Before I became more familiar with Brazil I didn’t even know that Minas Gerais existed. To be honest my knowledge of Brazil, like most unknowing gringos I’m sure, was pretty much limited to Rio, São Paulo, Salvador, the Amazon and the cataratas (waterfalls) at Foz do Iguaçu.
However, the more people I spoke to about Minas the more I liked the sound of it, especially as many of those same people also said that it was their favourite Brazilian state.
Intrigued and with a free week to kill, my wife and I decided to visit. The following is what we discovered.
Minas Gerais literally means ‘General Mines’ – the reason for this will become clearer below.
When you look at a map of Brazil the states of Minas Gerais and São Paulo look quite close – well, they’re next door after all.
However, let’s put this into context. Brazil is BLOODY MASSIVE.
The state of São Paulo ALONE is bigger than the United Kingdom. As such, the bus we took from the city of São Paulo to the capital of Minas – Belo Horizonte – took 8 hours. That’s a distance of about 580km and so it’s basically like driving from London to Glasgow.
That’s how close your neighbouring states in Brazil are (i.e. not very).
In 2007 I visited Potosi in Bolivia, a hill full of silver that the Spanish had stumbled upon in the mid-sixteenth century. Frankly, it was one of the most depressing places I’ve ever been to. Apart from being a cold and damp little town, its existence – even today – is owed to mining. The life expectancy of Potosi’s miners is about 40 years of age and some reports suggest that as many as 8 million people have died as a result of working there, including slaves who during colonial times were sent down to work until they died.
And going down the mine itself was one of the most unpleasant things I’ve ever experienced – even worse than the Sugar Ray concert I went to 1999.
Yes, THAT bad.
Anyway, whilst the Spanish were filling their boots with silver (and the English were robbing it off them), the Portuguese struggled to find anything in Brazil other than trees (lots of them) and angry locals, so they had to make do with growing sugar instead.
This though changed very quickly when at the end of the seventeenth century gold was discovered in the region that today is known as Minas Gerais – hence the name. Cue an excited Portuguese royal family and the use of its empire’s own slaves to dig up all the filthy lucre.
And all that talk of mines and slaves brings us nicely to the stuff you can see, do and visit in Minas (N.B that doesn’t mean you can still see slaves in Minas).
1) Colonial Minas – Hills (lots of them), Churches (lots of them) and ‘The Little Cripple’.
Unlike Potosi, some of the wealth generated from Minas’s mines trickled into the local area and one legacy of this is that Minas has some fine colonial towns.
The largest and most well-known is Ouro Preto (Black Gold), which had originally been called Vila Rica (Rich Town) – any guesses where the priorities of the Portuguese lay at the time?
Ouro Preto has an array of fine, old colonial buildings and the most predominant are the town’s 12 churches and 7 chapels – including one built by slaves who had managed to buy their freedom.
We managed to go in or around 9 of the churches, which is not a bad feat given that neither of us are remotely religious and given the fact that the route to many of them involves ascending bloody great big hills – exhausting although worth it for the views.
Some of these churches and many of their sculptures are said to have been designed and produced by O Aleijadinho (The Little Cripple – you have to admire Brazilian nicknames). The name itself refers to the fact that he is said to have created most of them whilst suffering from leprosy.
And after visiting some of Minas’s other notable colonial towns (including Mariana, São Joao del Rei and Tiradentes), it became apparent that every piece of sculpted stone or carved wood in Minas has been attributed to ‘The Little Cripple’.
Unfortunately, it seems that the grand tales of a man making piece after piece of exquisite sculpture with his tools strapped to his fingerless hands may be, unsurprisingly, a little far fetched. For example, we even overheard a guide in one of Aleijadinho’s own churches saying that it would have been “impossible” for him to have completed all the pieces attributed to him.
Some doubters go as far as to claim that he didn’t actually exist whilst others argue that he did but that many of the works were actually completed by his apprentices and then subsequently attributed to him.
But let`s face it, who really cares? All that matters is that he was and is ‘affectionately’ called ‘The Little Cripple’ . Even better, inside one church is a Museu do Aleijadinho (Museum of ‘The Little Cripple’). IN A CHURCH. Fantastic.
Another ‘attraction’ in towns like Ouro Preto are the mines themselves. Now, given my experience in Bolivia mines weren’t particularly on the top of my to-do list, but whilst visiting a church a homeless looking guy offered to take us to one that was just around the corner – and being British I was too polite to decline his generous offer.
Fortunately, we weren’t made to jump down into any dark pits like we were in Bolivia. Nevertheless, not a terribly pleasant experience.
Another novelty of visiting Minas’s colonial towns is that two of them still have functioning steam railways, and we visited the one that runs between São Joao del Rei and Tiradentes.
Only a Brit, of course, would get excited by a steam train. Choo choo!
2) Pampulha – More curves than a Brazilian bum
The chances are that if you’ve seen a building in Brazil with even the slightest curve incorporated into its design, then it will probably have been designed by the architect Oscar Niemeyer. And given that he’s still alive and kicking at the sprightly age of 105 there are plenty of them around – including most of those in city of Brasilia.
And Belo Horizonte, the capital of Minas and the first stop on our little trip, is no exception. The first one I spotted was around Praça Liberdade and had a classic squiggly Niemeyer design.
More stunning were those around Pampulha, a neighbourhood on the peripheries of the city. At its centre is a man-made lagoon built as part of Preseident Kubitschek’s 5 years in 50 construction program during the 1940s. Around the lagoon are various Niemeyer buildings although because the lagoon is so bloody big we only got round a quarter of it to see two of them.
First up was Casa do Baile.
Further round the lake is the Igreja São Francisco de Assis, a tiled church with a mural inside that was painted by Candido Portinari.
Other squiggly sights are the Museum of Art and a private Tennis Club.
Well worth a visit if you’re in Belo Horizonte even if, like us, it’s just to sit by the lagoon and have an ice-cream. Mid-winter in Brazil eh?
Opened in 2006 it is set within 5,000 acres of land in the middle of nowhere (about an hour’s drive from Belo Horizonte).
There are about thirty exhibitions, sculptures and individual works dotted around Inhotim’s beautifully landscaped site. Personal highlights included a wall made of fake body parts and a full-sized tractor inside a greenhouse. Yes, really.
Even if you’re not a fan of modern art the trip alone is worth it for the surroundings and the buildings, which whatever you think of the artwork inside, are impressive in themselves.
Anyway, a big thumbs up.
Finally, everyone who has been to Minas raves about the state’s food. And I can confirm, having had seven days to sample it, that it really is rather very good.
Brazil’s famous Pão de Queijo (Cheese Bread) originates from Minas and I ate 658 of them – to be precise. Also worth trying is the Feijão Tropeiro, a dish made of beans, manioc flour, rice, sausage and topped off with a fried egg.
Be warned: Dine on an empty stomach when you’re in Minas.
Anyway, that’s my little introduction to Minas. Having only spent 7 days there it would be foolish to say that it’s representative of the whole state, but it’s a good start. Let me know what I’ve missed out.