By Arnout Nuijt
When you are in Brazil’s third economic center, Belo Horizonte, and you have a weekend to spare, there is a range of old colonial towns to visit. One of the most famous is Ouro Preto, or Black Gold, a historic mining center and former capital of Minas Gerais. Once nicknamed Vila Rica or rich town, it is now a Unesco protected site. Ouro Preto is located about a 100 kilometers south of BH, but a taxi ride will take – depending on traffic – around 1.5 hours. The first leg of the journey is along a great modern highway, the one that goes down all the way to Rio de Janeiro. The latter part of the drive is a winding road through a hilly, Tuscany like landscape.
At first sight Ouro Preto is magic. You will recognize the town immediately from the many pictures in Brazil’s tourist brochures or guidebooks, as it is a must to visit and one of the many highlights of visiting Brazil. Arriving feels like visiting an old friend. The town looks are smashing. Ouro Preto is a better preserved Portuguese town than any you can find in Portugal itself, or so it seems. Even the newer buildings are made in old colonial style, including a gas station.
Though Ouro Preto can be very busy with tourists in high seasons and on some weekends, this city of 70.000 is by no means a dead tourist town. In fact it’s a lively university town with no less than 8000 students, most of them studying at the Federal University of Ouro Preto and its prestigious Mining Academy. Ouro Preto in fact reminds one of Coimbra, Portugal’s famous university center, and both towns share the tradition of Repúblicas, student houses. The town appears quiet during the day, but it maybe lively at night, when students mingle with tourists and locals in the center of town.
Ouro Preto has a great atmosphere. Everything is well preserved or restored without any damage to historic buildings. The many Baroque churches, each with their own history and flavor is a treasure trove for architecture and religion buffs. The people who built these churches, often slaves or former slaves, developed their own variant of Portuguese Baroque, as they were far from the motherland. Ouro Preto is now considered to be the center of the Barroco Mineiro, the region’s own historic building style..
Intriguingly, the only “modern” building in town is the Grande Hotel, built by Oscar Niemeyer in the 1940s. This work may not be one of his best according to his fans and critics, but it remains a fascinating building and it is an interesting place to stay. The interior appears dated, but in fact some of the furniture and wooden parts date from the 1940s and are highly original. All rooms have private verandas overlooking the garden and the city. Wooden stairs lead to your (modernized) bathroom and sleeping quarters one floor up.
The Grande Hotel also has an excellent restaurant and the views across the town are unbeatable. But there are plenty of other options to spend the night in Ouro Preto and most people prefer one of the restored colonial buildings that now house pousadas, like the Solar do Rosário.
For a full overview of hotels in Ouro Preto check out Brazil Weekly’s dedicated page on booking.com
Ouro Preto boasts a good number of fine restaurants. Prices here are much lower than in restaurants of similar quality and standing in São Paulo or Rio. O Passo restaurant (Italian and Brazilian dishes) is one of these, in a building next to a bridge on a wildly romantic river. In one of the main streets, the Casa do Ouvidor is an excellent choice, as is the Senhora do Rosário in the Pousada Solar do Rosário.
Plenty of bars provide for a place to have a drink at night. One of the most famous is the Bar Barroco, also famous for its snacks. On one of the corners of Praça Tiradentes, Ouro Preto’s central square, you can find the Café e Livraria Cultural, run by a by Belgian-Brazilian couple. Set in a well restored colonial building, they serve excellent coffee. The bookstore is a must to visit too.
What else can you do in Ouro Preto besides relax, eat, drink and wandering the cobble stoned streets. Well, you could visit a historic gold mine like Chico Rei’s and descend in the mountain. Or you could catch the steam train, the Maria Fumaça or Smoky Mary, for a great day trip to neighboring historic Mariana town. Take the train in the morning, wander around Mariana, have lunch and than catch the train back home to Ouro Preto.
So Ouro Preto got it all: good facilities, a friendly and lively atmosphere and plenty of outings to make, all serving to provide you with an inspiring and relaxing weekend before you head back to the big city again…
November 19th, 2012. All rights reserved by Brazil Weekly/Rotterdam Week.