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Published: July 15th 2007
Ouro Preto at dawn
This is the Igreja NS do Carmo on the right, and a museum on the left - together they look like one building.
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Due to a long-standing arrangement with my schoolfriends, I left the balmy climes of Rio de Janeiro for London (raining upon arrival, surprise!), enroute for a week in Villa Linda in Punta Prima, Menorca, to drown our sorrows or jointly celebrate the first 30 years of our lives, depending on your outlook. An overnight stop followed at Ramona’s London penthouse overlooking the Thames (I never realised there was so much river traffic, and when the tide goes out there is even an - albeit grey - beach of sorts!). Read my full entry below. (N) Monday 9th July
- the crew of the overnight bus on which we left Rio did not believe in any sort of customer comfort. The aircon was turned down to "Arctic", the curtains were left open to allow artificial light pervade its way through the coach, and when the conductor said it would take 9 hours to reach our destination, Ouro Preto, he should in fact have said 7.
Ouro Preto in the afternoon
Igreja NS do Carmo is again visible, top middle.
it was that we turned up at Ouro Preto a little after 5am, one kilometre above sea level, shivering with cold in the pre-dawn air. We took a taxi to our hostel, which turned out to be a 5 minute walk away. The night porter informed us that there were no beds to sleep in until they were vacated at check-out time, approximately six hours later, but we could gladly sit on the couches in the living area until that time. Unfortunately this living area - although roofed - was without walls on two sides, which would allow a certain breeze to cool down the people inside on a hot day but not, alas, warm up people if the conditions were reversed. Nor could we share his warm reception, because there was sadly no room.
Fortunately, there was a pousada
(guesthouse) just another three minutes walk away. Not much later we were checked in, t'other Nick was asleep and I was taking some dawn photos from the fantastic vantage point of the hotel's veranda. The whole of Ouro Preto stretched out below in the distance, hemmed in by a rugged mountain range and capped by two magnificent buildings that, in
Basilica do Bom Jesus de Matosinhos, Congonhas
Most of the prophets are visible on the white wall in front of the church.
this half-light, seemed to be just one (see picture above).
Shortly after seeing a hummingbird come to feed right by the veranda, I too headed off to bed, and was surprised that it was 1pm when I opened my eyes again. After a good wash, we walked down into town and saw some of the sites. I will talk about these on Wednesday 9th, when we spent the full day there, for now I will just give a little info on the place itself.
Ouro Preto was founded in 1711 on the site of the western hemisphere's richest gold deposits (in this way, it is like the twin of Potosi, Bolivia, the world's biggest provider silver - see the earlier blog). During the height of the gold rush, the slaves in Ouro Preto (translated as "Black Gold", so called because the precious metal was masked by the soil's iron oxide) were digging up between 50 and 80% (depending on your source) of all the gold in the world, and its population, like that of Potosi, was more than double that of New York.
The current town reminded me of Durham, with its hills and cobbled streets, but the truth
is that it is much
hiller than Durham and because its fortunes dwindled with the gold running out, it was spared the "development" that would surely otherwise have come its way. The Lonely Planet describes it as "uncontaminated by any 20th Century building" (and certainly by any from the 21st). It is divided into a large number of irregular hills, upon which crooked narrow streets wend their way declivitously from peak to trough.
Ouro Preto is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and now has just 65,000 inhabitants, who enjoy a total of 23 (mostly baroque and highly ornate) churches, marvellous hill panaromas and quadriceps of steel (this last point is just speculation, I did not carry out the research). Tuesday 10th July
- a day trip to Congonhas, relatively near to Ouro Preto on the map, but requiring us to be on a 07h30 bus to make the connections for a day trip. The town has nothing of interest for the tourist apart from the "two greatest masterworks of sculpture" in Brazil, by a man named Antonio Lisboa (1738 - 1814). Not only was he a fine craftsman, he lost the use of his fingers, toes and lower legs
through disease but "strapped hammers and chisels to his arms" and continued to produce his best work. Charmingly, his contemporaries gave him the nickname "Aleijadinho", meaning "Little Cripple". The two great works are (also see photos below): 1. The Prophets
- life-size sculptures of the twelve apostles, symmetrically arranged in front of the Basilica do Bom Jesus de Matosinhos
church, each carved out of soapstone. A local poet wrote that their features are "magnificent, terrible, grave and tender", and it has also been written about them that they "almost seem to be performing a balletic dance". It was a bright blue day and the statues were really interesting to observe in such perfect conditions. 2. Six chapels
- on the slope up to the church, there are six small white chapels inside of which is a scene from the Passion of Christ: the Last Supper, Calvary, Imprisonment, Flagellation & Coronation, the Carrying of the Cross and the Crucifixion. The carvings are life-size and made of wood, the Lonely Planet describes them as having "muscles bulging and veins popping", and we certainly found them impressive.
At the side of the main church, there was also a
"Miracle Room", where people had left hundreds of photos and other pictures with notes of thanks for having been cured (the church was originally built in gratitude by a man who was miraculously cured of a serious disease himself). Among the many passport photos, there was also a photo of a man crawling out of a car-wreck, and another man standing next to a black-and-white photo (it was a long time ago) of his dead horse which had been struck down by lightening while he was riding it
. There were also drawings of bus crashes, and people in bed seemingly at death's door, but who must have survived...
To get back to Ouro Preto, we took a bus (back to Congonhas town bus station) to catch a bus (to Ouro Branco town) to make the final connection (back to Ouro Preto) - that's why we left so early.
We were hoping there would be a party atmosphere in town, because it was the semi final of the Copa America and Brazil were up against Uruguay. However, we were amazed to find only one place showing it, and only half the clientele seemed interested. Brazil won in a
dramatic penalty shoot-out. Wednesday 11th July
- a day to explore Ouro Preto itself, highlights included: Matriz de NS do Pilar
- in terms of precious metal, this is Brazil's second-most opulent church (424kg of gold and silver!). The figure of Jesus has real hair from a local devotee, and there was a small subterranean museum. Igreja de Sao Francisco de Assis
- labelled as the most important piece of Brazilian colonial art after The Prophets
in Congonhas (see above), it had a large soapstone medallion carved on its outside by Aleijadinho, and the interior was painted by his partner craftsman (Manuel da Costa Ataide), of which the ceiling was especially intricate and held our attention for a while. Igreja de Santa Efigeniados Pretos
- finished in 1747 by and for the black slave community, who were not allowed inside the churches they had built for their masters. The slaves contributed to the construction of the building by washing their gold-flaked hair in baptismal fonts; and the church's featured saints are black too. Igreja NS do Carmo
- Bright white facade with blue painted woodwork, it is known to be a group effort by the
leading artists of the area, finished in 1772. It is one of the two buildings that merged and appeared as one in my pre-dawn photo. The other was a museum.
That night, we took a bus to Vitoria, hoping to simply arrive and then head straight off to the coastal town of Porto Seguro. However, this would be a most frustrating 24 hours! Thursday 12th July
- the bus left on time at 21h00 but it was very warm (opposite problem to last time!) and we only managed a fitful sleep, not least because the driver thought he was possessed by the ghost of Senna, flying round corners and over speedhumps like he was after a podium position. We arrived at Vitoria shortly after 05h00 and could not get on a bus out to Porto Seguro till 11h50! Fortunately, the company we were travelling with offered us the use of their VIP room for that period, which consisted of a coffee and water dispenser, and - importantly - slightly more comfortable seats that in the rest of the station. The time just flew by.
We left Vitoria just before midday, it was pretty warm and there was
no motorway for the entire journey. The bus stopped a couple of hours later to enable us to buy a manky lunch from a service station, and for the duration of the 12-hour trip it stopped what seemed like an interminable number of times, I reckon about 15 drop-offs, even to the smallest towns. Once, we stopped to let someone get off, then drove away, only to return to the exact same spot less than 5 minutes later. It was very frustrating, plus I'd had the same t-shirt for 4 days and really needed a shower!
Thankfully there was good company: as well as Nick, I had the mp3 player and a 700-page book left by Paula (about the possibility of an ancient lost super-civilisation...), along with a snack I had bought at the service station. These, however, were revolting. I think they were called "Flour rings"but we renamed them "Dust rings", being about the size of onion rings and tasting of, well, dust.
The one highlight of the day was seeing a huge boulder seemingly growing out of the top of a hill, on top of which was a small white church.
And so, twenty
Outside one of the six chapels at Basilica do Bom Jesus de Matosinhos.
six and a half butt-numbing hours after we left Ouro Preto, we arrived in Porto Seguro at 23h30. One quick call to our pousada
and they were coming to pick us up. Once the bags were loaded, the car wouldn't start. After multiple attempts, a phone conversation ensued between the young would-be driver and an advisor on the other end ('some advice´
, turns key, "No", 'more advice'
, turns key again, "No", ad nauseum). Shortly, the voice turned up in person at the bus station where we still were, on the back of a friend's motorbike. Having a taken a tool from the boot and repeatedly used it to bash the car's battery, which ineludibly produced no benefit at all, it fell to me and the young driver to get out and push the car, running across the rain-sodden ground - now after midnight - before it thankfully chugged into life. Shower and bed. Friday 13th July
- I thought of Paula at breakfast (amongst many other times of course), because there was a big chocolate cake amongst the spread. Paula had read that this was "quite common"in Brazil but unfortunately I don't think we saw it while we were
Carving of The Last Supper
Inside one of the six chapels at Basilica do Bom Jesus de Matosinhos, Congonhas
travelling together. I served myself a respectable slither to make up for that.
The day was the complete opposite to yesterday in terms of transport. We took a taxi to the small docks. We got on a boat that left immediately. We crossed the bay in less than 10 minutes. There was a bus waiting for us at the other side, which left immediately and took us one hour away to our next destination, Trancoso.
We stayed at the best place yet, Vila Mineira. Slightly off the beaten track, it was a number of small chalets in a large garden populated by tropical plants and bamboo, with a wooden bandstand-type place in the middle for breakfast. Our chalet, Vila Lobo, had 2 floors - a living area downstairs and sleeping area upstairs. There was a large decked area out the back, from where we sat and looked across swathes of palms and other greenery. To the right, we could see the Atlantic Ocean (for some reason, I was not able to persuade Nick that it would be better to stay in the bakery-cum-guesthouse on the main road. Imagine! A guesthouse. With a built-in bakery! Ideal, surely?).
Nick in the Miracle Room
Basilica do Bom Jesus de Matosinhos, Congonhas
intervals, hummingbirds flew right by us to stock up on nectar, making a real buzzing with their wings (up to 80 times per second), making it plainly obvious how they got their name. On that first afternoon, we also saw Sagui (Capuchin) monkeys in the tree right outside our chalet. They did not look like what I consider 'typical monkeys' (i.e. not brown!), they were kind of racoon-like, with long tails and faces a bit like Star Wars ewoks. They were understandably quite timid, but we managed to get a couple of pictures, see below.
Went for a late afternoon coconut juice down on the beach (interesting fact: there is little to get excited about regarding a Brazilian ocean sunset, as all beaches are on the east
coast!). This was followed by the best dinner of the last 2 weeks: filet mignon, egg, chips, salad, feijao
(beans) and rice, all for the great price of 9 Reais (less than 3 pounds). We do not feel ashamed to report that we went back there the following night and, as such, it was the only place in Trancoso at which we ate (apart from breakfast at the chalet).
Showing apparent survivors of a bus crash, in the Miracle Room at Basilica do Bom Jesus.
a couple of stray horses wandering around the town, which was a change from the usual cats and dogs. One of them left a large deposit right in the middle of the lane back to our chalet, a wide berth to which we were always careful to give. Saturday 14th July
- The weather was warm but not hot today, so after a good lie-in and fat breakfast, we enjoyed the garden space/hammock of the chalet. Later in the afternoon, we went down to the beach again, and went for a walk along the coast (it not being the weather to lounge around). After 20 minutes or so, Nick decided that, with only eleven hours' sleep under his belt plus a couple of hours relaxing in the chalet, he didn't want to go any further. I carried on an extra kilometre or so to the headland, by which time the sky was blackening. Still, it was humid, so when I met up with Nick again we went for a dip in the ocean, and with the waves as powerful as they were, it was like being in a washing machine. Then the Heavens opened and we got soaked running
Showing man next to his dead horse, which did not survive the lightening strike, in the Miracle Room at Basilica do Bom Jesus.
back to the town (to catch our Filet Mignon of course; last orders 6pm). On the way, there were hundreds of small crabs (2 inches wide) on the wet sands, who had come out to feed. Our heavy running made them scuttle away just before we squashed them (which wouldn't have been nice for either party).
Later that night, we started in a bar whose music was so bad that I was tempted to move to the glass cash machine booth across the road. However, we subsequently caught a live band somewhere else, which was really good for the most part.
After a couple of beers, we decided that we would sign in under different names when checking in to the remaining hostels of the holiday - more details to follow. Sunday 15th July
- Another lie-in after a late night. Brought our breakfast (bread, ham, cheese, homemade jam, banana, passionfruit plus fresh juice and coffee) to our little terrace and made the most of the view before checking out and heading off back to Porto Seguro. Another smooth ride back enabled us to check-in to our hostel by mid-afternoon, which, following our agreement of the previous evening,
Mixing with the locals
Vox Pop - everyone who reads this blog, please send a comment via this website: is Nick´s t-shirt Red or Pink?
was under the names of Worthington Grape (Conservative candidate, East Cheam, 1956 ( Tony Hancock
; Hewitt) and Bertram Wooster (PG Wodehouse
We had enough time that afternoon to explore the well-preserved hilltop Historic Centre of Porto Seguro, which is officially considered to be the first Portuguese landfall in Brazil, and so the place is of significant historical importance. The marker stone from around that time still stands (encased in glass) and there are a number of simple, elegant churches from the 16th and 18th centuries dotted around the hilltop, along with a lighthouse whose sign usefully informed us that its bulb was the equivalent to 32,000 candles…!
That night, we watched the final of the Copa America
, which is the equivalent of the European ("Euro") championships every 4 years. With Brazil's reputation as football-mad, we thought they would be at fever point but in fact there was very little frenzy-whipping in the town. Was it because they have won so many? Or maybe everyone watches it at home? This is what we speculated.
Anyway, we were recommended a restaurant which, when we got there at 15 mins before kick-off, had precisely nobody in it. "They'll all
be coming in as soon as the match starts", claimed the waiter. Having walked a while to get there, and looking forward to a beer, we went in. While we were looking at the menu, he helpfully suggested that the most expensive dish was "very good". In all fairness, he was a very friendly waiter, attempting to create a Cup Final atmosphere by himself; and the chicken strogonoff was delicious. A couple of other punters did turn up before the match started, which Brazil won comfortably 3-0. When the first goal went in, there was much cheering, whooping and slamming down of menus - and that was just from the waiters. Stallholders from the street flooded in to see the goal, and a man with far-too-tight speedos emerged hurriedly from the toilet, lamenting his bad timing. After the victory, we went out to the seafront, which had come to life since early evening, with lots of small stalls selling souvenir carvings and t-shirts, DVDs and huge pieces of cake. There was still no big street party to celebrate the football victory, though - what a big difference to England if we had won the equivalent competition... (P)
Igreja NS do Carmo
This is the same church as in the previous image, taken later in the day (and nearer!)
Menorca! Stocked up with an army of magazines, cachaca (Brazilian rum I miraculously managed to transport intact from its home, the vital ingredient in those fabulous caipirinha cocktails) and my newly acquired but limited Spanish phrases, we flew up and away. Despite arriving about 7 p.m., the sun was still blazing (hurrah!) and sunlight remained for several more hours so we headed straight on down to the villa’s pool and started as we meant to go on.
Punta Prima is pretty lovely for a resort and handily all we needed was within about a half a mile radius. First night’s dinner I had grilled squid (ever so tasty) while the others tucked into paella and we discovered posh sangria (the red wine replaced with Cava - oohh!). On the last night Michelle and I tried the local fiduela (paella-type dish made with short spaghetti instead of rice, but we concluded paella to be superior). Maria introduced us to the delights of Philipino breakfast dishes, namely ensaimada pastries (also in Menorca), and pineapple, cheese and ham toasted sandwiches resembling hawaiian pizza.
We wandered down to a rocky outlet where the ground looked all coral-like, as if it used to
be under water, so I suppose it was, then. The white of the houses made the vibrantly coloured flowers and tree blossoms look all the more beautiful. Then along the beach path, which to me was just like childhood outings to West Wittering (south coast of England). Ironically, the smartest looking building on the seafront was the hostal! Not far out to sea was another island with an electric lighthouse, Isla del Aire, home to rare black lizards.
As for nightlife, we taxied into the capital, Mahon, where clubs didn’t open their doors, never mind heat up, until after midnight. Music was not up to much. We looked at the clubs, looked at each other, and silently concluded that our music collection back home was the winner.
The purchase of the week had to be Ramona’s inflatable boat for the pool, with a leather bum-bag (purchaser’s identity withheld) coming in a close second. The said pool-faring vessel came complete with rope so the passenger could be pulled along by a dutiful servant, however experience taught us (one more than others) that it wasn’t SO sturdy that one could safely hop aboard wearing dry clothes and stay that way…
Sunday night was a night in, but not just any old one. Bearing in mind our villa slept 10 at capacity and the house to pool was about a 30-second walk (quite a lot actually!), down steps through paved patio and tree covered mini-basketball court, we were more than happy. The event was in fact our “Birthdays Party” (“Ha-ppy Birthday to U-us, Ha-ppy Birthday to us”). We all (Priya, Sonia, Maria, Ramona, Michelle et moi) decorated the garden with party banners, streamers and balloons, brought out the champagne glasses, prepared food and threw a few shrimps (and bananas) on the barbie - yum. We made sure to toast absent friends. Here’s to the next thirty years! Day out in the capital, Mahon:
- Headed for the market consisting mainly of clothes and jewellery made not only on the island, but that didn’t stop us. Several hours later and a few shopping bags heavier, we continued towards the port, on the way consuming a tapas lunch followed by a lazy coffee surrounded by sailing memorabilia. Noted: the best post boxes, a brass lion-head; letters are posted through its mouth!
Back in Punta Prima, once an hour on
the hour, we would hear the toy train (okay, it was a real one, but it looked like a toy) puffing as it drove (yes, drove) past on the road outside. Curiosity got the better of us and we hopped on one evening to find out what night-time delights lay ahead in the neighbouring town, Binibeca. Parked ourselves up for a delicious poolside dinner in Cala Torret, and at the meal’s end the local firewater (apple or aniseed flavour) put in an appearance. The town seemed a bit on the quiet side as we left, but never mind. We are over thirty, after all!
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