BRAZIL'S MESMERIZING MINAS GERAIS
Great Article written by Lisbeth Holt for Travel World News Online in October 2010:
The most mesmerizing baroque colonial cites in Brazil lie nestled in the mountainous mineral-rich state of Minas Gerais, the "province of mines." With American Airlines recently-inaugurated non-stop service from Miami to Belo Horizonte, the capital of the state, this region is now within easy reach of travelers. Adam Carter, President of the Brazilian Tour Operators Association (BTOA) said, "We've designated this amazing state to be our Destination of the Year."
Belo Horizonte, Brazil's first planned city, was built in 1897, just 270 miles north of Rio de Janeiro. This delightful, sophisticated metropolis is surrounded by the Serra do Curral mountain range at an elevation of 2,720 feet; its population some five million in the metropolitan area. Temperatures hover around 75 Fin the summer, the rainy season extending from November to March; around 63 F in the winter. It is one of Brazil's most prosperous states and its size exceeds that of France. "The quality of life here is one of the best in South America," vouches Daniel Anilton Duarte Marques, Director of Events of Minas Gerais. The city will be one of the hosts of the 2014 FIFA World Cup! Its huge soccer stadium, the Estadio Mineirao, is the country's third largest.
Visitors are welcomed in traditionally hospitable "mineiro" style to enjoy its world-class restaurants and bars, fine hotels, shopping centers, and beautiful parks. And as everywhere in Brazil, samba and jazz rhythms pulsate. It is the bar capital of Brazil because of the number of botecos or inter-generational meeting places to imbibe a beer, a cachaca (the sugarcane rum national drink), or a caipirinha! You can even grab a drink in the unusually attractive and clean Mercado Central which dates back to 1929. And, no surprise, the coffee is the best ever. The hearty cuisine, the comida mineira, is a savory combination of Portuguese, Indian and African flavors. Try the feijao tropeiro (a mix of bean stew, sausage and cassava flour) and frango com quiabo (chicken cooked with okra). The scrumptious pao de queijo, cheese bread, is downright addictive! The beautiful people meet and mingle for delectable cuisine at elegant award-winning La Favorita. Possibly Belo's best-loved restaurant is Xapuri. Its rustic interior belies a most succulent gastronomical experience... including many ridiculously delicious desserts! Traveling to Brazil without gorging oneself at a churrascaria would be unheard of; try Belo's Ambrosios! All different tempting cuts of pork, chicken, beef are presented to you until you can are beyond stuffed! Dieting here is not possible. Favored hotels include Savassi-situated Liberty Palace and luxurious Ouro Minas Palace.
The symbol of this gracious city is the Church of St. Francis of Assisi in the Pampulha region. This is Brazil's first listed modern monument. Located on beautiful Lagoa da Pampulha, this controversial church was designed by living legend Oscar Niemeyer. Although constructed in 1943, sixteen years passed before its consecration. Religious orthodoxy viewed the Chapel with skepticism, even alarm, because its construction of concrete parabolic arches deviated dramatically from the norm. Blue Portuguese azulejos (tiles) painted by Candido Portinari depict the life of St. Francis on the facade. Portinari's mural and Alfredo Ceschiatti's bas-relief sculptures beautify the interior. Gardens were designed by Roberto Burle Marx.
Niemeyer's latest daring project, completed in March 2010, presents an audacious visual treat. The enormous Tancredo Neves Administrative City is a complex of buildings which will enable all government facilities to be based in one space. One of the buildings is balanced off terra firma by massive concrete pillars. By the end of the year, some 10,000 people will be working here! "It's bigger than most of our cities," exclaimed Marquez.
Reputed to be one of the world's best contemporary art centers, the Inhotim Institute in Brumadinho can be reached in ninety minutes by car. This vast eclectic outdoor art gallery combines an avant-garde collection of art with exotic botanical gardens. Guide Luana Camara explained, "Inhotim provides a unique dialogue between man-made art and the natural realm." American Doug Aitken in collaboration with Damian Francis Wagner created the "Sounds of the Earth" exhibit featuring eerie sounds from deep within the earth as magnified by microphones. After viewing numerous thought-provoking exhibits, lovely Inhotim restaurant offers a bountiful buffet luncheon of mineiro delicacies.
"Belo Horizonte is the gateway to Brazil's most important cultural heritage and historical scenery," commented Marquez. These are the fabulous Gold Towns of Mariana, Tiradentes, Congonhas, and Ouro Preto which sprang into existence with the discovery of gold in 1695. Precious stones mined here include diamonds, tourmalines, citrines, amethysts, and the exquisite Imperial Topaz, found only in Minas Gerais.
Mariana, the first capital of the state founded in 1695 was named after the Queen of Austria Mary Ana, who was married to the King of Portugal. When adventurers from Sao Paulo, the "bandeirantes", crossed over the forbidding Escarpment mountain range to search for gold they discovered metal blackened by iron oxide. Once melted it shone with great brilliance. "Ouro preto": black gold! News spread like wild fire and tens of thousands rushed to seek their fortunes.
Here you can still ascend into the very bowels of the earth by cable car into the oldest and largest gold mine in Brazil, the Mina de Ouro Passagem, mined from 1718 to 1985. Thousands of slaves perished here. The Catedral Basilica da Se in Mariana holds a most unusual gift from the Portuguese crown to the first diocese in Brazil: a magnificent ArpSchnitger organ transported over the mountains in 1752, still heard every Sunday.
The city of Tiradentes (formerly named Sao Jose de Rey) was founded in 1702 in the foothills of the Serra de Sao Jose mountains. This is the birthplace of Joaquim Jose da Silva Xavier (1746 – 1792), nicknamed Tiradentes ("teethpuller") as he'd practiced dentistry. He was the leader of a band of idealistic conspirators, the Inconfidencia Mineira, inspired by enlightened ideas from Europe and the U.S. Constitution. They witnessed the exploitation of Brazilians and yearned to free the country from the yoke of Portugal. A Judas in the group betrayed their plans and Tiradentes was sentenced to die by the order of Empress Dona Maria I. Not just "off with his head!" but also drawn, quartered, and severed into pieces. Thus was the rebellion quelled. To this day, Tiradentes is honored as Brazil's foremost hero every April 21, the day of his execution, a national holiday. That is why Brasilia, the nation's extraordinary new capital, was inaugurated on that exact day in 1960.
The eighteenth century charm of Tiradentes is contagious, population just 6,000. Much in favor with wealthy residents of Belo Horizonte and other cities many old mansions have been lovingly transformed into pousadas (guesthouses, small inns) or restaurants. Sure to please discriminating travelers are the stunning Solar da Ponte Pousada and enchanting Pequena Tiradentes. Restaurants with rave reviews include Santissima Gula, Padre Toledo and Tragaluz ("come into the light"). Try its amazing chorizo beef.
A world of passion unfolds in Ouro Preto, two hours southeast of Belo, a fairytale city come to life with a population of 65,000. The former state capital (1711 – 1897) formerly called Vila Rica will celebrate its 300th anniversary next year. This was the first site in Brazil to be recognized by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site in 1980. Beautiful baroque architecture delights the eye at every turn. Its curved cobblestone streets are built on steeply rising green hillsides at an altitude of over 3,600 feet. Red-tiled roofs, whitewashed buildings, wrought-iron balconies and the colors of the doors and window frames in vivid blues, greens, yellows and reds are a feast for the senses. The iconic cast of characters who played their parts on this magnificent stage rise swiftly to mind. Shakespeare himself could not have imagined more fascinating heroes and villains men of faith and of greed, the romantics and idealists, incredible artists and intellectuals, all interacting in a whirlwind of events.
The population of Ouro Preto swelled to over 80,000 by 1750, exceeding that of New York City. Vast fortunes were made, some literally overnight. Opulent churches were constructed to reflect the wealthy gold-barons' expressions of faith. Lay brotherhoods of these rich individuals financed the building of the churches as the Portuguese crown forbade religious orders from the region. Between 1695 and 1820, hundreds of tons of treasure were transported on muleback, a perilous passage over forbidding mountains, the Estrada Real (the Royal Road) from Ouro Preto to Paraty and Rio and from there shipped to Portugal.
A compelling spirituality permeates these environs. You are awed when you step foot in the renowned Igreja de Sao Francisco de Assis and view the sculptures of Antonio Francisco Lisboa, "Aleijadinho" (1738-1814) and the paintings of Manuel da Costa Ataide (1762-1830); when you explore the oldest opera house in Latin America, the Teatro Municipal, which opened in 1770 and still stages performances; when you visit the Museu do Oratorio to view the fabulous treasury of 18th and 19th century sacred art. What breathtakingly beautiful legacies to inspire and enrich our world!
A truly gorgeous pousada is centrally-located Ouro Preto's Solar Rosario Hotel. Pousada do Mondego and Pousada do Arcanjo are also attractive choices. Wonderful restaurants include award-winning Casa do Ouvidor, Bene da Flauta, O Passo, and Casa dos Contos.
Among intriguing museums to visit, the Museum of Science and Technology displays a large selection of incredibly spectacular precious gems. Ouro Preto is the place to shop for precious stones as well as soapstone carvings and other handicrafts.
The pilgrimage site of Congonhas do Campo, built in 1757, was designated a UNESCO world heritage site in 1985. Every September thousands of the faithful gather at this hilly site at the Sanctuary of Bom Jesus de Matozinhos . Here stand Aleijadindo's twelve lifelike soapstone sculptures of the prophets. Aleijadinho means "the Little Cripple", so called because his hands were maimed. He worked with hammer and chisel strapped to his wrists and produced some of the most artistic religious masterpieces in the world. Sixty-six figures carved in cedar wood and painted by Ataide are housed in six chapels depicting The Stations of the Cross.
Sensational Minas Gerais provides countless soul-stirring experiences. It will likely capture your heart. You vow to return and this time, you mean it. BTOA's members can be relied upon for expert firsthand knowledge of the region, supplied with that special mineiro touch!
For more information on the State of Minas Gerais please go to the web site: