Brazil’s Picture-perfect City
Wherever you look, you’ll find beauty and poetry in Brazil’s most charming historic city. Surrounded by mountains, full of young people and famous for wonderful food, this marvel of Latin American Baroque architecture lives and breathes art.
Text: Daniel Nunes Gonçalves | Photos: Adriano Fagundes
Far from Brazil’s idyllic beaches, the city of Ouro Preto stretches through a labyrinth of steep, narrow alleys paved in irregular cobblestones that make walking a challenge. Regardless, the city that 74-year-old artist Carlos Bracher has made his home for the past 43 years beckons you to embark on long walks without a fixed destination. Along the way, you take in the colorful colonial houses, the striking red roofs and “the sunsets and twilights behind the mountains,” in the words of this artist, one of many who open their workshops to visitors. “The unusual topography made it the ideal place to not build a city,” jokes Bracher. “But the sequence of ups and downs in the landscape makes for a delicious dynamic.”
As happens so often with people visiting Ouro Preto for the first time, Bracher fell in love with the city from the heights of Praça Tiradentes. So much so that he decided to leave behind his hometown of Juiz de Fora, near the beautiful Rio de Janeiro coast, to set up his home and studio in a 100-plus-year-old mansion tucked amid the winding streets. “When I open the back balcony window, I see a finished work of art, the church towers contrasting with the green of the horizon,” says Bracher, whose 80-piece retrospective is touring Brazil through June 2015. When he leaves his home, Bracher finds even more inspiration: “Right out there, you can see the spectacular façade of the Iglesia do Carmo, designed by the master Aleijadinho.”
Vila Rica, Forever
A 90-minute drive from the airport in Belo Horizonte, the capital of the Brazilian state of Minas Gerais, Ouro Preto is home to the country’s largest concentration of Baroque architecture and forms part of the classic circuit of historic cities, preserving an important part of Brazil’s past. At the end of the 17th century – long before the luxury hotels, prestigious restaurants and galleries from award-winning artists like Bracher brought a dose of glamour to streets rich in plazas, gardens and fountains – there were 30,000 miners living in the town of Vila Rica. The bounty that helped make a fortune for Portuguese colonists also led to the city being renamed Ouro Preto, which means “black gold,” in 1823.
Although a number of underground gold mines from the 17th and 18th centuries are still open to visitors, actual mining operations are a thing of the past. The Ouro Preto of the 21st century boasts other kinds of riches. The first Brazilian city to receive Cultural Heritage of Humanity status from UNESCO is like an open-air art exhibit. The city’s old quarter is well preserved, as evidenced by the Teatro Municipal: the oldest functioning theater in the country dates back to 1770. The local museums cover everything from mineralogical treasures – like at the Casa dos Contos, built in 1784, where the gold was weighed and melted – to impeccable religious relics, like the more than 160 saints’ oratories at the Museu do Oratório and the garments embroidered with gold thread at the Museu de Arte Sacra.
Today, a large number of artists are still producing original works. Paulo Valadares and Milton Passos paint with oils, while the brothers Bié and Veveu sculpt with the traditional soapstone. Just as the country’s colonial-era art scene was born from the exploitation of gold and incorporated external influences, the artists of today repurpose Baroque and Rococo inspirations in contemporary creations. In 2014, Bracher produced 85 paintings to commemorate the 200th anniversary of the death of Aleijadinho.
The sculptor, stone mason and architect born Antônio Francisco Lisboa is considered by many experts to be the greatest exponents of Baroque in the Americas and the country’s biggest name in Rococo. The nickname by which he is best known, Aleijadinho or “The Little Cripple,” came from a degenerative condition that damaged his hands and feet. It’s said that he had to tie his chisel to his wrists, but this challenge didn’t stop him from leaving behind hundreds of works, including the Igreja de São Francisco de Assis, completed in 1810. In 2009, this masterwork was selected as one of the Seven Wonders of Portuguese Origin around the world. Some of the Baroque master’s other creations can be seen at the Museo Aleijadinho, which operates inside the church.
Gold-laden churches – like the Igreja Matriz da Nossa Senhora do Pilar, with more than 880 pounds of the precious metal on its walls – and superbly curated museums offer evidence of Ouro Preto’s historic wealth, but the colorful city in the mountains of Minas Gerais is far from frozen in time. “The city has a rather young profile, since 12,000 of the 75,000 inhabitants are students at the Universidade Federal de Ouro Preto (UFOP),” explains Willian Adeodato, director of the local Visitors Bureau.
If you visit in February – when Carnaval imbues the streets with all the joy of the Brazilian people – you won’t recognize the quiet alleys where Carlos Bracher prefers to walk in peace. The dozens of repúblicas (student housing facilities) turn into hostels, people take to the streets in fun costumes, and groups of musicians parade up and down the slopes. “It’s one of those events that fills the 1,600 beds of our 50 hotels,” says Adeodato. A half million tourists come to the city every year.
The annual calendar is rather intense. During Easter Week, the streets are covered in flowers and sawdust. In June, a film festival sets up outdoors in Praça Tiradentes. In July, the Winter Festival offers music, theater and circus performances. Lovers of literature come together in September for the Fórum das Letras. In December, there’s the Tudo é Jazz event, which brings quality music to many of the city’s 57 bars and restaurants.
Despite the challenges of a crippling degenerative disease, Aleijadinho left a tremendous artistic legacy.
And the tables of Ouro Preto offer other artistic creations: delectable dishes that combine mineira tradition with contemporary influences. At the bars – known as botecos – and restaurants, you can sample the famous dishes of Minas Gerais, one of the most respected cuisines in Brazil.
The regional fare starts with a mix of rice, beans and cabbage in the service of dishes featuring pork (the bacon and sausages are delicious), beef (the charque or dried beef is particularly tempting) and chicken (like cabidela, in which the bird is cooked in its own blood). Yucca and polenta are other staples, with delicious appetizers like bolo de yuca and savory polenta pie. Another delight you can enjoy any time of day is pão de queijo – the original recipes for “cheese bread” from Minas Gerais are so popular that they’ve spread throughout Brazil. Cheese is also enjoyed as dessert, accompanied by guava paste in a treat known as “Romeo and Julieta.”
These recipes are usually complemented by cachaça, the famous Brazilian liquor used in caipirinhas, and for which the region has quite a reputation. But drink with caution, as too much can make the challenging walks up and down the steep streets of Ouro Preto even more daunting. in
Three flights a week to Belo Horizonte from Miami and daily flights to Belo Horizonte from São Paulo, Brasilia and Rio de Janeiro, among other cities, followed by ground transportation to Ouro Preto.
For more information, visit tam.com.br
Solar do Rosário
Rua Getúlio Vargas, 270
Pousada do Mondego
Largo de Coimbra, 38
Pousada dos Meninos
Rua do Aleijadinho, 89
Senhora do Rosário
Hotel Solar do Rosário
Bené da Flauta
Rua S. Francisco de Assis, 32
Rua São José, 167
Bars & Cafés
Café cultural de Ouro Preto
Rua Cláudio Manoel, 15
Rua Barão de Camargos, 8
Rua Conde de Bobadela, 122
Ateliê Carlos Bracher
Rua Coronel Alves, 56
Casa dos Contos
Rua São José, 12
Museu Aleijadinho (Igreja São Francisco de Assis)
Largo de Coimbra, s/n /
Museu de Arte Sacra
(Matriz de N. S. do Pilar)
Praça Monsenhor Castilho
Museu do Oratório
(Igreja do Carmo)