Ouro Preto and Conganhas
24/01/10 - 25/01/10 Conganhas, Minas Gerais, Brazil
25/01/10 - 27/01/10 Ourp Preto, Minas Gerais, Brazil
One of the highlights of Brazil in the guidebook is a visit to Ouro Preto and other colonial towns (cidades historicas) in and around Minas Gerais. So that's what we decide to do. It involves many long distance bus journeys to Belo Horizante, Brazil's third biggest city after Sao Paulo and Rio.
The journeys are long and ardous and to tell the truth I am getting sick of bus journeys by now. I've finished all my reading material and have not been able to find a decent English language book. Bookshops in Brazil do have English books but they are of the John Grisham and Dan Brown variety and anyone who knows me knows I only read highbrow stuff like Proust, Shakespeare and you know, highbrow writers. When you have to sit for 6/7 hours without anything to do but look at trees you slowly start to go a bit mental.
The worst journey is from Belo Horizante to the first of the colonial towns: Conganhas. Every single seat on the bus is broken, many reclined fully. Windows were cracked or couldn't be forced shut. The whole vehicle including the driver and his conductor were covered in dust.
It soon became clear why this was so. The stretch between Belo and Conganhas was one of the worst roads I'd seen so far. It was corrugated, potholed and dusty. When we came upon stretches where it had rained recently, it was muddy and boggy (if that is a word). About halfway through however, the road became a complete pussy. It wound gently past hills with neat little houses and startling tropical plants. The rest of the journey couldn't be smoother and I nearly fell asleep.
We arrived in Congonhas in the evening. It was humid, smoky and quiet but there was a buzz around town. The only thing people visit Congonhas for are the statues at the Basilica do Bom Jesus de Matosinhos. The dramatic statues, called The Twelve Prophets, are by Brazil's most famous artist Aleijadinho. The story behind the statues is fascinating. Suffering from a debilatating disease, probably leprosy, Aleijadinho sculpted the twelve soapstone figures by having his assistants strap his hammer and chisels to what remained of his hands, which did not at this point include fingers. Since he no longer had feet to stand on he had pads strapped to his knees up which he'd climb the ladders needed to get him off the ground. The Twelve Prophets, completed between 1800 and 1805, are arranged around the courtyard and stairway in front of the church. Walking among them is a great experience. The statues almost seem to be performing a balletic dance.
The next day we catch a bus to Ourp Preto, the most famous of all the colonial towns in and around minas Gerais. Founded at the end of the 17th century, Ouro Preto (meaning Black Gold) was the focal point of the gold rush and Brazil's golden age in the 18th century under Portuguese rule.
According to the guidebook, the city contains well preserved Portuguese colonial architecture, with few signs of modern urban life. Modern construction must adhere to historical standards maintained by the city. Eighteenth- and nineteenth-century churches decorated with gold and the sculptured works of Aleijadinho make Ouro Preto a prime tourist destination.
When we arrive, some guy, a "guide" takes us to a 'hotel'. It's cheap so we agree to stay for a night. The room doesn't have an attached bathroom but it does have cable (unless there is cable, Brazillian tv is utter cack - normally some guy preaching how good Jesus was and how shit you all are or some woman with enormous boobs trying to sell you exercise bikes). The cable is provided by the manager looping a wire from his room along the balcony, poking it under the door then into the television. This gives me the chance to catch up on some news through BBC World Service and CNN (well, CNN doesn't actually show any news but a series of commercials telling you how great it would be to visit some Arab states).
Built at the feet of the Serra do Espinhaco range, Ouro Preto's colonial center is large and has a very steep topography. The narrow, crooked streets of the upper and lower towns tangle together. Navigating the vertiginous cobblestoned slopes on foot is exhausting, but worth it for the views of the 23 churches spread out across the hills.
The next day we head back to Rio from whence we will go to the Amazon.
Basilica do Bom Jesus de Matosinhos
Aleijadinho's masterpieces The Twelve Prophets
Chilling out at the "hotel"
Practising for the Carnaval