Striking Gold in Brazil

Jerry Haines is a lawyer who lives in Arlington, Va

Even as a fifth-grader, I knew injustice when I saw it: my sister getting a larger piece of dessert; big kids tying my gym shoes to an overhead steam pipe and the teacher blaming me--me!--for losing them; Spain getting most of the Western Hemisphere. Look in the history books at the line Pope Alexander VI drew in 1493: Portugal got nothing in North America and only the tiniest, easternmost slice of South America. Even after the Treaty of Tordesillas was signed a year later, Portugal's part was expanded a mere 800 miles west. What a rotten deal.

Now that I've visited Brazil, I feel better about Portugal's plight. Portugal got Ouro Preto.

You've seen Ouro Preto if you go to movies. Remember "Moon Over Parador," in which Richard Dreyfuss played a journeyman actor pressed into service as a stand-in for the inconveniently dead dictator of a fictional South American country? That gorgeous scenery of Parador is really Ouro Preto, about 200 miles straight north from Rio de Janeiro in the Brazilian state of Minas Gerais. Ouro Preto is cobblestone streets, carefully preserved 18th and 19th century buildings and Baroque churches, all set on a gathering of hilltops that snag the passing clouds each morning and release them to let in the afternoon sun.

My wife, Janice, and I visited Ouro Preto in May, after a stay in Rio. We chose it for its accessibility from Rio and the contrast it posed to that metropolis. In doing so, we discovered that the town is more than an open-air sound stage. Ouro Preto is also history, a key chapter in Brazil's story of artists and revolutionaries and, mainly, gold.

About 1697, members of a Portuguese expedition sent to capture Indians as slaves happened upon some strange black stones and, curious, took them back to Rio for analysis. The black matter was iron oxide, but it enveloped almost pure gold. Soon miners discovered that the hills in the area were interlaced with thick veins of the stuff, leading to a California-style gold rush.

At first, the crowds grew faster than the ability to feed them. Legend even has it that some men died of starvation while carrying gold in their pockets.

A town, Vila Rica ("rich village"), grew near the mines, was designated the capital of Minas Gerais and eventually was rechristened Ouro Preto--"black gold." Although about 61,000 people live in Ouro Preto today, at mid-18th century the population was 80,000. By comparison, Philadelphia counted only 54,000 in the 1790 Census.

At one time most of the world's gold came from Minas Gerais. The rich metal was refined here, cast into coins and hauled overland to the seacoast, whence it was shipped to Portugal.

The oldest and deepest gold mine, Mina da Passagem, was one of our first stops. It's on a country road five miles from town where eucalyptus trees give the air a vaguely medicinal aroma. A primitive elevator reminiscent of the mine cars in "Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom" plunged us diagonally hundreds of feet from the portal. Watch your heads, we were told as the little car scuttled through narrow openings carved with industry, not tourism, in mind. (There was no OSHA in 18th century Brazil.)

The mine is quiet now, except for the dripping of water and the voices of tour groups wandering from room to room. Only a small part of the seven miles of galleries is open to the public, but guides explained how the gold was removed, showed us the mine's mirror-like underground lake and pointed out residual traces of gold still in the rock columns. (Before you get greedy, those few bright flecks are embedded in rocks that support the ceiling and would cost more to remove than they're worth.) The quiet was a little eerie, not because of any physical danger (tours are restricted to the larger rooms near the entrance), but because of what once took place here. In one sense it was like being in someone's basement, until we realized that this place once was an economic engine for the world.

Thirty-five tons of gold were taken from these galleries before the mine finally closed. Most of the people who risked their lives to separate those riches from the rocks came unwillingly from Africa as slaves. Slaves could buy their freedom, however, and many did so after only two years by smuggling gold dust to the surface in dental cavities or rubbing it into their hair and clothing.

Chico Rei, a slave who had been a tribal ruler in Africa, vowed to become a king again--and, in effect, he did. After a few years of laboring in the mines, he not only bought freedom for himself, his son and several of his countrymen but ended up owning a mine that can still be seen at the edge of town.

Eventually the mines were exhausted, slavery was abolished and the state capital was moved north to Belo Horizonte. Ouro Preto slid into the shadows of history. And maybe that's a good thing; maybe it's why Ouro Preto remains so fascinating.

Here's a navigational tip: Don't try to locate things by their distance from "the beautiful church." Everything in Ouro Preto is by a beautiful church, usually one dramatically positioned on a hilltop. Missionaries were among the first arrivals in Brazil; there are 23 Roman Catholic churches and chapels in the city limits and more nearby. We visited about a half-dozen before I had to call a timeout. They were starting to run together in my mind.

Many show the work of a remarkable artist and woodcarver, Antonio Francisco Lisboa. He was born about 1738, the son of a Portuguese architect and an African slave, and nicknamed "Aleijadinho," the "little cripple," because of a disease (possibly leprosy or arthritis) that crippled his legs and his gifted hands. Near the end of his life the affliction became so bad that he needed to have the hammers and chisels tied to his hands so he could carve the angels, saints and Madonnas that grace the town churches.

His work is considered among the finest Brazilian Baroque. One of the most prominent churches, Nossa Senhora do Carmo, just off the main square, started as the work of Aleijadinho's father, with the son tinkering and elaborating on it for four decades. Up close, the flourishes of its facade reminded me of an elaborately ornamented carriage.

The charms of Carmo are mostly on its exterior, but the nearby church of Sao Francisco de Assis is Aleijadinho's own masterpiece, inside and out. He designed it, built it, then filled it with his visions in soapstone and wood. Even if we had not known his remarkable personal story, we would have been impressed. His angels and saints somehow manage to look like real people, notwithstanding their Rococo detail. The church was quiet and dark, and I half expected to hear a pitch pipe, then the pure, sweet singing of wooden cherubs.

Many of the other churches also include examples of his carving; it is said that he actually grew more prolific as his illness progressed. Although scholars praise his work for its confluence of techniques, to me his figures are notable for their humanity, their faces showing not merely vacuous adoration but the strain of real work, the joy of real spiritual peace.

One striking aspect of the churches, compared with European churches of the same era, is how much of the construction is of wood. Not surprisingly, some of it looks weathered and in need of restoration. But the charm of Ouro Preto is its authentic colonial-era atmosphere, which prompted UNESCO in 1980 to declare the town a cultural heritage site. Floors constructed of wide planks are authentically squeaky; balconies retain 18th century-style ironwork; storefronts manifest the unique stucco technique called robeque , in which sand, cement and limestone are forced through a sieve. Ouro Preto is, in some ways, the Colonial Williamsburg of Brazil, a place where Brazilians can study their own history.

Tiradentes Square, once crowded with extras cheering Richard Dreyfuss on cue, now is more likely to be filled with Brazilian high school and college students. We encountered them everywhere: touring the Casa dos Contos (the former treasury, now a museum of currency); sitting in sunny Reinaldo Alves de Brito Square; sketching the flower seller at the Baroque Contos fountain; and, inevitably, in the cafes yelling at a televised soccer game. Eager to try their English on us, many of them also asked to have their pictures taken.

They come also to learn more about Joaquim Jose da Silva Xavier, a dentist known as Tiradentes (literally "tooth puller"), at the museum that displays relics of an unsuccessful attempt at revolution. In 1789 the sometime dentist led the Inconfidencia Mineira, a conspiracy to gain independence from Portugal for Minas Gerais. His plot was discovered, and the Portuguese had him hanged in Rio. They put his severed head on a post in Ouro Preto, right about where a memorial column now stands. We got in line with the Brazilian students to see, among other things, his death warrant and the beams of his gallows, which are displayed in the Museu da Inconfidencia.

If that all seems a little grisly, at the other end of the square is the Museu de Mineralogia in the School of Mines building. The display cases contain gems, crystals and things that prompted me to ask, "Are these really minerals?" Some looked more fungal to me; others fibrous; others as if they had been plucked off a loom or a coral reef. Their colors are like rain forest butterflies or parrots. About 60,000 specimens are on display, many of them dug out of the earth around Ouro Preto.

You'll do better here if you learn a few Portuguese words; little English is spoken. A common response to our "Fala ingles?" was "Nao, somente portugues," with "and proud of it" implied.

Also, I suggest you build up your leg muscles ahead of time; everything in Ouro Preto is up a steep cobblestone street.

Finally, monitor your blood sugar. Brazilian food is hearty, savory, satisfying and often sweet. The breads on our breakfast buffet tasted more like cake, and the accompanying fruits were as sweet as candy. Our Brazilian table mates would shovel sugar into their dark, potent coffee. We even encountered a sweet beer.

But do try the sweet local liqueur, jabuticaba . Made from the fruit of the tree of the same name (often following a family recipe), it tastes as if the bartender mixed Campari with Cherry Kijafa.

We lodged at Pousada Classica, on one of the main streets. We had come to town on an overnight bus from Rio, without hotel reservations, lacking sleep. Some of Aleijadinho's angels must have been looking out for us. The tourist information desk at the bus station was actually open at 7 a.m., and the representative on duty found us an inexpensive hotel, and it actually was clean, modern and convenient. With a big--sweet--breakfast.

Lunches and dinners were not as sweet, but they were big. As in most of Brazil, meals here focus on meat, but it's likely to be pork rather than the beef that dominates menus in Rio. The cuisine is rustic and often includes black beans or okra or whatever else is fresh that day. It's the kind of food you'd want to eat had you worked all day in the mines--or worn yourself out climbing cobblestone streets to explore old churches.

Above a cafe called Booze--fine for lunch--was Casa do Ouivador, a cheerful place offering traditional dishes rendered with a deft touch. For me the star of the show was a Brazilian version of the Portuguese caldo verde (kale and potato soup).

We also ventured into Bahian cuisine at Relicario 1800. We tried the traditional Saturday night meal of feijoada , a dish of black beans, pork and who knows what. When Janice encountered an unidentifiable chunk of something in her beans, I tried to find out what it was. "Mushroom?" I asked, hopefully. The waitress shook her head and pointed to her ear. Janice bravely continued eating, but I suddenly got interested in the salad.

After dinner we would search for live music and had little trouble finding it in the cafes along Rua Direita. A piano-drum duo at Cafe Geraes offered us some gentle jazz with our jabuticaba , while in a club across the street a solo guitarist entertained us with Antonio Carlos Jobim songs. (I wondered whether inland-dwelling Brazilians ever grow weary of Jobim and his evocations of sand, sea and heartbreakingly unobtainable beach beauties.)

The local radio was full of American-style boy-bands, but bossa nova is still played in the clubs--cover charge about a dollar--and the Girl from Ipanema still goes walking, some 200 miles from the beach.

Sunday morning we tried to sleep in, but in a city full of churches, you can't escape church bells. And folks don't just ring them, they seem to hammer on them until the last agnostic in town relents.

Our choice for Mass was Nossa Senhora da Conceicao, the church where Aleijadinho's body rests. The church also had the most unusual instrumental accompaniment that we had heard: a 10-year-old with a set of snare drums and tom-toms. He played respectfully, pacing the chanting of the liturgy. Toddlers tumbled in the aisles, occasionally waddling across the church to greet toddler buddies, their mothers dashing to retrieve them. The church's angels and saints (among the few in town not carved by Aleijadinho) seemed to approve. The mines may be played out, but there is still a richness in Ouro Preto.

You know, I thought, I don't feel so sorry for Portugal anymore.

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

Guidebook: In Brazil, Gold Fever

* Getting there: Connecting service from Los Angeles to Belo Horizonte (about 60 miles from Ouro Preto) is available on American and Varig airlines; restricted round-trip fares start at $974. The airport is a long drive (about $30 by cab) from downtown Belo Horizonte. Several buses each day leave the downtown Belo Horizonte terminal (Rodoviaria) for Ouro Preto. One-way fare is about $4; the ride takes about two hours.

* Where to stay: Pousada Classica, Rua Conde de Bobadela 96, telephone 011-55-31-551-3663, fax 011-55-31-551-6593, Internet http://www.pousadaclassica.com.br; doubles about $25. Modern and well located on a principal street, a short walk from Tiradentes Square. Great breakfast buffet (included in rate). First-floor rooms are a bit noisy.

Hotel Colonial, Trav. P. Camino Veloso 26, tel. 011-55-31-3551-3133, fax 011-55-31-3551-3161; doubles from about $35 (includes breakfast). Attractive place on a side street not far from Tiradentes Square. Three of the rooms are two-level lofts.

Luxor Ouro Preto, Rua Dr. Alfredo Baeta 16, tel./fax 011-55-31-551-2244, http://www.luxor-hotels.com/ouropreto; doubles $50 to $85. Attractive 18th century building houses comfortable lodgings with pretty views. Near craft studios and other shops.

* Where to eat: As with most of Brazil, meals in Ouro Preto are meat-intensive. Entrees usually are large enough for two.

Casa do Ouivador, Rua Direita 42 (upstairs from Booze), local tel. 551-2141, typical cafe meal about $18. Meat, of course, but also particularly good soups and salads. Big, happy, attractive room.

Relicario 1800, Praca Tiradentes 64, tel. 551-2855, typical meal about $17. This is the place for comida mineira , the traditional local cuisine, and on Saturdays for feijoada , a hearty dish of black beans, rice and parts of the pig you don't always see on a plate.

Cafe Gerais, Rua Conde de Bobadela 96, no telephone, typical meal $15. When you're weary of steaks, roasts and chops, try Cafe Gerais for fine pasta and salad. Live music some evenings. No credit cards.

* For more information: There are several useful sites online. The School of Mines in Ouro Preto has a compendium at http://www.em.ufop.br/frames.htm (place cursor on "Links," then click on "Ouro Preto"). Also try the Brazilian Historical Towns site, http://cidadeshistoricas.terra.com.br.

Brazilian Consulate Trade Center, Tourist Information, 8484 Wilshire Blvd., Suite 730, Beverly Hills, CA 90211; tel. (323) 651-2664, Ext. 202; fax (323) 651-1274; http://www.embratur.gov.br.

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