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Day 43: Belo Horizonte to Ouro Preto

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At a sampling table, laid with bowls to test the consistency of the flavour, we both sip, hiss the air into our mouths and spit out. Of the two main species of coffee, Arabica and Robusta, it is clear which is Bruno's favourite.
Michael Palin - BrazilOur hotel is in a part of town called Lourdes, but the only pilgrims here are pretty well-heeled. I'm told that it's the new hip quarter for smart clubs and trendy restaurants, though I must have got the wrong time of day as I set out for an orienting walk this morning. The streets seem quite devoid of personality. Curiously neutral high-rise corridors, stripped of any historical or cultural context. I'm glad that before we move on south to Ouro Preto I have the chance to see the few memorable parts of Belo Horizonte. The graceful rectangular Praša da Liberdade is an open green space laid with gravel paths like a Parisian park. A majestic avenue of palms runs the length of it and reminds us we're in the tropics. Around the square is an esoteric collection of good-looking buildings ranging from the Governor's Palace at one end, all grand flourishes embellished with Art Nouveau, to an Edwardian wrought-iron bandstand and an eye-catchingly original multi-storey apartment block designed by Oscar Niemeyer in the 1950s. With its bold curves and swirls it looks like the way cities of the future were depicted in the science fiction stories of my childhood. The rest of Belo Horizonte, alas, looks like the way the cities of the future actually turned out.

On many of the signs on the road south to Ouro Preto I see the words Estrada Real ľ the Royal Road. Constructed in the early eighteenth century, this was the route along which the new-found bonanza of gold and diamonds was transported from Minas Gerais to the port of Rio de Janeiro, to be shipped out to Portugal or, more often than not, to London, to pay off the debts that the Portuguese had built up there. Some say that it was Brazilian gold and diamonds that financed Britain's Industrial Revolution. So important was this road that the Crown took especial care of it. It was planned and built by royal surveyors and protected from ambush by crack troops of the King's army.

The gold may have run out, but the iron ore, the 'black' in which the 'gold' was first found, has now far superseded it in earning power. As we pass close to where it's mined, the grass, the road, the cars, the trees and houses, even the grazing cattle, are all coated with a layer of red dust. The Estrada Real becomes a worksite as trucks race up and down carrying material from mines to crushing plants. After a while it clears and the landscape left unscarred can be appreciated in all its glory. Mountain ranges, their forest cover still intact, catch the afternoon sunlight, rolling alongside us until we descend into Ouro Preto. This was the capital of Minas Gerais before power was transferred to Belo Horizonte just over a hundred years ago, and like Belo, it is set in a bowl, or perhaps more accurately, several bowls, among the surrounding mountains. And there the similarity ends. Much of Ouro Preto can barely have changed since the eighteenth century. The only remotely tall buildings are all churches. They stand on conspicuous bluffs around the town, like precious objects set on shelves. Some with one tower, others with two, and all with white-rendered walls and ochre-painted borders and the sweep and curl of the Baroque.

The stoutly cobbled streets at the heart of the city radiate out from the spacious Praša Tiradentes, named after a leader of a rebellion against the Portuguese crown who is commemorated with a bronze and granite statue and a fountain. Fine period buildings are everywhere, the most significant being the Governor's Palace of 1740 and, facing it at the other end of the square, the monumental classical facade of the old City Chamber and Jail House, built forty years later. If Belo Horizonte represented the promise of the future, then Ouro Preto dazzles with the prosperity of the past. It's a cradle of Brazil's history, a showpiece, as the buses drawn up in the square and the crowds of schoolchildren being photographed on Tiradentes' statue testify. But it's on a human scale. And thanks to its thriving university, it doesn't go to sleep at sundown.
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Bruno puts a trainee barista through his paces at the Academy of Coffee.
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  • Series: Brazil
  • Chapter: Day 43: Belo Horizonte to Ouro Preto
  • Country/sea: Brazil
  • Place: Belo Horizonte
  • Book page no: 178

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