In the Basement of Lona Piniero’s stone Colonial house in Ouro Preto, in the state of Minas Gerais, Brazil, Jose Gherardi sits down at the piano. We have gathered here in the late afternoon for her invitation of high tea.
Ever so softly, caressing music from the keys, the jazzy sad soundtrack to Brazilian life floats like smoke around the room.
It mingles with the hum of the conversation, the clinking of tea cups and politics, tall tales and the communal laughter when one of us breaks down again and proclaims that they will have just one more piece of Lona’s amazing cheese bread (Pao de queijo). Jose starts to sing.
He has one of those deep accented voices that makes the most mundane of things seem a prophesy about tortured love. Even if I cannot understand a word of Portuguese I am ready to believe whatever he says. His poetry floats out the window onto the balcony and over the golden town flickering at dusk.
Ouro Preto, means “Black Gold” a reference to the black iron oxide covered gold nuggets found in the Tripui River in the late 1600s that led to Brazil’s greatest gold rush. In its glory during the 17th century it was the richest city in Brazil and the capital of the state.
It is impossibly beautiful. Red roofed meticulously-preserved colonial houses, some painted bright pastel colors roll up and down the hills of the town that are topped by gold-laden churches.
Thick cobblestones cover the steep winding roads. I am struck by the sheer “weight” of the town and the amount of labor it must have taken to build it in such an extreme environment.
In the distance on top of one of the mountains encircling the town I can see the rock formation called Itacolomi: The Stone and his boy. It is the landmark that led the early Portuguese explorers to the gold below.
Ouro Preto fell from its lofty position after a failed rebellion against Portugal and as the gold that funded its rise was depleted, but the lack of growth and change has helped to preserve its historic integrity for travelers lucky enough to get here today.
Anna Maria Parsons, a local historian and owner of The Solar da Ponte Hotel in nearby Tiradentes, told me that “at that time the Portuguese king had said that Minas Gerais was ‘the most precious stone in my crown.'”
My friend Jose said it better. He joined me out on the balcony and we shared a glass of Cachaca, the local firewater. As we watched the sun fade, he toasted the landscape and proclaimed that Minas Gerais was “the heart of Brazil.”
Big Belo Horizonte
Belo Horizonte, Brazil’s third largest city is the capital of the state of Minas Gerais. I flew in on American Airlines direct flight from Miami, which just started service last year. A frenetic modern metropolis of over 3,000,000 gradually crawling up the sides of the mountains that surrounds it, Belo is big.
Expanding from a business and convention center, tourism is growing as more people are starting to discover this part of the country and its rich culture and history. It boasts a great gastronomy, the largest outdoor market in Latin America, art museums, historic cathedrals beautiful parks and by the way is also known as the “the bar capital of Brazil.”
The nightlife spreads out onto the sidewalks with countless small tables filled with students drinking from ice buckets filled with quart bottles of skol or other beer. Brazilians like their beer really cold. They are very strict about it. What a great scene.
We ate at some fantastic restaurants, all of which delighted me and I highly recommend but two stood out for me. Not necessarily better than the rest, but definitely my favorites.
Although restaurants in Belo Horizonte offer a great variety of unique and internationally influenced and fusion cuisines expertly prepared and presented, Brazilians really know how to cook meat. I have always wanted to eat at real churrascaria and Baby Beef did not disappoint.
It is a temple of meat worship. The gigantic room must seat at least a thousand people. It has a buffet that could occupy you for weeks trying to sample everything.
The main attraction are the countless waiters swarming the room with skewers laden with meat; the action is fast. A bartender mixes drinks for you at your seat from a rolling bar on wheels. There are over 26 cuts of meat that are brought to your table continuously until you give in.
It’s hard to pace yourself, but the best cuts are brought to you last, so try to hold out. It was over-the-top amazing.
The other religious meat encounter I had was at Restaurant Xapuri. The owner, Nelsa Trombino, is in her 70s but has the wide eyed smile of a teenager.
She’s been at it 20 years. Xapuri has grown to include a gift shop and multi levels of open-air dining at long picnic tables, and a dessert buffet to die for (or from). The place was packed.
They cook in an open kitchen over flames on grill pans with ridges, just like the little one I have one at home, but here they had flames four to five feet off the pan. (So that’s how you do it!). Her homemade linguica was rustic chunky thick and perfectly charred at the edges, hands down the best I have ever had.
Into the country: Miracles, Minerals and gold mines
Some places in this world must be seen firsthand to be truly appreciated. A photograph, video or even a travel story cannot convey the real feeling of being there.
You need to have your other senses engaged: sweat mingling with the wind and sun on your skin after climbing to the top of the Ouro Preto hills, the thoughtful silence of the miracle room at Congohas, the brilliant colors of Tiradentes or the sudden cold, dense quiet that overtakes you as you descend 1000 feet into a gold mine.
The UNESCO World Heritage Organization scours the planet to find the earth’s sweet spots and preserve “irreplaceable sources of life and inspiration”
Just a few hours drive from Belo Horizonte you can immerse yourself in two official UWH sites: Ouro Preto and the sanctuary of Bom Jesus, as well as the surrounding natural beauty that makes this area a must see destination in Brazil.
The 80km drive from Belo Horizonte to Congonhas takes you through some spectacular mountain scenery and past some of the largest producing iron and mineral mines in the world. Minas Gerais is the country’s largest producer of coffee and milk but its literal meaning in English is “general mines” for a reason.
The Little Cripple
Both the The Sanctuary of Bom Jesus de Matozinhos in Congonhas and the many churches in Ouro Preto were adorned by the Baroque sculptor Aleijadinho, also known as the little cripple. His personal story is as amazing as his art.
After contracting leprosy in his youth and unable to use his hands or legs, he sculpted by strapping a chisel onto his wrists. The life sized soapstone sculptures he created were done when he was over 70 years old.
The sanctuary sits on was built on a hill in the second half of the 18th century. It consists of a church with a magnificent Rococo interior of Italian inspiration; an outdoor stairway decorated with statues of the prophets; and seven chapels illustrating the Stations of the Cross, in which the polychrome sculptures by Aleijadinho are masterpieces of a highly original, moving, expressive form of Baroque art.
Behind the main chapel is the Room of Miracles. The walls are covered floor to ceiling by images of people who have left offerings in thanks for the help they have received from the saints. Faces of hope and redemption peer at you from the walls; there were thousands of them.
Down into the earth
One of the things I love about Latin America is that you can get close to the edge of cliff and there is not a railing on every stairway. Nature in the The United states is padded and barricaded against possible lawsuits, but down here they seem to think that people are just not that stupid and can take care of themselves. That’s not to say that they disregard safety.
In fact, trucks traveling the steep mountain roads of Minas Gerais have a back up system on their tires that automatically inflate while you’re driving in case of a blowout. But there is more leeway to get closer to life. On our way to Tiradentes we stopped at the Mina da Passagem “Mine of the Crossing.” This was not a long visit but a memorable side trip.
There was a large working mine with impressive caverns dug out of the earth complete with an underground lake and a small shrine where the miners used to pray.
But the best part is the trip over 1,000 feet down into the earth on rail tracks in a small wooden trolley that resembles an antique roller coaster with open seats held by a single cable attached to a huge gas powered motor that appeared to be from the 1800’s.
It reminded me of a scene in one of the Indiana Jones movies, and there was plenty of gold at the bottom. They would never allow this in the states and it was a blast.
On the trip down as you descend into darkness, the coolness of the air and the complete quiet of the huge caverns is a welcome relief form the heat of the day, just as the the light at the end of tunnel and the contrasting warmth of the Brazilian day is a joyful event as you re-enter the world on the trip back to the surface. This place was really cool (get it?)
Monkeys on the Roof
Waking up on my last day in Brazil I made my way downstairs of the beautifully reconstructed hotel Solar da Ponte in Tiradentes for breakfast. Out on the roof I was delighted to see that a small troop of monkeys were looking in the window hoping for a handout.
I could tell that this was one of their regular stops. As I photographed them eating fruit on the windowsill I could not help but notice the couple in the corner who were speaking English and in particular the woman who was smiling at me but looking disapprovingly at the monkeys.
As is my habit I said hello and asked how they came to find this lovely place.
“Why, we built it,” she said “and those monkeys, by the way, are a real problem. They are eating all the local birds eggs and multiplying like rats. But I have to admit they are cute.” This was Jon and Anna Maria Parsons.
as she said, they have been on a 30-year crusade to reconstruct this beautiful hotel in the center of this charming town. Anna was a professor at a university in Ouro Preto and proceeded to give us a precise and impassioned history of Minas Gerais.
They were both obviously in love with each other and Brazil, and the kind of people that I as a traveler am always hoping to meet.
Tiradentes is named after the leader of the rebellion against the Portuguese, who was hanged here in 1792.
Now, it is to Belo Horizonte kind of like what Cape Cod is to Boston. Everybody wants to go there on vacation. It is upscale, beautiful with plenty of restaurants, small historic inns and great shopping for local handicrafts such as high quality pewter.
Soap Opera Set
They also film a very popular soap opera in town which adds to the ambiance of upper class relaxation and romance.
After a spectacular drive back to Belo Horizonte, I had some time to kill before my flight and knew exactly where I wanted to go.
I had been to the Mercado Central on my first day and had spent some time in one of the small bars that you find at the exits. Wherever I go I find that all great central markets contain a little piece of every part of local products and culture.
There is a section for meat and produce, and liquor stores where you can find the country’s best Cachaca. Building materials, crafts, vast piles of herbs to heal any malady, and even a variety of stores provide you with voodoo and religious items to heal your soul. I could have spent days wandering here but only had enough time to grab a quick beer.
The bartender at Bar Forteleza remembered me and immediately set a freezing quart of Antarctica beer on the counter. It was so cold it hurt to hold the bottle. As I hoisted it a woman struck up a conversation with me and we drank a toast to life.
When I told her I did not understand Portuguese, she just shrugged and said “no English” and we kept on talking. It did not matter, I nodded enthusiastically to the rythmic sound of her voice, and she believed every word I said.
Paul Shoul is GoNOMAD’s staff Photographer/writer. Follow his travels and photos at his blog, Round World Photo. Accommodations and airfare provided for this trip by BTOA.