Explore the picturesque colonial cities in the hills of Minas Gerais
The 18th century Brazilian gold rush financed beautiful Portuguese colonial architecture, with sumptuous baroque churches and mansions decorated with exquisite sculptures. The entire region is a homage to the brilliance of Brazilian sculptor and architect O Aleijadinho and his works can be seen and appreciated throughout. The atmospheric cobbled streets are lined with interesting museums, shops selling local handicrafts and charming pousadas in which to stay. Restaurants here serve rich and hearty comida Mineira, whilst the region is noted for its original variety of the Brazilian spirit cachaça.
A visit to Minas Gerais allows visitors to travel along the the Estrada Real - the route along which gold was transported to Rio de Janeiro, from where it was shipped to Europe. In exploring these cities you can immerse yourself in one of the most glorious, yet controversial, periods of Brazilian history, gaining a greater understanding of the history and psyche of this most complex of nations.
The cobblestone streets lead you past decorative fountains, statues, charming churches and mansions. Looking up at the steeples and domes of coloured tiles, it doesn't take much to imagine yourself back in the 18th Century. Founded in 1711, Ouro Preto was the former state capital, the early gold diggers believing this to be the elusive El Dorado. It is here you can see the work of the famous sculptor, Aleijadinho, his most prominent pieces being the façade of the Carmo Church and the Church of Sao Francisco de Assis.
The Praça Minas Gerais is dominated by two intricately decorated church in the typical style of the region; Nossa Senhora do Carmo, with its distinctive cylindrical towers, and São Francisco de Asis, both of which provide further examples of the brilliance of O Aleijadinho. From here, Mariana tumbles gently down cobbled streets, lined with colourful art shops, fascinating museums and restaurants serving local cuisine.
Mariana's most beautiful square is Praça Gomes Freire - a leafy and verdant square, centred around a green pond and surrounded by historic colonial architecture. It is a largely peaceful space in which to sit and watch the Mariananses ambling by or meeting in the local restaurants.
The cathedral of Mariana is of a classic and understated nature, with a Baroque interior and a magnificent 400 year old German organ, upon which concerts are regularly performed.
Whilst Tiradentes swells with tourists at the weekends, the colourful centre can be appreciated during the quieter midweek days, leaving you free to explore the local restaurants, antique shops and interesting museums which explain the history and religion of the area.
The streets of Tiradentes climb up the hillside to the sumptuous colonial facade of the Santo Antonio church. Having puffed your way up here, you are rewarded with a spectacular vista, as the town spreads out below you, backed by distant powerful mountain ridges and verdant countryside, through which various local trails lead.
Insights - Congonhas do Campo
The town of Congonhas do Campo is less remarkable than its more well-preserved and better-looking neighbours, but the reason why it remains an integral part of any visit to Minas Gerais is the presence of the twelve intricately carved soapstone prophet statues outside of the Sanctuario do Bom Jesus de Matosinhos. The church itself offers a pretty facade, so typical of the region, but what sets it apart are the statues, widely thought to represent the pinnacle of the genius of Brazilian sculptor-cum-architect O Aleijadinho. They represent twelve prophets of the old testament and each holds a script of Latin text from the bible. The artwork is noteworthy not only for the precision and detail, but also for the harmonious layout and the mystery which surrounds them - why did he choose these and not others? What do they tell us about the incredible man behind them? What's even more remarkable is that they were created at the beginning of the nineteenth century, when the famous sculptor was ageing and largely debilitated. UNESCO describe the work as a "highly original, moving and expressive form of Baroque art."
São João del Rei stands in contrast to the other cities of Minas Gerais, offering a perfect example of how to maintain a historic core amid a modern, progressive and developing city. The centre is home to the obligatory cobbled streets, gorgeous colonial architecture, insightful museums and gilded churches adorned with the works of O Aleijadinho. Standing out in particular are the cylindrical towers of the São Francisco de Assis church, the 18th century stone bridges which bookend the centre and the tasteful 19th and 20th century architecture which has seeped in over the years.
The city was is also noteworthy for being the birthplace of Tancredo Neves, who was elected president of Brazil in 1985, but died before taking office. He is credited with playing a key role in leading the country out of military rule and is proudly remembered in São João del Rei.
Located in a river valley just 45 minutes out of Belo Horizonte, Sabará uses the same winning combination as its neighbours; magnificent views, historic monuments, impressive fountains, delicious food, museums filled with instructive displays and a beautiful range of churches with richly decorated interiors.
Insights - Vitoria-Minas Railway
The Vitória-Minas Railway is the only daily passenger train in Brazil linking two state capitals; Vitória in Espírito Santo and Belo Horizonte in Minas Gerais, on a scenic 13 hour journey. The historic route, in operation since 1904, passes through beautiful landscapes, including huge lakes, sprawling rainforest and the gently rolling hills of the Brazilian countryside, as well as over some astounding viaducts and bridges.
It is also plays a vital role in the prosperity of modern day Brazil, carrying iron ore, extracted from the mines of Minas Gerais, and other products, all the way to the coast for exportation. In fact, 40% of Brazil’s produces passes through this route, meaning it is constantly maintained to high safety standards. The trains were fully refurbished in 2014 and are all air-conditioned, offering an on-board snack bar and restaurant.
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