When most people think of Brazil, the first things that comes to mind are the beaches and the sun; however, this country has incredible architecture and a lot of history to tell.
Brazil was colonized by Portugal and during the 17th century it saw some of its cities become gold-exporting centers. A rich architecture was developed and today they are UNESCO World Heritage Sites because of their significance as historical patrimonies. These cities have stood the test of time and bravely resisted the temptation of modern urban development. They are located in the state of Minas Gerais and are not very far from the capital, Belo Horizonte.
The city of Ouro Preto was the first Brazilian city to be considered a world heritage site by Unesco in 1980, and is home to a magnificent Baroque architectural ensemble, one of the best preserved in the world.
The history of the city begins at the end of the 17th century, when an anonymous adventurer encountered curious dark stones (dark gold with a layer of palladium) and initiated one of the biggest gold races of humanity.
Tons of gold were sent to Portugal in the 18th century, and what remained in the region produced Baroque wonders that enchant those who visit the city.
In the historic center, you will find rich fountains, townhouses, chapels and churches of the 17th and 18th centuries.
Another example of the Baroque style is the Matriz Nossa Senhora do Pilar, that is decorated with more than 400 kg of gold. The graceful Museu do Oratório has pieces of different styles that celebrate the miners religiosity.
The São Francisco de Assis Church was designed and decorated by Aleijadinho, and is considered his masterpiece. The image of San Francisco is thrilling.
The sculptor Antônio Francisco Lisboa, Aleijadinho, was one of the most important artists of Minas Gerais. He died in 1814, and was honored in 1968 with the creation of the Aleijadinho Museum, dedicated to preserving and exhibiting objects of sacred art.
In the city, you will find hotels, hostels, cafes, shops, antique stores and craft fairs that sell pieces made from soapstone.
It was in the late 17th century that large amounts of gold were discovered in a river, which was named Ribeirão de Nossa Senhora do Carmo by the colonizers. A settlement would later develop into Mariana, the first village established in the captaincy of Minas Gerais.
In 1745, an unprecedented urban project designed by military engineer José Fernandes Pinto Alpoim transformed the urban landscape of the city, populating it with streets in straight lines and large rectangular plazas. It was the first planned city of Minas Gerais.
Today whoever walks through the sumptuous colonial mansions finds rich adornments and soapstone balconies, as well as majestic churches, such as the Church of Nossa Senhora do Carmo, the Church of Nossa Senhora do Rosário dos Pretos and the Chapel of Nossa Senhora da Boa Morte.
The Cathedral Basilica of the Sé (or Our Lady of the Assumption), at Praça de Minas Gerais, features a modest facade, but it is one of the richest temples in the country. In addition to its altars carved by Portuguese artist Francisco Xavier de Brito, to everyone’s fascination, there’s an organ built by the german Arp Schnitger, still in full operation.
The Passagem Mine, the largest gold mine open to visitors in the world, is also a tourist attraction of Mariana.
Listed as national monument in 1945, Mariana is one of the brightest jewels of the historical mining circuit and a feast for those who love architecture, art and history.
Tiradentes’ baroque style is not as exquisite as Ouro Preto, but it is undoubtedly the most charming of the historical cities of Minas Gerais.
Located at the foot of the Serra de São José, the city was just a mining camp in the early 18th century.
With the proclamation of the Republic, the city was renamed Tiradentes, name of the martyr of the Inconfidência Mineira (an attempt at emancipation from Minas Gerais in 1789), born nearby and who died fighting against the monarchy. When gold became scarce in the region, the city was forgotten and fell into dispair, it was rediscovered in late 1970. Exceptionally preserved thanks to the decades of long isolation, the Baroque architectural ensemble of Tiradentes gathers jewels like the charming fountain of the São José Fountain, built in 1749 to supply the city with drinking water and which runs until today.
Also standing out in the city is the majestic Church of San Antonio, second in amount of gold in Brazil, with its front built by Aleijadinho.
Largo das Forras, the central city square, houses the City Hall and numerous handicraft shops, restaurants and inns.
In August, Tiradentes hosts one of the most exciting events of brazilian cuisine: the Tiradentes Culture and Gastronomy Festival. Created in 1998, the Festival brings together renowned chefs of Brazilian cuisine and other countries too. In 2015, more than 350 professionals attended the event and held 200 gastronomic activities, between classes, dinners and restaurants in the square.
São João Del Rei
One of the largest, most important and ancient eighteenth-century mining towns, São João Del Rei was born in 1702 on the banks of Rio das Mortes. In 1713, the camp won village status with the name of São João Del Rei in an obvious tribute to the Portuguese King Dom João V.
Currently, São João has strong trade, busy traffic and is known for being a vibrant university town due to the significant presence of teaching centers and student republics which attract young people from all over the country and also from abroad.
For the enchantment of local residents and tourists, the city keeps alive a centuries-old tradition: the ringing of the church bells. This custom made it the “city of the bells” and “land where the bells speak”. The tradition is executed by bell ringers who pass down this art from generation to generation. The Instituto do Patrimônio Histórico e Artístico Nacional (Iphan) granted the bell ringers the title of Cultural Heritage of Brasil.
The Historic Center displays fountains, monumental bridges and beautiful colonial mansions. The main attraction is the Tancredo Neves Memorial, created to honor the Brazilian lawyer and politician born in the city.
The city also celebrates its religious tradition through the baroque musical activity and ceremonies such as the Festa do Divino and Semana Santa, in which tourists and citizens decorate the streets with delicate decorative carpets made with sand, sawdust and flower petals.