Friday, February 4, 2011

BARROCO MINEIRO: A Colonial experience in Brasil's heartland

The image of Brazil can largely be summed up by the very first verses of a 60's song by Jorge Ben

Moro num país tropical, 
abençoado por Deus
E bonito por natureza 
mas que beleza
Em fevereiro (em fevereiro)
Tem carnaval (tem carnaval)
Tenho um fusca e um violão
Sou FlamengoTenho uma nêga
Chamada Tereza

I live in a tropical country, 
blessed by God
where there is natural beauty,
and on top of it
In February
There is the Carnaval 
I have a Wolkswagen Beetle and a guitar
I am from Flamengo (a neighbourhood in Rio having a famous soccer team)
I have a black babe
and her name is Tereza 

The World over, Brasil is synonymous to the 3 B's:  Beach, Babes and Booze. Naturally there is more to Brazil than these generic stereotypes and that is what we are going to explore on today's odyssey. I give you Minas Gerais, a place of colonial treasures, culinary delights and cachaça, Brasil's notoriously delicious and intoxicating rhum.

Ouro Preto, Church of Sao Francisco


Minas Gerais was formed mainly by colonists named bandeirantes (followers of the flag) who searched for  gold, which was discovered in 1693, gems, and later diamonds. In 1697, the Portuguese used African slaves to start building the Estrada Real (Royal road) that would serve as a Gold highway to the port cities of Rio de Janeiro and Paraty from mineral-rich regions, mainly Ouro Preto to Diamantina. The first capital was the city of Mariana; it was later moved to Vila Rica (today's Ouro Preto). In the late 18th century, Vila Rica was the largest city in Brazil and one of the most populous in America. As the gold mines were exhausted over the 19th century, the city lost its importance; it was later renamed Ouro Preto (Black Gold) and remained the state capital until the construction of the all-new, planned city of Belo Horizonte at the turn of the 20th century. The gold trade left its mark in cities such as Mariana, Ouro Preto, Diamantina, Sabará,Tiradentes and São João del Rei. The relative isolation from European influence, added to the huge influx of gold and other valuable minerals, helped the local people to develop their own style of art, which became known as Barroco Mineiro. Prime examples of this period are the richly decorated churches of the colonial cities, some of them preserved today as museums. The most important artist of this period was Antônio Lisboa, who became known as Aleijadinho (the little cripple). His statues and paintings are now highly valued by experts as one of the most refined artistic expressions of the 1800's outside Europe.

Sanctuary of Bom Jesus do Matozinhos, Congonhas

I landed in Belo Horizonte on a sunny Brazilian winter day, in early July. I still remember the cool breeze as I exited the terminal building at Belo Horizonte's Confins airport. I proceeded to the Avis counter and promptly got into my rental and started driving towards the much anticipated historical region I had been waiting to visit for years. I found my way through a network of roads, highway crossing and neighbourhood tree lined avenues to BR40, a national highway linking Rio de Janeiro to Brasilia. That's the road I need to take to reach Congonhas, my first stop. The ride is uneventful even though I get dangerously close to some pot holes spread around the roadway without any warning of course. The terrain is hilly, planted with eucalyptus trees which line some portions of the road. There are many heavily loaded trucks whose drivers seems to know that the end of the World is fast approaching. Actually a few miles down the road I encounter one who has an unfortunate encounter with gravity and went directly to the pearly gates. Needless to say, after the grim reality of death, I stay the course and drive carefully.

Prophet Ezequiel, Congonhas

Upon reaching Congonhas, I feel a sense of being close to something I know is going to be extraordinary. This colonial town holds a real treasure of architecture and history. It is the Sanctuary of Bom Jesus do Matozinho, a Unesco World heritage site for its artistic value. The church, which is the main building, was completed in 1772 atop Maranhao Hill. It was commissioned by a Portuguese immigrant, Feliciano Mendes, who had been miraculously cured of a crippling infirmity. This is surely South America's Christian art's most amazing groupings of monuments. Statues of the 12 prophets of the Christian old testament, arranged in front of the sanctuary and on the stairs, are the work of master sculptor Antônio Francisco Lisboa, known by the name "o Aleijadinho", "The Little Cripple" due to a debilitating disease, probably leprosy, which began to show while he was working. Because of his infirmity, his assistants had to strap his hammer and chisels to what remained of his hands, which did not at this point include fingers. Since he no longer had feet to stand on he had pads strapped to his knees up which he'd climb the ladders needed to get him off the ground. Each statue holds a manuscript of its character's prophecies.

São João del Rei

After being bathed in history and beauty for a few hours, I drive on to São João del Rei, my stop for the night.
I reach São João in late afternoon and check in into a pousada (a sort of bed and breakfast) I found online. The room is simple and clean. I decide to go for a walk since I have been riding in a small car almost the entire day. The city is small enough to walk to the major sites. I cross a stone bridge ending up standing in front of a restaurant serving "Comida Mineira" meaning cuisine from Minas Gerais. I decide to dine in style at this family style restaurant. Few customers are in since it is around 7pm, way too early for any Brazilian dinner. The food is good and cheap, less than $12 including drinks. Following my culinary experience, I decide to loose myself inside the historical section of the town (I love to do that everywhere I go) and found a church sponsored street fair serving pasteis (the Brazilian version of empanadas) and sweets. I watch a volunteer roll the dough through a hand powered machine, making it smoother and thinner with each passing strike. He is working on a marble table reminding  me of my own kitchen's granite top. Once the dough is the perfect shape and thickness, he stuffs them with various filings. He then promptly hands them to a lady in front of a boiling frying vessel filled with hot oil. She carefully slides the dough into the oil and I can hear it crackle. The dough turns golden brown and puffs up. It looks yummy. I will try one for sure.

Pasteis in São João

I call it a night after my evening escapade.

The following morning I understand what a pousada is all about: Breakfast buffet. This one is not enormous but the items displayed have been freshly made, the juices just squeezed and the smell of coffee is all around. I feast on this wonderful opportunity not only sampling various pastries, breads and cold cuts but also get to try different fruits unknown to me. I fall in love with Atemoia, an hybrid fruit created by crossing the sugar apple and the cherimoya, both native to tropical America. With a full belly it's time for a little exercise and what better way than wandering the historic area on foot. I proceed, water bottle in hand, to Rua Getulio Vargas, the main street in the colonial center. Beautiful buildings from an era gone by are surrounding me. On each side of the street, colonial style houses painted in pastel colors contribute to make this town's atmosphere a living museum. I feel like I am in Europe far away from South America's tropics. The street is quiet and the people movements are unhurried and gentle, like a breeze through the trees. Churches, houses, stores and botecos (neighbourhood cafes) cohabit side by side. The smells of firewood burning catches my attention and I follow it to a restaurant serving food from Minas. "Comida Mineira no Fogo a lenha", litterally "we serve food cooked over firewood". Now that sounds very good. I entered and sat at a table ushered by a pretty waitress. I asked in my broken Portuguese for the menu and the price. She promptly told me "the menu is all you can eat, no a la carte food and it costs R$6". I wondered at that point if I heard all this right. I asked her again. "Is it all you can eat and I pay R$6 (US$3) ?" she answered with a big smile. "Sim senhor" (yes sir). She didn't have to tell me again. I had a delicious lunch at that place sampling various dishes, ragoûts, salads and churrasco (grilled meats). 

São João Del Rei
Rua Getulio Vargas in São João del Rei
Church of Our Lady of Merces, São João del Rei
I spend 2 hours wandering the streets of colonial Sao Joao del Rei, discovering beautifully maintained historical churches (still in use) and drive on to Tiradentes.
Largo das Forras, Tiradentes

I arrive in Tiradentes in the middle of the afternoon, under a brilliant winter sun. The perfect weather for another visit on foot. This little village in the middle of the countryside seems to have been designed by some ingenious Brazilian Walt Disney in search of his past. Indeed, this place is very well maintained and most of everything I see looks original. The enormous cobblestones, the beautifully painted facades and the horse drawn carriages make it a charming and endearing experience. This is by far the best preserved colonial town in Brazil. Amongst the many churches and public buildings like the old jail, Tiradentes is home to the second most gilded (gold covered) baroque interior of Brazil. The Matrix Sao Antonio church is truly spectacular. 
Unfortunately no pictures are allowed inside the church so you will have to go see for yourself ! 

300 years old Matrix de Sao Antonio, Tiradentes


Joaquim José da Silva Xavier, known as Tiradentes, was a leading member of the Brazilian revolutionary movement known as the Inconfidência Mineira whose aim was full independence from the Portuguese colonial power and to create a Brazilian republic. When the plan was discovered, Tiradentes was arrested, tried and publicly hanged. Since the 19th century he has been considered a national hero of Brazil. This town bears his name as a commemoration of his contribution to Brazil's independence. 


My next stop is the World Heritage site of Ouro Preto.

Founded at the end of the 17th century, Ouro Preto (meaning Black Gold) was the focal point of the gold rush and Brazil's golden age in the 18th century under Portuguese rule. Located at an elevation of 1,116 meters (3661 feet) Ouro Preto is home to well preserved Portuguese colonial architecture, with few signs of modern urban life. Modern construction must adhere to historical standards maintained by the city. 18th- and 19th-century churches decorated with gold and the sculptures of Aleijadinho make Ouro Preto an outstanding heritage to preserve. 

Rua Parana, Ouro Preto

The tremendous wealth from gold mining in the 18th century created a city which attracted the intelligentsia of Europe. Philosophy and art flourished, and evidence of a baroque revival called the "Barroco Mineiro" is illustrated in architecture as well as by sculptors such as Aleijadinho, painters such as Mestre Athayde, composers such as Lobo de Mesquita, and poets such as Thomas Gonzaga.

In 1789, Ouro Preto became the birthplace of the Inconfidência Mineira, a failed attempt to gain independence from Portugal.  

Ouro Preto

Undoubtedly one of the gems of baroque colonial architecture in Brasil, Ouro Preto is truly an open history book. With its steep cobble stone streets, colonial buildings and 9 historical churches, one is plunged back into a time when Gold flooded its streets and aristocracy mingled around its grandiose squares.  This town is truly made for the physically fit visitor since it is built along steep hills. It is a constant up and down battle to reach any one of the monuments. However well worth the effort since a climb to any of them is well rewarded by the vision of sculptures and gilded interiors of many. This is also possibly the most visited town in this part of Brazil and one can listen to a World array of languages while touring.

Museu da Inconfidencia, Museum of the Independence Movement

As describing 9 churches would be boring, here is one which I think is worth mentioning.
Igreja de São Francisco de Assis (the Church of San Francisco de Assis). This church, built in 1776 (the year the United States gained their Independence), is Aleijadinho's masterpiece and the highest expression of the rococo style. It has some oddly military features, such as cylindrical towers that look like watchtowers, and roofs that resemble helmets adorned with spears.The Cross of Lorena, with two arms flanked by balls of fire, is especially impressive. Inside, Aleijadinho created sculptures for the pulpits, wood panels, a soapstone sculpted door, the main chapel's altars, and the fountain of the sacristy. Mestre Athayde painted the ceiling, which appears higher thanks to the arrangement of the columns and parapets.

Sao Francisco de Assisi in Ouro Preto
Steep street going down to the 'Downtown area" from Santa Efigenia Chuch

My last stop is Mariana, the old capital city of Minas Gerais before Ouro Preto gained importance. A short drive leads to a small valley where Mariana is nestled. Named after Anne Marie of Austria, wife of Joao V, King of Portugal, the city was founded in 1696. It is located on the Estrada Real or Royal Road which linked the mines of the interior of Brazil to the port cities of the Atlantic, namely Rio de Janeiro and Paraty. From there, the rich mineral cargo would embark on a voyage to Portugal to benefit its crown. As it is the case for most colonial towns in Brasil, the gold flowing would serve the local catholic endeavor at converting local population to Christianity. I can only imagine the feeling of awe any one non-Christian would have had by visiting a church at that time, when it was freshly decorated with exquisite work of art and covered in gold. How could anyone resist the power of such God who could have such beauty built in his glory?

Work by the Aleijadinho in Mariana