Eager to get a taste of as many diverse regions of Brazil as I can in my whistle-stop seven week visit, I make another large hop south from Salvador (via Rio but that's for the next entry), leaving the tropics and the intoxicating Nordeste behind for something completely different.
The state of Minas Gerais is Brazil's fourth largest (it's bigger than France) and second most populous state - and it has long been a powerhouse of the Brazilian economy. The state's name - General Mines - is a pretty obvious clue as to state's importance in colonial days. Indeed, by a lucky quirk of geology, the forested hills of Minas are stuffed full of rich seams of gold and vast quantities of diamonds, discovered at the end of the 17th century. The Portuguese had hit the jackpot and found their very own Potosí - bingo! Just as the Spanish had done in Bolivia one hundred and fifty years before, the Portuguese immediately brought in huge numbers of African slaves to toil in the newly-opened mines. The tonnes of gold, diamonds and other precious gemstones they unearthed, shipped across the Atlantic to Lisbon, made the Portuguese crown rich. And,
just as the incongruously ornate city of Potosí grew out of nowhere on the chilly heights of the Bolivian altiplano, towns quickly mushroomed in the chilly, moody, cloud-shrouded hills of Minas.
Some of these came to be fabulously wealthy, and none more so than Ouro Preto, the uncontested jewel in Minas Gerais' crown of cidades históricas. Founded at the end of the seventeenth century shortly after gold was struck in the surrounding hills, Vila Rica (no translation necessary), as it was then called, quickly grew into one of the wealthiest and most important towns in South America. Today, Ouro Preto's winding and uncommonly steep cobbled streets (the city is draped over a number of hills) are one of Brazil's standout attractions. The town - and its fellow cidades históricas - is perhaps most famous for its churches. Such was the wealth being dug out of the ground that the rich mining towns of Minas Gerais could afford to build astonishingly over-the-top Baroque churches in their dozens, filled with intricately carved and painted wooden altars and unimaginable quantities of pure gold. Some of them easily rival any European cathedral for sheer, blingtastic opulence. What makes Ouro Preto especially
interesting is that despite its perfectly preserved beauty and manicured appearance, it is no living museum. Ouro Preto is an extremely lively student town - the wealth of superb architecture makes one think of a Brazilian Oxford - scattered with dozens of student residences charmingly called repúblicas. It is a well-heeled place, amply supplied with fancy restaurants and jewellers - indeed, lots of precious stones are still extracted from Minas Gerais, even though the gold dried up long ago.
Ouro Preto may be the largest and best-known of all the cidades históricas, but it is certainly not the only one. Half a dozen of them are strung along the Estrada Real, the Royal Road, built by slaves to connect the mines of Minas Gerais to the coast. A mere fifteen kilometres from Ouro Preto lies the pretty little cidade histórica of Mariana, connected to its larger neighbour by a regular maria fumaça -steam train - service, which puffs around the rolling hills which separates the two towns. It was in Mariana that I made the acquaintance of Minas Gerais' most valuable treasure: a comida mineira.
Minas in famous throughout Brazil for its food - and with very good
reason. Unsurprisingly perhaps - the tastiest things are rarely healthy - Mineiro food is not very good for you. Very heavy on meat, sausages and rich, stodgy, bacon-ey bean stews, and rather shockingly light on anything green, it's Comfort Food with capital letters. And my word, it is delicious. One of the best ways of sampling comida mineira is at a restaurante por kilo, a fabulous Brazilian institution I haven't yet mentioned. It's quite self-explanatory: you load up your plate with however much you want to eat from a selection of dishes, get your plate weighed and only pay for what you've taken - simple. Before visiting Brazil I had been rather sceptical about self-service restaurants: skanky motorway service stations, school canteens and cheap'n'nasty all-you-can-eat Chinese buffets sprang to mind. Not so in Brazil, where por kilo restaurants are often fancy gourmet places, with many dozens of freshly-cooked regional dishes on offer. Many of them even have someone manning a massive grill, where huge skewers of roasted meat rotate slowly over a charcoal fire: slabs of whatever you fancy are simply carved off straight onto your plate. Maravilhoso! Among the many highlights of this delicious regional cuisine are couve à
mineira (finely shredded collard greens, yes greens!, fried with garlic), tutu de feijão (a tasty dish based on puréed beans), the famous pão de queijo (gut-bustingly moreish balls of baked cheesy dough), and pretty much anything based on pork. Particularly yummy - and therefore particular bad for you - is torresmo, great big chunks of fried pork rind. As you can see, piling on the pounds is a serious risk if you're in Minas Gerais and like your food. Fortunately hours of puffing up and down the hills of Ouro Preto kept my waistline in (some sort of) check.
A few hours away from Ouro Preto by bus is the lesser-known cidade histórica of São João del Rei. Much more of a workaday place than Ouro Preto, it still has a beautifully preserved old quarter, with yet more gold-laden and exquisitely-decorated churches. Connected to São João by another cute little steam-train line is the village of Tiradentes, which has also been beautifully preserved and, on a weekend, positively heaves with Brazilian daytrippers. Its charming cobbled and bougainvillea-festooned streets are filled with upscale shops, boutique hotels and oodles of - you guessed it - Mineiro restaurants. It's got something of
a Disneyland feel to it, but there is certainly no denying that it's absolutely beautiful.
If gorgeous towns and delicious food weren't enough, Minas Gerais is also home to some of Brazil's friendliest people. Most Brazilians are extremely interested in meeting foreign visitors and hearing all about life in Europe - an absolute boon for my Portuguese - and in Minas all it ever took was ten minutes standing in a queue to buy a train ticket before I was engaged in five simultaneous conversations with people in front of, next to, and behind me. Within hours of arriving at a hostel I found myself sitting in a local bar sharing a bottle of cerveja with my fellow Brazilian guests, trying to make sense of their Portuguese jokes as we all got progressively more inebriated. It's one of the great delights of Brazil.
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