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Ouro Preto is Brazil's crown jewel

Sunday, November 24, 2002

By Peter B. King, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

OURO PRETO, Brazil -- We had heard that the streets are steep in Ouro Preto. But it wasn't until we spent a few hours trudging up and down the almost-vertical cobblestones of this carefully preserved, 300-year-old city that we knew in our aching bones just how steep they can be.

The cobblestone streets of Ouro Preto are steep, and much of the city looks as it did in the 18th century, when the discovery of gold fueled its spectacular growth. (Janice Vance)

Ouro Preto, which means "black gold" in Portuguese, grew up in the high country about 200 miles northwest of Rio de Janeiro. Gold mixed with dark palladium discovered near the end of the 17th century made this city an El Dorado in its heyday, and that splendor can still be seen in the city's elaborate Baroque churches. Its houses and shops are also impressive, with red-tiled roofs, wrought-iron balconies and arched windows trimmed in colors from pink to ochre to light blue. Stone fountains and period lamps adorn the streets, and around every curve is a view of spires rising into the misty, rocky green hills.

A UNESCO World Cultural Heritage Site, this city of about 59,000 caters to tourists without being overly touristy -- comfortable inns and good restaurants beckon. Accomplished painters and artisans offer their wares. Ouro Preto can even claim, as New York once did, to be for lovers. If you're feeling romantic (or wish you were), buy your sweetheart one of the many precious and semiprecious gems mined in the region, including imperial topaz, which is found in only one other part of the world, the Ural Mountains of Russia.

I spent four days in Ouro Preto during a two-week visit to Brazil in late September. It began when my traveling companion and I took the 9 1/2-hour flight from Atlanta to Sao Paulo, the world's sixth-largest city, where we were met by our Brazilian friends.

For me, the trip was the fulfillment of a dream -- I play guitar, and I adore the powerful swing and melodicism of Brazilian music. This led me to study the country's culture and history and, finally, the mellifluous Portuguese language.

If You Go

Brazil Entry Requirements: Along with a passport, U.S. citizens must have a visa. Contact: Express Visa Service, 18 E. 41st St., Suite 1206, New York, NY, 10017; 1-212-679-5650; www.expressvisa.com.

Tourism And Travel Agencies: Embratur (Brazilian government): 1-202-238-2802; www.braziltourism.org; CVC USA: 1-866-928-2872; www.cvcusa.net; Ouro Preto Office Of Tourism: Praca Tiradentes No. 41;

phone 011-55-31-3559-3215.

Where To Stay: Luxor Ouro Preto, Rua Dr. Alfredo Baeta, No. 16; phone 011-55-31-3551-2244; www.luxor-hotels.com.br

Where To Eat: Cafe Geraes, Rua Direita, No. 122; call 011-55-31-3551-1405.

Painters: Tunico de Ouro Preto, Rua Bernardo de Vasconcelos, No. 143; phone 011-55-31-3552-2684; Silvana Rizzuto; Rua Bernardo Vasconcelos, No. 147; phone 011-55-31-9629-5093.

-- Peter B. King


I was not disappointed. We had a wonderful time everywhere we went, in part because our circumstances were ideal -- our generous and knowledgeable hosts always steered us to the right places. I even took a liking to sprawling Sao Paulo, which has more than its share of pollution, poverty and crime. Sao Paulo boasts many hilly, fashionable neighborhoods, great music and food, and a population that is young, energetic and humblingly slim.

From Sao Paulo, a 140-mile drive through farm land and mountains took us to the beach town of Ubatuba, midway between Sao Paulo and Rio de Janeiro. Ubatuba is old and inviting, with its European-style square. The mountains come right down to the edge of its beautiful beaches, which front the Atlantic Ocean. Though it was still late winter in Brazil, and not as hot as one might imagine, the water was warm enough for us to swim.

One day our guide drove us up to the hills outside of town. Not a particularly religious man, he quietly crossed himself and turned off the main highway onto a red-clay road he had seen but never taken, leading to a Guarani Indian reservation. There, several hundred residents farm small plots of land amid guava, banana and papaya trees, strutting roosters and the distant whisper of a waterfall.

Some of them still live in thatched huts with no electricity; a few had bright paint on their faces. But they are not completely apart from the modern world -- they sold us a CD of their village's music.

Back in the Sao Paulo area, we took leave of our hosts, catching the 90-minute flight to the city of Belo Horizonte, the capital of the state of Minas Gerais and the jumping-off point for trips to the cidades historicas, or historical cities, of which Ouro Preto is the most famous.

Belo Horizonte is the fourth-largest city in Brazil, with about 2.3 million people. Like its more recent counterpart, Brasilia, Belo is a planned city, laid out in a spectacular mountain-and-forest setting at the end of the 19th century.

We were met by two gracious friends-of-friends, who took us for lunch and a driving tour of the city, which, despite a beautiful lake and some classy neighborhoods, gave an impression of drab, sterile modernity. Then, in a downpour, our hosts drove us to Ouro Preto, a 50-mile ride.

We checked into the Luxor Ouro Preto, a small European-style inn or pousada, done up in rustic fashion. A filigreed iron lamp hung from the center of the room, illuminating patterned hardwood floors and a massive antique armoire. French doors led out to a tiny balcony above a steep cobblestone street, with a view, less than a block away, of an imposing Baroque church, the Matriz de N.S. de Conceicao.

With so much history to take in, it made sense to hire a guide. We found one at the tourist office in the main square, Praca Tiradentes, which is named for the martyred leader of the Inconfidencia -- a failed rebellion against the Portuguese crown by 12 of Ouro Preto's premier citizens in 1789.

The Colonial Brazilian city of Ouro Preto nestles in the mist-shrouded hills of Minas Gerais state, about 200 miles northwest of Rio de Janeiro. (Janice Vance)

Our guide, Jose do Carmo Fernandes, met us at our hotel at 9:30 the next morning. Fernandes, 54, worked in the School of Mines at the federal university in Ouro Preto for 28 years. He is semiretired, doting on his four children and many grandchildren, and keeping busy as a guide and an amateur gemologist. Unlike most of the people in town, he spoke good, if heavily accented, English. And he knew his stuff.

We began hiking in a light rain, stopping in four gilt-laden churches, including the Igreja de Santa Efigenia, where slaves worshipped; legend has it that they smuggled gold underneath their fingernails to help build it. As with several old churches in Ouro Preto, it boasts carving and design by Brazil's world-famous architect and sculptor, Aleijadinho.

Another church housed the Museu do Aleijadinho, which displays four huge, fanciful lions carved by the master.

Aleijadinho, by the way, means "little cripple" in Portuguese. Most of the conflicting, incomplete accounts of his life at least agree that he was the son of a Portuguese architect and a black slave, and that he lost the use of his hands and feet as a young man to disease, probably leprosy. He did his greatest sculpting with hammer and chisel strapped to his arms.

We also visited a gem museum and a gem store, where the owner unwrapped a little paper parcel and poured out hundreds of glittering imperial topaz, ranging from golden-yellow to burnt-orange to a few of the rare, pink-tinted stones. It was as if he had opened a package of light.

We walked some more, and I felt the pain start in my ankles and calves, then spread to my legs and lower back. We had hired Fernandes for four hours. But after more than five hours, he showed no signs of slowing down. Finally, we had to make an excuse and take our leave -- otherwise, he would have had to carry us home.

In the evening, we made it no farther than up over the hill to the Cafe Gerais. The cafe is an informal but elegant restaurant where the food was good and the music and the service were excellent. We heard a terrific flute and nylon-stringed guitar duo playing bossa nova and choro, an instrumental music of Brazil not unlike ragtime.

Everywhere we went in Brazil, the service was a revelation, in modest and expensive establishments alike. Brazilian waiters are polite, attentive and knowledgeable, without being overly chatty. It's a business relationship, and they consider themselves professionals. Their actions speak louder than their words.

In a hotel in Belo Horizonte, for example, a waiter named Edson volunteered to walk my companion around the huge buffet, explaining which dishes had garlic and which did not.

When I told Edson I had never tried pure cachaca -- rum made from sugar cane, a Minas specialty -- he trekked two floors down to the bar to fetch me a bottle of what he described as top-shelf stuff. He proudly poured me a big shot on the house; I thought it tasted like gasoline.

The level of service is even more astounding when you consider that, unlike their counterparts in the United States, Brazilian waiters don't work for tips. A 10 percent gratuity is built into the check -- if you're so moved, you can leave a bit more, but don't feel obliged.

Several restaurants in Ouro Preto specialize in the traditional food of Minas Gerais, cooked in clay pots. One dish I got hooked on is feijao tropeiro, a mixture of beans, manioc flour, and bits of eggs and bacon.

Breakfast at our hotel was a scaled-down version of what we had eaten in the fabulous padarias of Sao Paulo -- fresh fruits including mango and guava, catupiry (a soft, creamy cheese), freshly squeezed orange and pineapple juice, and an array of breads, cakes, pastries and tortes -- including the ubiquitous and delicious little pao de queijo (cheese bread). Then there's the coffee -- strong and complex, drunk by the Brazilians in tiny cups. We had ours in big cups -- cafe grande -- and we were flying.

After breakfast, we would wander the streets. Several painters work in their galleries while potential customers watch. We loved the unique cross-hatched rooftops of Ouro Preto, sometimes verging on the abstract, by Tunico de Ouro Preto, a gregarious, dreadlocked fellow who knows a lot about music as well as art. Next door, and a little less pricey, was another fine painter, Silvana Rizzuto.

We found an outdoor soapstone market selling everything from chess sets to statues of Christ. Other shops and markets offered minerals native to Minas, fashioned into parrots, coasters and carving knives, and semi-precious stones made into earrings, necklaces and bracelets.

Everything looked even better because of an embarrassingly favorable exchange rate -- in early October, one U.S. dollar bought almost four Brazilian reais-- now the rate hovers at about one to 3.5.

What's more, many of the merchants in Ouro Preto can be bargained with. If you display some interest in a piece, ask what it costs, look disappointed and take a tentative step toward the door, the price may suddenly come down.

Jewels and gold-laden churches aside, what I liked about Ouro Preto was its everyday sights and sounds. The city has some industry and a 5,000-student university -- you get a sense of real life going on there as well as tourism, of the timely as well as the timeless.

Trucks make a racket on the paving stones; their drivers curse and gesture when they can't get through a particularly narrow street. Groups of students with backpacks and cigarettes go from class to class.

The streets are dotted with republicas, student housing announced by whimsical, sometimes bizarre names and pictures. The sign for one republica named "Pronto Socorro" or "Emergency Room" shows a voluptuous woman in a nightgown being whisked away by ambulance attendants. "Necroterio" depicts a skeleton holding his skull in his hands.

We left Ouro Preto in order to travel on to Rio -- a decision I don't regret, as it is one of the world's great cities. But there are plenty of attractions in Ouro Preto we didn't get to; a horseback ride to the thumb-like peak of Itacolomy, the processionals in the month before Easter, underground gold mines; the historic city of Mariana, which is about 8 miles away.

Nevertheless, what will draw me back to Ouro Preto, as well as to the rest of Brazil, are its friendly, fascinating people.

One night at about 11, we were returning to our hotel when, on a whim, we strayed a little off the beaten path. Crime is not a big problem in Ouro Preto, and we weren't scared to walk at night. But perhaps we were taking a bit of a chance when we heard a guitar playing in a barzinho, a downscale joint with nothing on the walls but an unframed Brahma beer poster and streaks of dirt, and walked in.

It was just the barmaid and three weatherbeaten, middle-aged men, including the one with the guitar. In no time at all, we were passing the guitar back and forth, communicating in halting English and Portuguese and in the languages of blues and samba. I had nothing to drink, but by the time we walked out, I was as high as any of the peaks surrounding the city. Now that's something I will always remember.

Peter King can be reached at pking@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1458.

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