Across the Equator

South American Adventures

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Minas Gerais
losmorris
Much of the history of colonial South America features the search for gold, silver and precious stones to feed the crowns of Spain and Portugal. Brazil shares this history and the state of Minas Gerais (General Mines) was where it largely happened in the early 18th century. One of our loves is visiting former colonial cities and enjoying the architectural treasures that grew out of gold rush wealth so Minas was clearly a draw for us. While Brazil’s highway system is not quite up there with the U.S. interstate system it is pretty good. So we fired up the Toyota and headed north for a week of travel within the state of Minas.





Belo Horizonte – First stop was Belo Horizonte or BH (pronounced Bay-Agah by the natives). BH was a last minute addition after we realized that the colonial towns are booked months in advance for Semana Santa and the Easter weekend. We figured we could use BH as a springboard for local visits but frankly did not expect much from our time in the city. We were wrong.

While BH is home to 2.5 million people it felt graceful, open, clean and friendly. We stayed in the “swinging” Savassi section at the Promenade Volpi Apart Hotel, a pretty good bargain and pleasant lodging establishment near Liberdade Square and the Parque Municipal. Dining was pretty good in close proximity – ranging from the retro Eddie Fine Burgers to a great Italian dinner at La Pasta Gialla – and bars and coffee shops were abundant.

We spent our brief period of time there wandering first to Liberdade Square and appreciating the history and architecture of the city’s historical center.

A Niemeyer building in BH (for the uninitiated Oscar Niemeyer is Brazil’s most noted architect having designed the city of Brasilia and most every really famous 20th century building in the country):



Among the sights from the Praça de Liberdade are the Palacio da Liberdade, a 19th century neo-classical building, and a quite handsome passerby.



As well as lovely fountains and visitors.



Farther on is the Parque Municipal, a terrific family oriented park with kids’ areas, carnival type rides, and the coolest set of monkey bars I’d ever seen.



We took it all in including a rowboat rental around an admittedly very tiny lake – but it was fun!







Unfortunately we did not have time to see two of BH’s highlights – the Inhotim art museum or the Pampulha complex. Fortunately we will be heading back there in November for a cultural tour. So on Easter Sunday we headed out for the gem of Minas Gerais, Ouro Preto (or black gold).



Ouro Preto – Unfortunately our ace travel agent (aka me) had not done sufficient research on the Easter activities in Ouro Preto. We knew that there were extensive processions and something about street art that includes colorful displays of religious themes using colored saw dust. This is what we would have seen had we arrived the night before and attended the dawn procession:


[picture courtesy of: http://www.soundsandcolours.com/articles/brazil/easter-in-ouro-preto/ ]

Instead, we arrived around 11 am and were told that the streets were closed and we could not drive to our hotel for another hour or so. Those beautiful street paintings were now being cleaned up and this is how they appeared to us:



Not quite the same effect….. Anyway we did go the long way around and arrived at our stop for the first night, the Hotel Solar do Rosario, a terrific high end hotel that overlooks the city. Unfortunately our budget these days is a bit more humble than in previous times so we switched out to spend our last two nights in Ouro Preto at the Pousada Minas Gerais. I highly recommend both places. While the experiences and prices were different they both offered cordial service, great breakfast and easy walking access to the city’s sites. Driving anywhere in Ouro Preto is a challenge however.

Ouro Preto’s roots go back to the late 17th century when gold was discovered in the mountains. The city faded from importance after the end of the gold rush but some wise people set preservation as a priority and, in 1980, it was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Ouro Preto’s charm comes from the many churches, the architecture and the geography of the town. Richard and I are pretty fit individuals but we had our work cut out for us climbing all over town to see the churches and the charm!



We took full advantage of the quiet Sunday to enjoy the streets while empty. By Monday this was bustling with merchants, students and tourists.



Note the steep inclines – you definitely want good shoes to wander the town! Fortunately there is a lot to see along the way so it is possible to slip into a shop or café to rest your legs between excursions.



The multitude of churches – views of them and from them - makes it all worthwhile.



This alley was one of my personal favorites and had the benefit of sitting right across from Café Geraes, a lovely bar and restaurant where we stopped for some liquid refreshment.



Ouro Preto also has plenty of chocolate shops which provide the energy needed before hitting the streets / steep trails again.



The church in the background here is probably the only one we did not visit – there is a limit after all!



Pictures were generally not allowed inside the churches but I apparently did not know that until after getting one indoor shot.



The geography and incline did not deter the Portuguese. This, like many of the churches, was built on the incline.



The soapstone and wooden carvings on the front of the churches are signature items in this area. Many were designed or carved by Aleijadinho, a master sculptor who influenced the design and construction of churches and the Congonhas complex. One of the churches in town houses the Aleijadinho museum and it is well worth a visit. More to come on him in a short bit but here is a sample of the carvings.



Ouro Preto is a huge tourist draw for holy week and the Easter procession. Once that is over the cars stream out of town and it pretty much empties out. But on Easter Sunday evening a free concert was performed in the central plaza by the Military Police Symphonic Orchestra. The music was an interesting mix of classical, show tunes and popular Brazilian songs. The setting in front of the Museo de Inconfidência was spectacular.



Other recommendations in town include the Spagheti restaurant just off Praça Tiradentes – great food and live music. Another high point for us was the museum at the local school of mines. We wandered in not really knowing what to expect and were delighted by the very complete and interesting history of mining and display of precious and semi-precious stones. Well worth the R$5 entry fee.



After three days of wandering, climbing, shopping and thoroughly enjoying our stay we headed out for Congonhas and an opportunity for Aleijadinho overload.



Congonhas is essentially a stop along the highway for a few hours to see the Bom Jesus de Matoshinos Shrine. This shrine is a complex including a church on top of the Morro do Maranhão, Aleijadinho soapstone carvings of 12 key old testament Prophets, and a series of shrines depicting the Way of the Cross.

So – who was Aleijadinho and why is he such a big deal? I thought his story was interesting so will share. Born Antônio Francisco Lisboa, he was the son of a Portuguese architect and a black slave. He was given the nickname of Aleijadinho (little cripple) due to an affliction, that may have been leprosy, that caused him to lose fingers and toes and full use of his legs. He was undaunted and continued a career that spanned some 50 years during which time he created a new form of baroque art in his prolific design of churches and carving of statues and facades. One cannot visit Minas Gerais without encountering his art work and that of Ataíde, the painter who worked with Aleijadinho on many of the churches.
Below is a guide back depiction of the Congonhas complex which gives a general idea of the layout.



In the green area in front of the church are the 6 shrines that contain carved depictions of 7 of the scenes from the Way of the Cross.



So let me just share a bit of the fabulous carving contained in these shrines starting with the Last Supper.



The arrest of Jesus…



One of the shrines and a view of the city of Congonhas



The Road to Calgary



The Crucifixion



My pictures do not do them justice – the carving is incredibly detailed.

Surrounding the church are the soapstone statues of the The Prophets and here is a sampling. Unfortunately, the view of the church was obstructed a bit by a stage that had been set up for the Easter celebration.







The detail on these more than life sized statues was incredible and, thus far anyway, they are surviving the elements quite well.


And now on to what was to have been the final stop on this trip, the colonial town turned modern city of São João del Rei.



São João del Rei – To be honest, we were underwhelmed by São João del Rei. There were some charming elements such as the channel through town.





But part of our problem was poor selection of the hotel by our ace travel agent (again, me….). This is where we stayed and, unless you are planning plastic surgery as part of your vacation travels, we advise against staying at the Vicenza Apart Hotel.



This is honestly a plastic surgery clinic with apartments for recovering patients. Breakfast is served in the privacy of your unit so that you don’t have to look at bandaged guests over fruit and toast. We were probably the only non-bandaged guests and decided to leave early after one night.


So we hit the road yet again and spent our last two nights in the neighboring colonial town of Tiradentes.



Tiradentes – is a charming and very small town with cobblestone and rock streets but without the hilly landscape of Ouro Preto. After the decline of the gold boom Tiradentes declined as well until the 1970’s when the artists and artisans came to town. Today it is a lovely place with the nicest art work that we have found in Brazil and with wonderful furniture, pewter and other artisan shops and galleries.
We stayed at the Hotel Ponta do Morro (contato@hotelpontadomorro.com.br) right in the center of town and – much to at least my delight – had enough television coverage to catch the royal wedding. But I digress…. So back to the charm that is Tiradentes.

M





While we enjoyed walking the streets and exploring the town on foot, the central square – Largo do Forra – offered another alternative for the city tour.





A common sight in Brazilian shops is the display of statues of women gazing out the windows.



So of course I had to imitate the pose.



The Igreja Matriz de San Antonio sits on top of a hill – a gentle hill though, not an Ouro Preto killer slope. According to the guide books over a half ton of gold leaf was used in the interior. Once again – no cameras allowed but I assure you that it was really quite nice.



Another attraction is the São José Fountain, built in 1749 to provide drinking water to the local area.



Throughout this trip we enjoyed good food and music. Our last dinner stop at Magia e Luz included tunes by Tony Terra on guitar and his mentor Benigno on mandolin.




And one last hug before hitting the road and going back home. We will return to Minas – we loved it and there is still a coffee table in Tiradentes that I hope to own!


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