Paraty's Bloco da Lama starts on Jabalpur beach where mangrove swamps produce a fine black mud. Many participants now further disguise themselves with various bizarre extras to join the fun, with a strong theme of skulls, bones and creepers.
Minas Gerais – Long Read

Brazil’s Royal Road built to move tons of gold

Photo by Ratao Diniz

Minas Gerais – Long Read Brazil’s Royal Road built to move tons of gold

Hello Brazil, where the spectacular Baroque architecture of Minas Gerais is a striking legacy of the world’s first major gold rush in the 18th century. Hundreds of thousands came then in search of wild riches but now, 300 years later, the Royal Road built to move tons of gold to Portugal has become popular with Brazilians keen to explore their own nation’s history.

Andy Jarosz
Andy Jarosz Travel Writer

Ouro Preto is not a place for the unfit. With 30 per cent gradients running down both sides of Praça Tiradentes, the central square and the only flat area of note in the whole town, a walk anywhere is guaranteed to provide a good work-out for the hamstrings. Yet it is the treasures found within these unforgiving slopes that mark out Ouro Preto as probably the single most important town in Brazilian history – and even beyond; it was the gold found in the state of Minas Gerais that helped finance Europe’s Industrial Revolution.

Vila Rica, as it was known then, sprung up soon after gold was discovered in the black rocks near the river valley that runs below today’s town. Speculators descended on the area in a Gold Rush and the settlement soon grew into a major city. At first men came alone, with the indigenous Indian population used for the heavy work. Then, when the Portuguese masters found Indians to be unreliable and difficult to control, they turned to Africa for a labor force. Almost 300,000 slaves were shipped here and they served two distinct purposes: men were brought for mining, women for mating.

Vila Rica in its heyday had a population of 110,000 and it was a wild, dangerous place. Gold was everywhere (a kilo of beans cost more than a kilo of gold in 1750), and robberies and murder were commonplace. Going out after dark was highly dangerous as men would be attacked on the assumption that they were carrying gold. As with the gold rushes that followed it was not those getting their hands dirty who grew rich; the real money was made in selling tools and services to the men desperate to dig for wealth.

It took 85 days for the gold from Vila Rica to reach the coast

In the early years it took at least 85 days for the gold from Vila Rica to reach the coast and onto a ship bound for Portugal. The road across the mountains was treacherous and often deadly, and finding a quicker route became an urgent priority. The first road through the mountains to Paraty, built by Afrcan slaves, soon became known as the Estrada Real (Royal Road) and reduced the journey to 35 days.

Nobody really knows how much gold was taken from Minas Gerais in total. Estimates suggest that in 1698 around 400 kg of gold was mined, increasing to two tons in 1710 and a staggering ten tons in 1750. But amounts were heavily under-reported as the Portuguese Crown took a heavy share (20 per cent) of all declared gold. The gold was considered the property of the king and his Treasury meted out severe punishment (usually beheading) to those found to be hiding it. Yet many ran the risk, often hiding the metal inside religious icons.

Resistance was crushed without mercy. When Felipe do Santos led a revolt in 1720 against the high duties being extracted by the Portuguese, he was tied to a horse’s tail and dragged along the city’s cobbled streets until he was dead. While do Santos may have been the first official victim of the Gold Rush, Joaquim José da Silva Xavier – better known as Tiradentes (“tooth-puller”) – was the most famous freedom-fighter of the 18th century. The square in the centre of Ouro Preto is named in his honor, as are public places in many Brazilian towns and cities.

As gold reserves began to dry up in the late 18th century, the Portuguese crown, convinced that their reduced revenues were down to smuggling, imposed ever-higher taxes on the people of Minas Gerais. Inspired by the stories of revolution in France and America, Tiradentes led a protest movement known as the Inconfidência Mineira that called for independence from the Portuguese and for better opportunities for all of Brazil’s citizens.

Imprisoned for three years and hanged in Rio de Janeiro

For his troubles he was imprisoned for three years and hanged in Rio de Janeiro. His head was then put on display in Ouro Preto and other body parts left in towns along the Estrada Real, to deter any thought of further protest. His co-conspirators were exiled to Africa, and their bodies only returned to Brazil in 1942. They are now interred in the Conspiracy Museum at one end of the city’s main square. Since independence Tiradentes has become Brazil’s national hero and April 21, the date of his execution, is now a public holiday.

While the gold rush has long finished, precious stones are still abundant in the hills of Minas Gerais. I talk to gemologist Joao Bosco Pereira who tells me that iron, bauxite, copper, diamonds and topaz are found in the region’s modern-day mines. Many visitors also come to Ouro Preto to shop for gem stones. As Joao says: “If you tell me you want a particular stone cut in a certain size and shape, it can be done within a few hours.” Meanwhile I am one of thousands of visitors, the vast majority Brazilian, struggling up the steep streets of Ouro Preto to admire the Baroque architecture that has been immaculately preserved.

At St Francis of Assisi Church, Joao tells me the story of Ouro Preto’s most famous craftsman, Aleijadinho, known rather unfortunately as “The Little Cripple”. “People say he had leprosy,” says Joao. “That’s unlikely as he was never isolated. He almost certainly suffered from arthritis. He learned his craft from his architect father, but he was the son of a slave mother so he was not allowed to have his name displayed on his work”.

The church is Aleijadinho’s masterpiece, built between 1765 and 1812. “He is the most influential craftsman ever to emerge from the Americas,” says Joao. The elaborate carvings within are made from local soapstone, chosen for its durability against the weathering effects of rain. The interior is lavish, in keeping with the riches enjoyed by the town in the 18th century.

The oldest surviving theater in the Americas

I visit the old opera house, opened in 1770 to entertain the town’s middle-classes, who had become prosperous largely through providing ancillary services to the miners. It is the oldest surviving theater in the Americas and I am drawn by its charm and simplicity, surrounded as it is by the lavish Baroque buildings of the time.

The same cannot be said of the Nossa Senhora de Pilar church at the lower part of the town. Dripping with a reported 480 kg of gold in its altars and decorations, the church was set up as a place of worship for the wealthier residents of Vila Rica. Some men, it appears, were considered more worthy than others in the eyes of their God.

To get a closer perspective on the gold rush I visit the Mina da Passagem near Mariana, linked to Ouro Preto by a historic railway line that is now a popular tourist attraction. Riding on a rusty old mining cart I descend into the bowels of the mine during a three-minute journey that has passengers whooping with delight, despite the uncomfortable ride. Tracks leading to nowhere line the base of the mine, while seams of multi-colored rock hint at the riches held within. I am only able to walk around 100 meters inside the mine, the trail ending at a pool of water and I return via a small chapel made by the workers. No doubt they felt the need for all the divine intervention they could muster.

Garlic and onions are essential ingredients

Further south I visit the town of Tiradentes, birthplace of the national hero and now a tourist honey pot filled with Brazilian weekend visitors. A jazz band plays in the main square and despite the intense midday heat couples dance in the sun. Around the square are gift shops, galleries and cafés, and the sharp contrast from big city life in Brazil is evident by the relaxed way in which people leave their bags out in the open and appear to have no fear of crime.

It is in Tiradentes that I stop to learn about Minas Gerais cuisine. I step into the kitchen of chef Alexandre Nascimento as he prepares the day’s dishes in the Restaurante Emporio Santo Antonio. As with other parts of Brazil the food fuses ingredients from three principal sources: the indigenous fruits and vegetables, food from Africa and also from Portugal and its colonies around the world. Alexandre pours me a kiwi caipirinha as he gets to work preparing the dishes for lunch. He is clearly a man who loves his craft and he grins with great enthusiasm as he prepares his ingredients. “Garlic and onions are essential ingredients in Minas Gerais cuisine,” he says while pouring healthy measures of both into the frying pan. “We use peppers too, but to add flavor rather than for their spiciness.”

Fat has traditionally been the favored method of preservation, and he tells me that meat can be stored for up to six months in this method. He is busy producing a paella mineira (which contains generous quantities of pork), along with feijoada tropeiro, literally “Cattleman’s Beans”, a dish of beans, bacon and manioc flour, a key ingredient in dishes across Brazil.

Important staging posts along the Estrada Real

Hungry from watching Alexandre at work, I take a seat in the restaurant and enjoy some of the dishes I have just watched him prepare. His wife Soraya takes charge of desserts, and bowing to the temptation of my sweet tooth, I make a respectable stab at the buffet of treats on offer.

The major draw of Tiradentes is without doubt the old steam train of the Estrada de Ferro Oeste de Minas which trundles its way between the station and the nearby town of Sao Joao del Rei. The 19th century “Fuming Maria” steam locomotive attracts hundreds of passengers daily for the 40-minute trip in 1930s carriages through the farmland that separates the two towns. Both Tiradentes and São João del-Rei grew up on the back of the Gold Rush and were important staging posts along the Estrada Real.

The train winds slowly enough along the 18km route to allow passengers to snap photos from the sliding windows. At São João del-Rei there is an opportunity to dress in period costumes to relive the journeys of the early travelers along this line, when it provided a critical route towards the coast.

Here I meet Attila Carvalho de Godoy, a geologist who spent much of his working life traveling around Brazil and beyond before retiring to Sao Joao del Rei, where most of his family lives. “Sao Joao del Rei is a bric-a-brac kind of town,” he says. “You’ll find a bit of everything here. Not just with the architecture and the shops, but with the people too. There are some real gems, but they do take a bit of time and effort to discover.” It too is blessed with Baroque treasures, although the town is not quite as neatly packaged as the smaller Tiradentes.

Sao Joao del Rei is a bric-a-brac kind of town

Atila is one of the men behind a long-running project to create an Estrada Real tourist route and he describes how he started the project together with a friend. “Most people in Brazil were already familiar with the Estrada Real story from their history classes in school,” he says. “But there was no joined-up plan to promote the region or to offer a coordinated tourist package.”

Atila set out to follow the old Estrada Real in his Land Rover, using old maps and working out if there was the potential for a tourist trail. He talked to farmers, hoteliers, local school and business associations to try and build a community of people who would work together for a common goal. “I was keen on developing a sustainable plan for the region that would bring benefits to small businesses and individual, not just for the corporations,” he says. “Tourism brings benefits to all and the Estrada Real is not only a tourism product but also a tool for cultural transformation and a way of exorcising old fears.”

Old fears? This is not something I have encountered so far so I ask Atila to explain. “Minas Gerais was never really a tourist place because people tried to hide what happened there,” he says. “There is a dark history of slavery and before that of the Inquisition and of Jewish oppression. People in the region are still suspicious by nature and don’t open up easily to strangers.”

I tell him that I have not sensed any of this suspicion during my stay in Ouro Preto. “Ouro Preto was always a bit different,” he says. “It’s so close to Belo Horizonte that when Belo Horizonte was built in the late 19th century and the state capital moved there, the high and mighty of Minas Gerais moved and only came to Ouro Preto for weekends. The modern city was able to develop without the baggage that affected much of the region.”

The journey would have been far more of an ordeal

To follow the Estrada Real is to undertake a journey with two endings. Paraty was the original end of the route, offering the shortest distance between mine and ship. Today it is a pleasant coastal town, attracting weekend visitors from Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo, both of which are around five hours’ drive away. My journey there takes seven hours along the winding mountain roads and I think of those early pioneers for whom the journey would have been far more of an ordeal.

I wander along Paraty’s punishing cobbles, finding the Baroque remains of the 18th century among the white-washed houses and restaurants that serve the crowds of international and Brazilian visitors. The gold which arrived here by horse power was shipped to Rio, from where it traveled to Portugal. This trade brought great riches to this small bay, but now the horses pull only tourists around the town in colorful carts while boat trips to the beaches of the nearby islands are very popular.

While Paraty was the original end point of the Estrada Real in the early 18th century, there was a pressing need to find a safe route from Minas Gerais directly to Rio de Janeiro to speed up the process of getting the gold to Portuguese homeland and once the road was completed in 1725 Rio experienced a rapid boom.

Stranded on a busy traffic island

Today Rio still has Baroque treasures built up over those golden years and it is well worth exploring on a walk through the city’s downtown district, although these grand churches and civil buildings are largely squeezed between the modern 20th century towers. The magnificent 18th century Igreja de Candelaria takes this bow to Rio’s modernization a step further, finding itself stranded on a busy traffic island.

The Imperial City of Petrópolis serves almost as a postscript to the Estrada Real. It was on a journey from Minas Gerais in the 1820s that the Portuguese king stopped at a farm for the night. He was so enchanted with the climate and the clean mountain air that he made an offer to the owner for the land. When the farmer refused he bought adjacent land where he planned to set up his summer palace.

He never saw the project through, but his son, Pedro II, set up his residence here and many of Brazil’s elite followed him, leading to the formation of Petrópolis. The city is now rich with grand 19th century mansions and, while the clean air in the city centre has suffered from the heavy traffic that chugs through its streets, the city still retains the feel of a place of retreat from the chaos of Rio, barely 50 km away.

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