The state of Minas Gerais is a Brazilian giant. It covers 587,000 sq km (352,200 sq miles), and has nearly 20 million inhabitants. It is rugged and isolated, with a central plateau rising sharply from an escarpment that rims the entire eastern frontier.
Minas means mines, and everything from gold and diamonds to iron has flowed from Minas Gerais' veins of mineral ore to the world. Even today, the streets of its quaint, ancient towns are pink with iron-ore dust and its rivers red with it. In the 18th century, the gold of Minas Gerais was a colossus bestriding the world of commerce. About 1,200 tonnes of it were mined from 1700 to 1820. This fantastic amount made up 80 percent of all the gold produced in the world during that period.
Folklore contrasts the mineiro sharply with the extravagant carioca (inhabitant of Rio de Janeiro) and the industrious paulista (of São Paulo). The mineiro is said to be stubborn, cautious, hard-working, and thrifty. He is also an assiduous preserver; he has kept not only the music-box churches of his Baroque past, but also saved family heirlooms and trinkets, which clutter his attic rooms. And São João del Rei residents have preserved the music, and even the instruments, of the 18th century, performing a liturgy of Baroque orchestral pieces every Holy Week.
Yet mineiros are both conservative and progressive. The state contains Brazil’s best-preserved colonial towns, but mineiros built the nation’s first planned city, Belo Horizonte; and it was a group of mineiros, led by President Juscelino Kubitschek, who created the new capital, Brasília.
Ouro Preto was Minas Gerais’s capital until 1897, when mineiro statesmen inaugurated Brazil’s first planned city, Belo Horizonte. Compared with Ouro Preto, the bustling metropolis possesses little for sightseers, but it is a good base for visiting surrounding historic towns. It was one of the host cities for the 1950 World Cup, and will again host games when the FIFA World Cup returns to Brazil in 2014. Found in the chic Pampulha area is a striking chapel: the Capela de São Francisco, with its undulating roof and blue tiles, designed by Oscar Niemeyer in collaboration with Brazil’s greatest modern artist, Candido Portinari.
Although the riches produced by mining disappeared, the art remained. Today, the best place to see it is Ouro Preto, the center of the late 17th-century gold rush which now holds Brazil’s purest collection of Baroque art and architecture. Six museums and no fewer than 13 churches set among low hills and picture-book cottages make Ouro Preto resemble a Grimm Brothers’ fairy-tale town, and in 1981 Unesco declared Ouro Preto a World Heritage Centre – a title it well deserves.
Ouro Preto's gems include spacious Praça Tiradentes, a cobbled plaza rich in history, and the deceptively simple parish church of Nossa Senhora do Pilar, whose squarish facade hides Ouro Preto’s most extravagant Baroque interior; while Nossa Senhora do Rosário dos Pretos, in the Rosário district farther west, produces the opposite effect – the convex walls, curved facade, and shapely bell towers make Rosário Brazil’s most brashly Baroque architectural monument, but with an almost bare interior. Rosário was built by slaves, who had accumulated enough gold to erect its stunning shell, but not to decorate the interior.
80km (48 miles) from Belo Horizonte
Congonhas do Campo is the site of the two greatest masterworks of sculpture by Aleijadinho (the Minas Gerais sculptor and architect whose real name was Antônio Francisco Lisboa, 1738–1814) : the 12 life-sized outdoor carvings of The Prophets, located on the esplanade of the Bom Jesus de Matosinhos Sanctuary; and the 66 painted woodcarvings of The Stations of the Cross, housed in a series of garden chapels nearby. Carved entirely from soapstone, The Prophets are stolid, gray, and severe. In their stylized postures and costumes, they possess a mythic quality, as if sculpted entirely from imagination. While The Prophets seem suitably remote, the carved figures of The Stations of the Cross are vibrant and filled with emotion.
Tiradentes preserves the colonial-era feeling better than almost any other town in Minas Gerais. Pink-slate streets, an occasional horse-drawn cart, lace curtains, and brightly painted shutters contribute to a feeling of tranquility. The spacious Museu Padre Toledo (Rua Padre Toledo) contains period furnishings and sacred art. Nearby is the imposing Igreja de Santo Antônio, with gold-plated decoration and a stone frontispiece carved by local hero Aleijadinho.
Diamantina is a rugged hamlet many consider the equal of Ouro Preto in austere beauty and history. Bordering Brazil’s semi-arid sertão, Diamantina is surrounded by iron-red hills rising to a rocky plain. This area is particularly rich in orchids. The town’s white-walled cottages and churches cascade down an irregular slope, producing a stark profile of wooden steeples. Sights include the informative Museu do Diamante, where period mining equipment, documents, and furnishings are displayed, and grisly implements of torture used against the slaves are kept in a back room; the humble birthplace of President Juscelino Kubitschek (1902–76); and the Casa da Glória, a pair of blue and white stone structures linked by a wooden bridge – the site was the headquarters of Diamantina’s royal governors.
Praça das Merces, Tiradentes
tel: 32-3355 1255
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