Saturday, November 15, 2014

Brazilian Tourist Blog - Part 2, Ouro Preto

We left São Paulo early in the morning and flew to the state capital of Minas Gerais, the city of Belo Horizonte.  The state of Minas Gerais is north of São Paulo in the mountainous interior of Brazil.  Gold was discovered there more than 300 years ago.  A gold rush ensued with fierce competition between Portuguese colonial rulers and explorers, the so-called bandeirantes, from São Paulo – who found the gold in the first place.  By the early 18th century the Portuguese rulers had won the conflict and built a capital city in the middle of the mining area, Ouro Preto, literally black gold.  Ouro Preto, now a UNESCO World Heritage site, was our destination. We decided to try our luck traveling by bus since the roads to Ouro Preto are mountainous and rough and the area is completely unknown to us.  Travelling by bus is a safe, inexpensive option in Brazil especially for youthful or retired foreigners.  We easily found a bus from the airport into the central bus station, or rodoviária, in downtown Belo Horizonte.  Once there, we were in luck.  Buses leave for Ouro Preto every hour on the hour and the next bus, with reserved seats and air-conditioning, left 15 minutes after we bought our tickets!  Just enough time to go to the bathroom!  We discovered something quite delightful in Brazil.  Anyone over the age of 60, the official retirement age in this country, is an “idoso”, i.e., an elderly person.  Idosos are eligible for all sorts of discounts – often half price at museums and other tourist destinations.  More importantly, idosos can enter public bathrooms, which often charge between 50 centavos and as much as 2 reais ($0.20-0.80 USD) for free.  Given our over sixty status and the challenge of finding the right change at the right time, this was a blessing!!

We were happy to be driven by a skilled professional driver rather than driving ourselves.  It was raining hard and the route out of the city was complicated.  It was Election Day and traffic was very heavy for a Sunday afternoon. But from the comparative luxury of our nice dry bus, we saw huge eucalyptus trees with their wet bark bright red and green, newly washed by the rain.  I hoped it was raining in São Paulo where a prolonged drought has already led to limited or no water supplies in smaller communities around São Paulo.  Although the city’s reservoir system is extensive – planned to provide more than eight months of water in the absence of any rain, there has been virtually no rain all year – and the small amount of rain that has fallen recently is not close to enough to replenish the reservoirs.  The depleted reservoirs we saw a month ago when we drove around São Paulo reminded me of the low reservoirs in California.  It seems that a tropical country can suffer drought.  Even in Minas Gerais where it had started raining, we passed riverbeds where the channel was so low it barely flowed through the red dirt banks.  We traveled almost two hours to arrive in Ouro Preto, through twisty mountainous roads, past tiny little villages and many prosperous looking farms.  Here and there we’d see brilliant yellow or purple trees in full bloom, giving a festive feel to the forest.  Despite the low rivers, there does not seem to be a drought in Minas Gerais.

The Church of Nossa Senora do Carmo
We arrived at the bus station in Ouro Preto a little after four pm.  The rain had just stopped.  We walked the short distance to our inn (inns are called pousadas in Portuguese), pulling our wheeled suitcases over the wet cobblestones.  Fortunately the old cobblestones held fast beneath our feet.  The pervasive mist settled in over my shoulders and I hugged my backpack a little closer to my body.  The mist shrouded the hills around the town and rolled across the rooftops, giving the colonial buildings a veil of mystery.  Ouro Preto is set in a deep valley in the middle of the state of Minas Gerais.  Its beauty is a contrast to its history as a place of exploitation – its gold mines manned by slaves for the benefit of the Portuguese king and his court after his right was established through military action in the 1700’s.  Now the town is the peaceful home to artists and artisans and a favorite tourist destination.  It is full of beautiful colonial houses and architecturally significant churches with beautiful names – Nossa Senora da Canceiçâo; Santa Efigênia; São Francisco de Assis – the list is endless.  They are all striking – big and painted white and yellow with one or two square bell towers, set high above the mist and the hills.  Like all of Brazil, Ouro Preto and its churches have a faint feeling of decay – the white walls molding and the cobblestones worn.  But the steep streets beckon you to explore. 
Pouso do Chico Rey

Green parrots outside my window
The writing desk and lamp in my room
Sitting in my room on our first afternoon, two green parrots landed on the tree outside my window and engaged in a formal mating ritual – the male puffing up his brilliant green plumage and singing to the female who sat on the branch below looking coy and perhaps sexy to her mate.  In the morning as I looked across the valley I could see endless red tile roofs set at countless angles that gave my view a pleasing geometric symmetry.  I heard birds singing but also the modern world of buses and cars climbing the steep streets.  Our inn, Pouso do Chico Rei is more than 300 years old.  Fifty years ago it was a center for artists and poets.  Elizabeth Bishop stayed here in the garden room and wrote poetry and drank tea.  She ate the same succulent teacakes that the Dona served us yesterday when we arrived.  It is a place of inspiration – full of nooks and crannies that invite you to sit down and sketch or compose a short sonnet.  

The mantel shelf in the dining room
The walls are white washed and the window sashes are large and arched and all painted in a deep burgundy.  My room has three symmetrical windows with white wooden panes that frame the view.  There is a poem on the wall and a writing desk that I made good use of.  Everywhere you look in the inn, there is something beautiful - paintings, pots, framed poetry, old wooden furniture, small pieces of sculpture.  It is a place to linger and enjoy.

Minas Gerais is justifiably known for the quality of its cuisine.  Although it was the off season in Ouro Preto, we found ourselves eating in restaurants that served up food that I would put against anything I’ve had in fancy restaurant around the world.  Plus since everything is housed in beautiful colonial houses, eating out is like being part of living history!  One night we couldn’t resist the traditional dessert of fresh cheese, queijo fresco with preserved regional fruit.  Wow.  Another night my sister order a Kir Royale that came served so elegantly it deserved a picture.

The next day we explored the town, hoping that the sun would break through and burn the mist away.  And for some of the day it did although in the afternoon the sky opened up.  I had to buy an umbrella since it was simply too hot and humid for a raincoat.  Anywhere you walk in Ouro Preto you feel as if you are in a museum.  The streets are steep and cobblestoned.  Some were so precipitous we almost couldn’t walk down them safely – and we are in shape for sixty something’s!  We went first to the Museum of Oratories – a small, well-run museum full of oratories or devotional shrines for home use.  The oratories range from matchbox size to the size of a big front porch and in decoration from simple homespun paintings to gold leaf rococo.  More modern ones include fanciful combinations of cut out pictures, sequins, shells, glitter and tiny little figurines.  There were oratories made by slaves and oratories made by skilled artists for wealthy mine owners.  Some included devotionals only to traditional Christian figures, particularly the Virgin Mary, Nossa Senhora.  But others included devotionals to the spirits of trees and other plants and animals along with the regular Christian saints.   

The Church of São Francisco de Assis
We visited several incredible Baroque churches – quite different from the 20th and 21st century art we saw in São Paulo. One of my favorites, the church of São Francisco de Assis is decorated with beautiful gneiss and soapstone sculptures carved over many years by a famous Brazilian Baroque artist and architect, Aleijadinho.  One of his pieces that I loved was of life size lions that looked like monkeys!  The story goes that when Aleijadinho was asked to carve lions he said ‘how can I if I have never seen a lion?’  So he was told that lions look like great big monkeys but with a full mane of fur.  He did a remarkable job!  It is a privilege to visit this wonderful town.  When it was time to take the bus back to Belo Horizonte we felt we had only just begun to scratch its surface.
I plan to go back next year.


  1. I'd say Pouso de Chico Rei is still housing poets and artists with you, your sister and brother-in-law staying there! I love how the lions ended up looking like giant monkeys.

    1. The lions are amazing and I will go back to the inn - an incredible place of inspiration.