The (Little) King
Mauro, my guide, points me to the first bench of the old cable operated trolley and goes on to sit behind me, on the last bench, releases the brake and with a slight bump we begin the steep descent towards the gaping mouth that is the Mina da Passagem mine entrance. I look through the open floor to the rusted narrow gauge track on which we bump and lurch, not maintained according to the UIC technical leaflets¹, that’s for sure. Then we are swallowed and at the end of the 800 metre esophagus we come to a stop 315 metres underground in, well, with the high ceiling it does look a bit like a stomach. We are in the Mina da Passagem gold mine, halfway between Ouro Petro and Mariana, which was opened in 1719 and remained in operation until around 1960, latterly run by a British mining company, Mauro tells me, as he shows me around some of the underground passages and naming the various rock layers that we come across.
Where does ‘ouro preto’, black gold, come from?” I ask him. Bandeirantes who ventured in the area at the end of the 17th century, came across intriguing black stones in a nearby river and took some of them away with them. Then it turned out that if you rubbed the stones long enough, the black layer would eventually come off and reveal the gold nugget underneath. “It is a carbon layer that covers the gold found in streams and rivers in these parts”, he explains. Which begs another question: “How about ‘ouro branco’, white gold, where does that come from (I passed through a town with that name on my way up here). “In that case it is a layer of silica covering the gold” and he goes on to tell me that some 36 tonnes of gold were mined here and points out that you have to crush one tonne of rock to extract 4 grammes of gold. That is only the official number, he adds, explaining that attempts to smuggle gold flakes on your body or gold dust in your hair, though heavily punished, were nonetheless often tried.
Back in Ouro Preto his story is borne out by the curious case of Chico Rei (Little King), an African Chief who was captured in the Congo together with his tribe, all of whom ended up as slaves in the Ouro Preto gold mines. He became a foreman and by smuggling flakes of gold and dust out, he first was able to free his son, then himself and the others of his tribe and finally even to buy the Encandideira mine. With the proceeds of the mine he set up a royal court with himself as king, his son as prince, recreating life and customs as they would have been in the Congo and effectively becoming a state within the Minas Gerais state, even providing the funds for the black Igreja Santa Efigenia church which, as I can confirm, is built on the top of a very steep slope on the outskirts of Ouro Preto.
As the story of Chica da Silva in Diamantina, the story of Chico Rei has entered Brazilian folklore as an example of how, with imagination and perseverance, you can overcome injustice and hardship.
The (Little) Cripple
“I had trouble finding you”, I tell the big-bellied guy at the reception desk. He is the owner of pousada Solar de Maria in Ouro Petro where I have just arrived. He looks at me incomprehensively. ‘Yes”, I continue. “On the Booking.com page of your hotel it says”, and I start up my tablet to show him: “Set in a 19th-century restored country mansion, the beautiful Solar de Maria is nestled in Ouro Petro’s scenic countryside. It offers guided nature trails and hiking and an outdoor pool”. He is reading along with me on the screen. “You do have a pool, but for the rest...”, and I make a sweeping gesture to the buildings surrounding the hotel, “...you are in the middle of the town”. Quickly talking to his assistant in Portuguese, they start up the Portuguese version of the page. It does not mention the ‘scenic countryside’, but it does mention the ‘guided nature trails and hiking’. It is some compensation at least, for my worry that I had come to the wrong place, to see how puzzled the owner himself is about the apparent mix-up and his thanks for pointing it out.
Hoping for a nice pousada, I had been mentally prepared to drive a few kilometres into town every day, as I had done from a lovely countryside pousada in Tiradentes, but this is much better, now I have a nice pousada and all of Ouro Petro’s colonial treasures at walking distance, and as soon as I am installed in my room I am on my way for a first foray.
It is just a 200-metre walk to the Igreja Nossa Senhora do Rosario. There is harmony in the proportions and a rhythm to the three rounded bodies, the vestibule, the nave and the altar/sacristy, that make up the church, as they stand out against the late afternoon sky, topped with two round bell towers, and to the facade, patterned with white body-surfaces and an ochre and natural-stone colour trimming. Quite a start, and the O Passo restaurant the pousada owner has advised also turns out well, not only for the food, but also for the view from the terrace on the Horto and Casa dos Contos.
“Last night the owner and I talked about me moving rooms”, I am on my way to breakfast downstairs as I walk past the reception desk where the assistant is sitting. He seems to know about it because he rummages under his desk for a key, and then leads the way along a short corridor. ‘This is much better’, I think, surveying the room, ’twice the size, a much bigger bed, a secretaire for me to work on, a decent-sized flat screen TV and a nice view over the pool and the old city beyond’. “OK, I’ll take this one”, I tell the assistant and I decide to bring my stuff over first, before I go and have breakfast.
When I had arrived back the night before, it had turned out that my WiFi did not work and trying to fix it with the owner, we discovered that I was in the only room where the back-up ethernet connection was missing. That’s when we agreed I would move to the room next door the following morning.
“Come in”, I say, looking up from my secretaire where I am working on my laptop (later the night before, I had thought of resetting my laptop to a date before the day an IT technician in Brasilia had changed some settings to solve a problem I had then. It had worked: my WiFi had come back on). It is the owner who opens the door carrying a tall slender mirror. “Are you here?” Apparently surprised to see me sitting at the desk, he puts down the mirror and walks back through the short corridor to the lobby. From the pitch of his voice when he queries the assistant, I gather he had not meant for me to change to this room. “I am OK with this room”, I tell him when he gets back and picks up the mirror again. “I can imagine”, he says dryly,” would you mind if I install this mirror?”. “By all means, go ahead”, I have to placate him a little bit, lest he want me to move to the room we had looked at the night before. I stand next to him when he inspects the result of his work a little bit later. “What do you think”, he asks me, “Is it OK like this?” I look at him and while contouring the outline of his big belly with my hand, I say, “For me it is, but for you..., I don’t think so”. He is still laughing when he closes the door behind him and I am back at my desk. My room-upgrade is safe.
It is a steep climb along Rua Direita later that day, up to the Praça de Tiradentes, the heart of the town. The layout of the square, with the former Governor’s Palace and the former State Parliament anchoring it on the opposite short sides, and the façades of the houses along the longer sides connecting them, the fountain in the centre, that layout works well. Clearing away the parked cars would make it even be better. And then, opposite Rua Direita, I walk down again along the Rua Antonio Pereira and at the end I turn the corner towards the Largo de Coimbra...
‘...l’église São Francisco de Assis se distingue par son style particulier. Le sculpteur qui la construisit, l’Aleijadinho, savait prendre de la distance et d'encadrer ses oevres. On notera un bel équilibre entre les masses blanches, surlignées d’ochre jaune, et les sculptures de pierres à savon de la façade...’.
In the French of the Petit Futé, it already sounds elegant and beautiful, as elegant and beautiful as Aleijadinho’s Igreja São Francisco de Assis looks from that corner on the Largo de Coimbra...
And it begs the question, who is this Aleijadinho, who is this ‘Little Cripple’, because that is what the nickname of Antonio Francisco Lisbao means. A little cripple, and yet he was the man who, virtually in isolation, created such masterpieces of baroque architecture and art, that he is considered to be on a par with the greatest names of European baroque.
Born 1730 or 1738 in then Vila Rica to a Portuguese carpenter, Manuel Francisco da Costa Lisboa, and his black slave, Isabel, and he grew up in a family with half-brothers and sisters when his father married. Manuel developed to become an architect and Aleijadinho learned the trade from him. Studying examples from European baroque and rococo from pictures, he developed his own style when he became an architect and sculptor in his own right. Somewhere in the 1770s he began to suffer from a debilitating disease, syphilis or leprosy, and started losing his fingers, toes and the use of his legs. Shunning public appearances, he was carried around in a palanquin and worked at night, having been hoisted onto the scaffolding and with chisels and hammers strapped to his hands. Between 1800 and 1805, towards the end of his life (he died in 1814), he created one of his ultimate masterpieces: the Basilica do Senhor Bom Jesus de Matasinhos in Congonhas. On the plateau and balustrades in front of the church, he sculpted and delicately arranged twelve expressive statues of the prophets. He placed six chapels displaying stations of the cross in front of the balustrade and along the gentle slope of a hillside offering a view over the town of Congonhas below².
“Can you maybe explain it to me?” I ask the guy collecting the R$8 (€ 3.20) entry fee in the vestibule of the São Francisco church, while I point at the Museum Circuit folder I have in my hand hoping that something familiar will help him to understand what I mean. “I was at the N.S. da Conceiçao church (the one Aleijadinho’s father Manuel built and where Aleijadinho himself is buried; and a bloody steep climb from where I am now), but it was closed”. (Actually it was the first day it was closed for restoration, the paper stuck on the door said). “Fechado”, he says, ‘closed’. “Yes, I know, but where can I find the Aleijadinho museum that is normally housed in there?” (no need to ask about his grave, I guess). It turns out that some of it is now in a room in the back of the church we are standing in and that I had already visited yesterday. “And the Nossa Senhora das Mercês church?” I ask, another part of the Aleijadinho collection is in that church my folder says. “Fechado”. Ah, ‘closed’ too, that I did not know, and probably saves me another steep climb. A pity still, and I decide to take another look at the art in the back room, with different eyes this time (but still with the same photography ban in force, unfortunately) and the guy kindly lets me in on the strength of my ticket of the day before.
“If I stay for a few nights longer, would you charge the same rates as Booking.com, or should I book via the website?” I ask my favourite pousada-owner that night. “It is the same rate”, he confirms. So, a good deal for both of us, I think: he avoids paying their commission and I skirt paying more for my upgraded accommodation.
But the real point is, Ouro Preto is a very beautiful town and there is still a lot more I want to see: the Museu da Inconfidência, about the failed uprising in 1789 in the former State Parliament; the Escola de Minas, also a museum of the region’s mineralogy in the former Governor’s palace; the Casa dos Contos and more. And outside of town there is Mariana, 14 kilometres away, and Lavras Novas, some 20 kilometres in the other direction. (However I plan to save the pictures from those visits for another entry, together with the ones from Aleijadinho’s Twelve Prophets masterpiece in Congonhas.)
“What you must go and see are the gardens in Brumadinho”, he urges me, when I tell him I will move on after six nights in Ouro Preto, and he drags me along to his computer downstairs to show me the ‘Centro de Arte Contemperânea Inhotim’. ”It is set in beautiful gardens, I like it very much, you really should go there”. “I’ll think about it”, I promise, but more not to disappoint his enthusiasm, because I know I have a long drive ahead of me and ‘a sprawling complex of gardens, dotted with sixteen modern art galleries’, does not really fit into that.
“Today we had contact with Booking.com”, he suddenly remembers. “They are finally going to change the description of the hotel”. Maybe they did, but probably only in the Portuguese version, because I just checked and you can still stay ‘in a 19th-century restored country mansion...nestled in Ouro Preto’s scenic countryside’.
¹) The Union Internationale de Chemin de Fer in Paris, where I worked as Infrastructure Director from 1996 to 2001.
²) Don’t worry, we will get there.