Belo Horizonte, the capital of Minas Gerais state, is not strictly on the Estrada Real, but I make a stopover there for another reason that becomes clear when you look at a map of BH, as the locals call it: the perfectly symmetrical pattern of streets betrays that this city was designed from scratch.
In fact it was designed in two stages.
Mariana was the first capital of Minas Gerais state, but ceded the role in 1720 to nearby Vila Rica (renamed Ouro Preto in 1823), a town which became synonymous with Portuguese colonial power and oppression. The failed Inconfidência uprising of 1789 took place there, its members were incarcerated in the Casa do Contos and the severed head of its leader, Tiradentes, paraded before the public on the central square.
When Brazil abandoned the monarchy and becomes a republic in 1889, many felt that Ouro Preto was too much of a symbol of the colonial past and that a new capital for the new republican era was required. The new town of Cidade de Minas was inaugurated in 1897 and in 1906 renamed to Belo Horizonte, meaning something like ‘beautiful horizon’. (That may have been a blessing in disguise for Ouro Preto, because BH is now a teeming metropolis of 5.5 million, while Ouro Preto has retained all of its 18th century charm and baroque masterpieces.)
Then in 1940, JK, Juscelino Kubitschek, became mayor of BH and he commissioned a young architect, Oscar Niemeyer, to design a new district of BH, Pampulha. Niemeyer did so, to great acclaim, creating wide avenues, parks and modernist architecture around the arms of an extended lake.
In hindsight, it is easy to see that the Pampulha project and the interplay between its proponents was a dress rehearsal for what was set in motion some 15 years later in 1956, when JK became president of Brazil: the realisation of the plan to build an entirely new capital, for the country this time, Brasilia, on an even bigger scale and with even more daring architecture.