(Photo: Rafael Estrella/Flickr)
Last week during our World Cup tour, we toured one of the places Brazilians like to go on vacation: Ouro Preto, an adorable old mining town largely preserved since its heyday in the 17th to 19th centuries. Now designated a UNESCO World Heritage site (Brazil’s first), the town is full of old Baroque churches, touristy shops, and tile-roofed houses that blanket all but the very steepest of hillsides.
Tucked into the mountains about 300 miles north of Rio de Janeiro, Ouro Preto (“black gold”) was the capital of Minas Gerais state until the environs were deemed too hilly and the capital moved to Belo Horizonte in 1897.
(Photo: Tony Galvez/Flickr)
It’s easy to see the highlights in a day, although you could also easily spend a week looking into Ouro Preto’s churches, wandering through parks, and perusing impressive museum collections.
At this elevation, temperatures are a bit cooler and the light is clean and beautiful. This makes it a welcome break from larger cities. But the biggest reason to go is the churches, more than 20 in all.
Turrets rising above the city’s red-tiled roofs guided us to gorgeous edifices dating back to the early 1700s, when Brazil was still a Portuguese colony and this area was the center of a major gold rush. By about 1750, the city had 100,000 people, more than New York City.
A relatively quick circuit of the town’s cobbled streets took us to the churches of São Francisco de Paula, de São José, do Rosário, do Pilar and do Carmo before we hit the main square and São Francisco de Assis.
A festive view of the São Francisco de Assis Church (Photo: Grito Rock/Flickr)
Some of the churches are decorated with the handiwork of the region’s most famous sculptor, Aleijadinho, or “little cripple,” a nickname he got when a debilitating disease rendered his hands useless. Stories about him sculpting with a chisel and a hammer tied to his arms made him all the more highly regarded. A museum dedicated to his work is next to one of the churches, Igreja Nossa Senhora da Conceição.
Although the churches’ exteriors are gorgeous in that crumbling-glory sort of way, the interiors are worth some time and small admission fees. The Pilar Parish church contains almost 1,000 pounds of gold and, according to legend, some of Jesus’ hair. The church of São Francisco de Assis (St. Francis of Assisi) is one of the most important works of art from Brazil’s colonial era. Aleijadinho himself carved the graceful exterior, while the interior is crowded with clusters of images festooning altarpieces and niches.
The ornate interiors sometimes reflect more enthusiasm than talent, and some of the sculptures are downright scary, including the mannequin-like statue of St. Francis holding a very realistic-looking skull in the church named for him.
Adega restaurant (Photo: Bruno Manini/Flickr)
Between churches, we stopped into a restaurant, Adega, for lunch. Like many in Brazil, it was buffet style. Unlike the fare at many buffets in the U.S., all the food was made from scratch. We knew this because the kitchen was on full view, not far from the dining area. It featured a giant brick wood-fired oven that cooked everything from lasagna to baked chicken.
Every time we looked, we saw a new dish added to the offerings lining a long table. We filled up on tasty versions of traditional Brazilian foods like faroca (yucca flour sautéed in butter, sometimes with eggs and meat mixed in) and feijoada, a black-bean and meat stew.
After the churches, museums are Ouro Preto’s other highlight. The city’s rich technological, commercial and artistic history is reflected in the diversity of its museums. The Museo do Oratório is an entertaining collection of oratorios, miniature shrines for home use. The Museu de Ciência e Tecnica has gemstones and an attached observatory. There’s a pharmacy museum, an opera museum and a tea museum.
The observatory at the Museu de Ciência e Tecnica (Photo: Teddy Sipaseuth/Flickr)
The fascinating Museu da Inconfidência, near the main square and the tourist information office, is a must-do for history buffs. It details a brief and bloody rebellion against Portuguese overlords in 1789. The Portuguese kept a hefty percentage of all earnings, and the colonists felt that went to line imperial pockets without any benefit to them — their own version of taxation without representation.
The rebellion was crushed and its leaders jailed — or worse. One of them, nicknamed Tiradentes or “the tooth puller” for his skill at dentistry, was drawn and quartered in Rio. Yikes. Now, the main square here and another photogenic Colonial town in these hills are named for him.
Arriving by train to Mariana (Photo: Francisco Martins/Flickr)
Speaking of other towns, Ouro Preto is only the beginning. From here, you can take a quick ride on a historical train to Mariana, an even smaller but no less charming town. Other lovely old towns in the area include Congonhas, Sabará and the remote Diamantina.
They’re all accessible via bus from Belo Horizonte (if you’re coming from farther away, it’s probably worth flying to BH and then hopping aboard a bus, or you’re looking at eight hours of more of driving time). We’ve found the buses safe and comfortable, and while roads tend to be decent, drivers can be crazy.