by Tim Dawe
At first glimpse Ouro Preto has an otherworldly quality; on approach it’s like a billiard table with lumps in the green baize. A baroque church sits atop nearly every domed hill of this quaint historic town.
As the former capital of resource-rich mining state Minas Gerais (MG), literally “general mines”, Ouro Preto holds a special place in the hearts of Brazilians as the cradle of national independence. And it’s tranquil and quiet…for Brazil.
I’m staying in the capital of MG, Belo Horizonte, a planned city, modern and bustling and surrounded by a circle of hills forming a beautiful horizon – its name in Portuguese. But today I’m being taken by friends on a day trip to Ouro Preto driving one and half hours southeast through high plateau country, 440km inland from Rio de Janeiro.
In keeping with the theme-park feel to this fully-preserved town, our hosts park at the outskirts and we join other pedestrians to claim its squares and alleyways for ourselves. First stop is the large Praça Tiradentes with its full-width museum heading the square. At the museum I learn more of Ouro Preto’s history. In 1693, when Brazil was a Portuguese colony, Duarte Lopez explored this vast iron ore province, stopping for a drink at a nearby stream. At the bottom of his mug, so the story goes, he found specks of gold stained dark with iron – black gold. Or in Portuguese, Ouro Preto.
This discovery inevitably led to a gold rush that created the rich village of Vila Rica, later called Ouro Preto, the state capital. It was then the largest city in South America. Following a well-worn theme, onerous taxes caused miners to rebel, culminating in the 1785 Inconfidência Mineira (miners’ conspiracy) led by revolutionary, republican and former dentist Joaquim José da Silva Xavier, known as Tiradentes (tooth puller). Tiradentes, became a national hero, was betrayed, condemned as a traitor, and horrifically executed. This museum of a town, now a UNESCO cultural site, sparked the fuse that ignited the revolutionary struggle towards independent nationhood in 1822.
The enormous wealth from gold mining generated the customary nouveau riche patrons who, in keeping with their time, commissioned the best artists and architects to build churches. Lots of them. The most famous architect/artist of his time was Antônio Francisco Lisboa, or Aleijadinho – the little cripple. And his most famous Ouro Preto masterpiece was the Church of St Francis of Assisi.
We assemble nearby in front of this church where Leandro, a town guide, appears through some unseen, unspoken transaction. It’s a Brazilian thing. Our entrance is temporarily blocked by a film crew shooting an actor as a small, cripple carving over the doorway. Leandro introduces us to the riotous rococo interior. It’s blindingly golden – sort of ecclesiastic bling – with a message more “look at me” than a contemplative God-filled life. Aleijadinho was born in 1736 at Ouro Preto, to a Portuguese architect and African mother becoming a giant in architecture, painting and sculpture. His work blends African, Chinese and Portuguese styles to produce uniquely Brazilian art and architecture.
Leandro leads us through a kaleidoscope of cobblestone streets, colourful period buildings with occasional vistas of rolling hills, churches and a jumble of history. We stop at the large Praça Rio Branco headed by the imposing Basilica of Our Lady of Pilar – the elite’s church. This hill appears to have been decapitated leaving the square with a sheer drop-off and wonderful distant views. There is evidence of yesterday’s weekly market.
I’m fading, so the decision to stop for lunch at the modern restaurant Casa do Ouvidor is welcome. It’s a three-hour affair featuring feijão de tropeiro, a local version of the national dish of pork and black bean stew, and copious amounts of the lethal cachaça. We’re interrupted mid-drink by a noisy street parade of people on stilts. We take to the street to look but remain none the wiser. Some things just happen. It’s a Brazilian thing.
The Mineralogy Museum is at the other end of Praça Tiradentes. It’s a comprehensive collection of gems and artefacts, and of course central to both Ouro Preto’s, and MG’s, existence. It seems that the only industry today is tourism. Leandro provides an interesting and more active visit to an old disused mine – much needed after lunch. It’s only a sample but, bent double and scrambling along tiny tunnels, it rams home what life was like at the coalface – so to speak.
I’ve felt immersed and transported; it’s more than I expected. History and nationalism is brought together in this picturesque time capsule of a town. Brazilians, past and present, have reason to be proud of their “black gold” iconic town. Fittingly, a golden sunset spreads out as we strike out for Belo Horizonte.