of the Portuguese empire, becoming the impetus for Brazilian independence. The Portuguese had Tiradantes literally drawn and quartered for treason because he led the revolt against the hefty 20% gold tax. Tiradantes' head was paraded around his birthplace of Ouro Preto while his haunches and split torso were hoisted on poles as a lesson to all.
Tiradantes' namesake town is a tiny exquisite affair of 4,000, pretty beyond imagining, tranquil and naturally adorned on its highest hill by Igreja Matriz de Santo Antonio, its facade carved by Aleijadinho. From this lovely yellow Portuguese Church a long mountain of blue granite slashes the horizon and like the town below has changed little in 200 years. The only noticeable change is fresh paint on the colonial buildings. A famous antique sundial fronts the Church while old cobblestone streets stretch below in three directions, channeled by lovely buildings that look like exquisitely etched dollhouses. The shopping for crafts and artwork is Tiradantes traditional pastime as evidenced by the steady stream of Brazilian and foreign tourists thirsting after its' wares.
Thence to Ouro Preto, the jewel in the Brazilian crown of perfectly preserved colonial towns, declared by UNESCO in 1981 as the World Heritage Site it most assuredly is. All the Brazilian gold mining towns were built on precipitous hills making San Francisco look flat. The topography dramatically projects the architecturally dramatic churches and mansions framing views to expire for. Dominated to the east by the phallic shaped peak of Itacolomy Ouro Preto's great wealth attracted baroque artisans along with the finest fabrics and spices from Europe and India. By 1750 Ouro Preto hosted 110,000 residents, mostly slaves, while New York City had a population of 50,000 and Rio de Janeiro 20,000.
Ouro Preto's streets resemble writhing snakes exploring a jungle gym. I arrived late on New Year's Eve amongst throngs of celebrants and tumultuous fireworks, not able to get a bead on this town of 70,000 until New Year's dawn. At 9 am the morning fog gently wisped away to reveal the most strikingly beautiful town on the planet (Prague is excluded as a city). Ouro Preto is jam-packed with baroque churches, colorful doors and windows, soapstone sculptures, fancily carved fountains and terracotta orange roofs under blue green hills perfect for ski slopes featuring black runs only. Beware of the rain which comes daily in an hour's deluge; one missed step and you no longer exist, taking a swoop down the ultimate slippery slope.
Three miles away you can visit the reason for it all at the Minas de Passagem where a rickety cable car will drop you 1300 feet underground. You disembark amidst horizontal tunnels branching like topsy, one leading to a golden turquoise lake a mile long. On the way out you'll pass a shrine to the thousands of miners killed by the predictably errant dynamite of the 1700s.
Last stop Sabara where Aleijadinho is buried 50 yards from the place of his birth in another masterpiece, the Ingreja Matriz de NS de Conceicao. I particularly like this church of Portuguese baroque decorated in gold leaf etched with red Chinese scrolls and pagodas. Tablets on the floorboards are nailed with gold or silver nuggets to illustrate the wealth of those residing below. But the best is the ceiling mural of the 14th century patron saint of confessors, Czcheloslovak John Nepomuceno holding his severed tongue, a wound from which he died. Good King Wenceslau cut off his tongue when Saint Nepomuceno refused to tattle on the Queen's fidelity. St. Nepomuceno is a cult in the Czech Republic and was strangely popular in Minas Gerais' era of Golden Brazil, a time warp guaranteeing far greater enjoyment than that available to its original residents.
When you go: Airfare ranges from $400 to $2000 roundtrip to Rio from New York, Miami or Los Angeles, depending on season and how good a discount ticket you can find. High season is December and January plus mid-June to mid-August. Fares for members of the Brazil American Cultural Center can dip below $400 roundtrip from NYC to Rio. See www.idainc.org/bacc. These fare are so changeable you must do your own research, a piece of cake on-line. Plug 'cheap South American airfares' into your favorite search engine and spend the rest of the afternoon browsing.
Hotels: Brazil's old gold mining towns are a dream world of spacious pousadas in elegant mansions jammed with antiques along with a TV and refrigerator, usually including a sumptuous Brazilian smorgasbord breakfast: three juices, five fruits, three cakes, ham and cheese, café and much more. Prices run from $20 to $40 for a double. Over $40 will rate five stars.
Sao Joao del Rei: I heartily recommend the Pousado Casarao (3371-7447, fax 3371-1224, Rua Ribeira Bastos 94), a perfectly preserved mansion with fabulous antiques, views, turbo fans, wonderful staff, great breakfast and a swimming pool, $25. A slightly more expensive place is the immaculate and new Pousado do Bispo (3371-8844, firstname.lastname@example.org, Beco do Bispo 93) with nice A/C rooms and pool. The modern four-star Hotel Ponte Real (3371-7000, Avenida Eduardo Magalhaes 254) is $40 to $50.
Tiradantes: More expensive overall but offers six pousados ranging from $20 to $95 and is home to on of Brazil's best hotels for $140, the Hotel Solar da Ponte (3355-1255, fax 3355-1201, Praca Merces).
Ouro Preto: The very best deal is Pousado Sao Francisco (3551-3456, Rua Padre Jose Marcos Penna 202) with exceptional views and ultra-nice staff, apts $20-30 including breakfast. But then most Ouro Preto pousados and hotels have incredible views. My favorite is Pouso do Chico Rei (3551-1274, Rua Brigadiero Mosquiera 90) with nice doubles and lots of antiques, $45. The Solar NS do Rosario Hotel (3551-5200, fax 3551-4288, email@example.com, Rua Getulio Vargas 270) is five-stars and offers its own gold mine, $120.
Restaurants: The only consideration is price because the food is uniformly superb. Prices range from $2 for lunch to as much as you want to spend for dinner, up to $20. But avoid the abominable Brazilian wines.