When the samba's over TRAVEL

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The Independent Culture
Jaded after Carnival, James Woodall made for Ouro Preto,

a gold prospectors' city that's a hymn to Portuguese Baroque

CARNIVAL has just ended in Rio de Janeiro; the long nights of intense heat, riotous dancing, excitement and danger are over. At this time of year, Brazil's magical beach city can leave visitors jaded and exhausted.

The ideal antidote to Carnival is Ouro Preto, an hour's flight to the north of Rio. One of the finest colonial remnants anywhere in the Americas, it is part of a patchwork of towns in the inland state of Minas Gerais called the cidades histricas ("historic cities"). They owe their architectural and artistic wonders to the discovery of gold and diamonds here 300 years ago by the Portuguese.

Like the Spanish, the Portuguese excelled in the Baroque style, and in Ouro Preto, brightest gem among these shining cities, the Baroque is hard to beat. Aleijadinho, one of Brazil's greatest artists and craftsmen who was born in Ouro Preto in 1738, was responsible for much of the church carving to be seen there today. Some of his finest work is in the church of Nossa Senhora do Carmo, with a font so elaborate you need a week to take it in.

Aleijadinho had a horrible life. In the late 1770s, he contracted a disease similar to leprosy, losing fingers, toes and the use of his legs. In spite of this, he completed his most remarkable carving between 1796 and 1805 in the nearby town of Congonhas; chisels and hammers were tied to his wrists and helpers trundled him about on a trolley. He died in a hovel outside Ouro Preto in 1814.

To get to Ouro Preto (which means "black gold"), fly from Rio de Janeiro to Belo Hori-zonte, the capital of Minas Gerais. There is no reason to spend more than five minutes in Belo Horizonte - a purpose-built city resembling Stevenage - so hire a car or take a bus to Ouro Preto. The drive through hilly, richly coloured and deserted countryside is a welcome tranquilliser for nerves shattered on Copacabana.

Once in the town, I made for the Hotel Solar das Lajes, which friends in Rio had recommended. Laje means "flagstone", "hotel" is a misnomer; the first impression is of a leafy tropical villa. Positioned on a hill overlooking the town, this old-fashioned inn consists of a couple of buildings nestling amid rich vegetation. A tall, full-bellied, moustachioed man in his fifties greeted me from the steps of the porch. He was Pedro Correia de Araujo, the hotel's owner.

I was offered the choice of a simple room (no bathroom) in the main building, or a larger, cooler, more expensive room, with white stone walls and heavy wooden furniture (and a bathroom), in the second building, a converted stable. I took the latter, as much as anything for the view over Ouro Preto. A mile below was the main square, dominated by a large fortress- like building. On nearby vantage points perched three churches. All were early 18th-century, whitewashed edifices fronted by elaborate carving and topped by delightful, whippy turrets.

The rest of the town meandered up and down steep inclines in a shimmer of white and green. It looked extraordinarily European, which in a way it was - the scene could have been lifted from a lush valley somewhere south of Lisbon.

Ten more churches were spread out, like little ornamental palaces, over gentle hills; in the distance, bigger hills, and wilder land - once the terrain of gold prospectors, but now, it seemed, conquered by a local division of the army, which was engaged in an afternoon's tank practice. The guns were intermittent and didn't really spoil the peace. Directly beneath my window, warbling birds and exotic butterflies flitted through the branches and glistening leaves of unidentifiable trees. Somewhere below them, water was burbling.

At the end of a shady path was a pool Pedro had built himself, as he had the whole hotel. The water was a little off-colour: "I've put too much cleaner in," Pedro explained, "but swim, swim! It's perfectly safe." The pool was fed by a shoot of water from the beak of a wooden bird (carved by Pedro) six feet above the surface. I stood under it, and let the cascade flush out the strains and cares of Carnival.

Ouro Preto was not somewhere I'd chosen for its food; peace and some serious Baroque, perhaps, but not memorable dishes. Pedro, of course, confounded culinary expectations. The next day, lunch was a magnificent chicken picadinho - a richly sauced stew, with perfectly cooked saffron rice, washed down with quantities of cold Brahma beer. I spent the afternoon recovering next to the pool, or flopping into it. The Baroque would have to wait.

Breakfast next morning was another of Ped-ro's surprises. The table was piled high with different types of melon, including a pippy red one sweet enough to be dessert, rolls, croissants, and a plate of piquant cold meats and cheese: merely a prelude to a major Sunday lunch.

A long hike down to the town centre was followed by a much longer climb up to Nossa Senhora do Rosrio dos Pretos. The view of the steep hills around was bracing. Inside the church, intricately carved angels trumpeted from every corner. The swirling pillars round the altar looked like sugar sticks.

Back down in the main square was one of the big sights of Ouro Preto, Nossa Senhora da Conceio. Though Aleijadinho never worked on this church, it was where he worshipped and is buried - under a plain wooden plank. The carving had a sugary quality here, too. The wood seemed to have been moulded with an almost carnal appetite. Ouro Preto Baroque is as fresh and sumptuous as cakes in a Belgian patisserie. Those late 17th-century ingots clearly inspired carvers to extraordinary feats.

You have to pay a nominal sum to get into most of the churches. The Conceio ticket also admits you to the adjoining Museu do Aleijadinho. Highlights here were four "lions" which once supported coffins; in fact, Aleijadinho never saw a lion, so the beasts he carved are inventions, with the faces of monkeys. His own face, sharp and haunted, can be seen in a portrait in the museum, his leper's hands hidden in his doublet.

A morning's dutiful church-browsing done, it was time for Pedro's lunch. He had started on it straight after breakfast, rolling up pasta pillows one by one and concocting a serious garlic sauce. The result was the best ravioli I'd ever tasted. He talked non-stop during lunch: about building his hotel from scratch, about his marriage (long since over), about his Danish background (another surprise), and about his art: he showed me a picture of a sculpted kingfisher which stands next to the great lagoon in Rio.

"I also want to set up a business, taking tourists into the wild, the jungle, to see our nature. Will you be my business partner?" I declined, but said I'd tell everyone there was something really reviving, other than the Baroque, waiting in Ouro Preto.

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TRAVEL NOTES

GETTING THERE: Campus Travel (0171-730 8111/ 0161 273 1721/ 0131 668 3303) flies to Rio de Janeiro from £488 return. Internal flights from Rio to Bela Horizonte cost $240 (£151), or a Varig Air Pass can be purchased which provides five legs of travel around Brazil.

Car hire: Avis (081-848 8733) provides basic car hire from Rio de Janeiro for $372 (£235) a week. Must be booked in advance of travel, preferably one month.

STAYING THERE: Hotel Solar das Lajes, Rua Conselheiro Quintiliano 604, Ouro Preto, Minas Gerais, CEP 35-400-000 (telephone and fax 010 55 31 551 3388). Double rooms cost $30-$35 (£19-£22) per night in the old building, $55 (£35) in the adjoining new building.

FURTHER INFORMATION: Brazilian Embassy Tourism, 32 Green Street, London W1Y 4AT (0171-499 0877).

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