Of gold and history in Minas Gerais

Built with the wealth from the gold rush, Ouro Preto is
an historical monument. Miles of cobblestone streets and blocks of rowhouses
dip down hills and meander around churches. The evidence of mining is everywhere.
Occasionally a man seems to appear out of nowhere, ambling down the road,
or a small herd of zebus meander by with a confounded look.

Kathleen de Azevedo

In the Serra do Espinhaço range of Minas Gerais, Brazil, a bit
of gold still sleeps underneath the soil, though the dreams must be unsettling.
The hills are covered with green scrub, and granite rocks pushing out of
the ground look like rough knuckles. It is a rugged country, a perfect
setting for the tumultuous gold rush that swept through Brazil during the
late 17th and early 18th century. Today, the colonial town of Ouro Preto
with its red tiled roofs sits in a high valley between the folds of the
hills. The resplendent gold-plated cupolas of its many churches are like
the gleam in a thief’s eye.

Gold was discovered by the bandeirante Manuel de Borba Gato.
The bandeirantes grew out of frontier settlements in São
Paulo and were a mixture of Tupi Indian and European blood. Many were outlaws,
and made good money searching the backwoods for Indian slaves. In 1690,
Gato, himself an exiled murderer, found gold in the Rio das Velhas, a discovery
which brought fortune seekers from all over the world.

Ouro Preto, built with the wealth produced from this gold rush, is today
an historical monument. Miles of cobblestone streets and blocks of rowhouses
dip down hills and meander around churches. The smell of Pão de
Queijo — mineiro cheese bread made with more cheese than flour — wafts
in the early morning air.

Spectacular churches are the main attraction. The church walls inside
are a light blue and trimmed with gold-painted grape vines. Thick ornate
candlesticks flank tabernacles of silver and gold. On the walls and ceilings
stretch painted murals of biblical scenes. Some churches have religious
statues carved by the great Aleijadinho, Brazil’s most formidable sculptor.
In colonial times, the churches functioned as a bank where newfound riches
were woven into religious art, thereby keeping the wealth in Brazil, and
away from the clutches of the distant Portuguese monarchy and their royal
coffers.

The Portuguese monarch Dom João V issued a 20% tax on all mined
gold. The Brazilian colonists resisted. Smuggling was rampant. Resistance
to the royal tax peaked in 1788, with formation of the revolutionary Inconfidência
Mineira.

The Inconfidência was made up of intellectuals and lead by Tiradentes,
or “tooth puller”, so named because he was a dentist. The Inconfidência,
angered by the crown’s “taxation without representation”, and
inspired by the French and American Revolution, attempted to form their
own independent republic. They drew up the Declaração which
resembles our Bill of Rights, including the freedoms of speech and religion.
The Inconfidência wanted to inspire the people of Ouro Preto to rebellion;
but the plot was uncovered, the revolutionaries imprisoned, and Tiradentes
executed.

The Museu da Inconfidência on the main square, the Praça
Tiradentes, is an homage to this rebellion. Housed in the old prefeitura,
or city hall, the museum exhibits include Tiradentes’ barbaric-looking
dental tools and memorial to the rebels, a room of granite slabs fashioned
like tombstones. In a glass case holds a proud American import — a small
black book containing the US Bill of Rights and Constitution used to draw
up the Declaração.

The Casa dos Contos, another museum, provides a look into official activities
of the time. The two-story building with rooms that face an open air walkway,
had many functions, first as the residence for royal tax collector and
then, during the Inconfidência, a prison. Later, in 1820, it became
a gold foundry and treasury. The museum reflects this span of history,
with documents, coin collections, a dungeon of poet and Inconfidência
rebel Manuel da Costa, and a copy of a poem he wrote expressing his longing
for a free Brazil.

History seeps into the performing arts at Ouro Preto. In July it’s the
Festival de Inverno (Winter Festival — remember, it is winter in the Southern
Hemisphere). Each night at or near the Praça Tiradentes are many
events, most of them free, or inexpensive. The main presentation Os
Dois Cavaleiros de Verona
(Shakespeare’s Two Gentleman of Verona)
was performed in the Teatro Municipal, the oldest theater in Brazil.

The production had a rag-tag feel of an itinerant theater company shuffling
from boomtown to boomtown. The play started as a street procession with
a man in a dog costume, a performer on stilts deftly dodging the pitfalls
of cobblestone, and a small band of Elizabethan musicians playing the recorder,
violin, and drum but with a samba beat. The rest of the performance took
place in the Teatro Municipal, with its three tiers of horseshoe-shaped
red and gold balconies.

The evidence of mining is everywhere, even on the outskirts, and on
the loneliest roads. A red clay back road runs from BR-040 (the road from
Belo Horizonte to Rio) to Ouro Preto. The road winds up the side of a grassy
mountain, then opens up to a valley of green craggy hills and wide sloping
saddles.

Occasionally a man seems to appear out of nowhere, ambling down the
road, or a small herd of zebus meander by with a confounded look. As beautiful
and wild as this lonely land is, the mountains are scarred with grey gouges
from old strip mining, and smokestacks of modern ore processing plants
peer through the trees.

The Minas de Passagem outside of town provides a look at a real mine,
which used to produce gold, copper, silver and iron. Visitors descend into
the mine on a small cart resembling a giant skateboard on tracks. Deep
underground, the cart stops at the main tunnel lit by a row of light bulbs.
A labyrinth of side passageways continue off in darkness.

The ground is littered with black rocks, which housed the gold ore.
Ouro Preto, which translates as “black gold”, got its name from
those rocks. A short walkway through the main tunnel passes by an altar
to Santa Barbara, patroness of miners. At the end of the tunnel lies a
pond of clear cool water.

On the surface again is a green gorge bridged by an abandoned sluicebox.
I went over to a small trough of sand and water, and tried my hand at panning
for gold. Taking the gold pan and swirling off the top layers of dirt trying
to find the small bits of gold dust at the bottom is strenuous and allusive.
The right grains of dirt can turn barren mountains into towns rich with
gold and stories of triumph and greed. Ouro Preto, which has sprung from
those grains, is no exception.

Accommodations:

There are hotels in nearby Belo Horizonte and in Ouro Preto. Prices
and status of businesses fluctuate, but for the most current tourist information,
purchase the guidebook Quatro Rodas which sells for about $20 at magazine
stands in Brazil’s big cities. Quatro Rodas includes a good road map.

Transportation:

By car: Ouro Preto is a walking city but there is parking at
the Praça Tiradentes if you get there early. Belo Horizonte is the
nearest big city with better priced hotels and car rentals. To drive from
Belo Horizonte to Ouro Preto, take the BR-040 south for about 32 kilometers,
exit at MG-262 and continue 65 kilometers to Ouro Preto. The roads are
paved and well-marked and the drive takes about 1-1/2 hours. To go on the
red clay road as mentioned in the article, continue BR-040 until just past
Congonhas and follow the signs to Ouro Branco. This much is paved. From
Ouro Branco to Ouro Preto, the road is unpaved.

To get there by bus: Buses leave every hour from the Belo Horizonte
bus station starting from 6 a.m. to 8:15 p.m.. The trip takes about two
hours.

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