Ouro Preto, City of Black Gold
A side trip to Ouro Prêto, about 100 kilometres south east of Belo Horizonte, turns out to be one of our best diversions. Even the ride down is fun. For two hours, Katie and the Bumblebee thrive on the curvy mountain roads of Serra do Espinhaço as we head southeast to the old colonial city.
Ouro Prêto, now a UNESCO World Heritage Site, was capital of the state of Minas Gerais from 1822 until 1897, when the needs of government outgrew this opulent berg wedged in a narrow valley. We approach the city by angling down a mountainside, arriving just above the city centre. We stop and look down. From here it looks like 90% of the streets are black diamond runs made from cobblestone. Tightly packed tile-roofed buildings, like an over-eager crowd, squeeze in too closely both sides of the streets. Motorcycles and cobblestones are not friends. Cobblestone, especially made from soapstone, and rain are not friends. We could have fun getting back out of here.
Lonely Planet Brazil describes it best: "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. Of all the exquisite colonial towns scattered around Minas Gerais, Ouro Prêto is the jewel in the crown. Significant historically as a center of gold mining and government, and as the stage for Brazil’s first independence movement, the city remains vital in modern times as a center for education and the arts, and as one of Brazil’s three most visited tourist destinations."
"Built at the feet of the Serra do Espinhaço range, Ouro Prêto’s colonial center is larger, and has steeper topography, than any other historical town in Minas. The narrow, crooked streets of the upper and lower towns tangle together and in places are too rough and precipitous for vehicles. Navigating the vertiginous cobblestoned slopes on foot can be exhausting, but the views of 23 churches spread out across the hilly panorama are spectacular. The city is a showcase of outstanding Mineiro art and architecture, including some of Aleijadinho’s finest works." Well said Lonely Planet, we totally agree.
Joyce and I get settled at Posada Ouro Preto, a lovingly restored three story, perched precariously, like everything else, on alarmingly tilted real estate. By now it's evening but a full moon begins its climb over the eastern ridge. We decide on a walkabout. The air is warm, we take a light jacket but don't need it. As darkness falls around us, the night scene becomes magically romantic. Street lamps of wrought iron and glass panels arch over sidewalks, casting pale pools of antique yellow light on walls and streets made of stone. A lantern-like glow, framed by a home window, casts itself at our feet as we walk by. A restaurant doorway, its brown doors open wide like welcoming arms, invites us into an elegant dining room, where on white tablecloths white candles and crystal wine glass reflections twinkle back at us. Other than those weak illuminations, and a waxing moon, the 19th century streets lay in darkness.
We thread our way to the town square. There, in brightly lit windows, tourist vendors boldly advertise their wares. Jewelry storefronts, in 500 watt glitter and glamour, showcase precious diamonds, gold, silver, emeralds, sapphires, as well as a dazzling display of semi-precious like garnets, turquoise and imperial topaz. Joyce tries on various attractive rings, necklaces and earrings. She walks away empty handed, but "richer" for the experience.
Richer for the experience we are too when we dine. The restaurant we choose has been cleverly renovated, combining the best of old and new world. Keeping the charm of the century stone building with its heavy timber construction interior and warm wooden floors, the place is filled with eclectic art, antique mining tools, colourful paintings and fresh flowers. The service is exceptional; the filet mignon is perfect. The full moon shines its approval over the nearby church turrets of Saint Francis of Assis as we leave. What a lovely way to end our last night in small town Brasil.
Next day we tour the sights in the cool of the morning. First stop is the Igreja de São Francisco de Assis (The Church of Saint Francis of Assisi). This Rococo Catholic church, we are told, began erection in 1766. Designed by the great Brazilian architect and sculptor Antônio Francisco Lisboa, known as Aleijadinho to his fans, the carved decorations inside are also his handiwork. The circular bell towers were original architectural features for their time.
The church interior is cool to bare arms, but warm to the eye. Lining the perimeter are rich decorations of finely carved woodwork and statues covered in real gold foil, walls are filled with museum quality paintings. A biblical scene mural with much colour spreads across the entire wooden ceiling. It looks like a Portuguese Michelangelo spent most of his life here. OK, I'm suitably impressed.
Soapstone carvings, paintings, sketches, toys and art objects abound. If a saleable item is known or can be imagined by a Brasilian artist, it will be created and on sale here in Ouro Prêto.
In fact, I think this open air market is the largest collection of handmade art I have ever seen. We wander some but buy nothing. How will we carry it in our already overweight, overpacked motorcycles?
Leaving Ouro Prêto in late afternoon, we ride toward our rendezvous with Euroville tomorrow to begin the process of shipping ourselves and motorcycles home. We stop to get money at an ATM outside Belo Horizonte. Evandro and Fernanda Gomide pull up, get out of their SUV and walk over to talk with us. Evandro, having toured South America himself on a bike, is curious about our travels. Learning of our situation, they offer to help organize a hotel for our upcoming week in BH. But first, come for supper, have a beer, have a shower, stay over, please, we have lots of room at our house. Daughters Camila and Laura are fascinated with Joyce's BMW.
A group photo of Evandro, Fernanda, Camila and Laura is called for after supper and before we go out to see the night lights of Belo Horizonte and have an ice cream. What a lovely family. So typical of Brazilians. We much appreciate their hospitality and their help. Thanks to Fernanda's research skills, we spend the remainder of our time in BH in the great value-for-money Hotel Formule 1.
Posted by Murray Castle at June 29, 2009 11:24 PM GMT