Excursions from Rio
Another option worth mentioning is an outing to two of the “historical cities” in the state of Minas Gerais. In fact, Minas deserves more than these miserly paragraphs. It deserves a whole chapter, a whole book, a whole life. But this will have to do. And luckily, a few precious days can be spent as an excursion out of Rio. Although I am a resolutely coastal person, having always lived and traveled near the sea, and normally start break out in hives more than a couple of hours inland, the grace and poetry of this landlocked, decidedly inward-looking Brazilian state has me in its spell like a haunting melody.
Frankly, I find it difficult to even remain rational talking about this wonderful place. In fact, I consider proximity to Minas one of the major advantages of living in Rio. While Rio dances to the beat of the samba and revels in partying as a way of life, the way of Minas is another world, poetic, cloistered, and at times downright mysterious. It is a place of misty hills and old secrets, and a cultural and historical legacy that remain alive in its fantastic Baroque art and architecture, allowing you to glimpse the colonial past of this region whose name translates as “General Mines,” an indication of the area’s mineral wealth.
From Rio, the two most accessible of these towns are Sï¿½o Joï¿½o del Rei and neighboring Tiradentes. They are so close together that they can really be considered as one excursion. And if you are here on a weekend, you can take a trip through time on the 19th century steam train that still connects them.
Getting to Sï¿½o Joï¿½o del Rei and Tiradentes
From Rio, buses leave for Sï¿½o Joï¿½o del Rei five times a day and take about five and a half hours to arrive. Upon arrival at the bus station in Sï¿½o Joï¿½o, you can take a taxi or catch a local bus to the city center. Either one will only take about five minutes. Tiradentes can be reached by bus from Sï¿½o Joï¿½o. But by all means, take the antique steam train instead. This ride is not to be missed. The step back in time begins at the historical train station on Av. Hermï¿½lio Alves, just across from the Hotel Brasil, if you happen to be staying there. Buy your tickets in advance and have a look at the museum before boarding the Maria Fumaï¿½a, or “Smoking Mary,” as this little train is endearingly known. Sit on the left side in the middle for the best views. Trains leave Sï¿½o Joï¿½o at 10am and 2:15pm, returning from Tiradentes at 1pm and 5pm.
Sï¿½o Joï¿½o del Rei, with a population of about 80,000, is much the bigger and livelier of the two towns, at the same time maintaining the colonial ambience all the historical cities of Minas are famous for. It was the birthplace of Joaquim Josï¿½ da Silva Xavier, known as Tiradentes, Brazil’s national hero who, as leader of the attempted uprising called the Inconfidï¿½ncia Mineira was martyred for his leadership of Brazil’s first independence movement in 1789.
It was also the beloved home of Tancredo Neves, the president-elect who was to usher Brazil out of its dark days of military dictatorship. Tragically, he died on the eve of taking office, leaving in his wake a vacuum of leadership and political honesty.
Sï¿½o Joï¿½o del Rei also played host to the inspiration of one of Brazil’s most inspiring figures and artistic treasures, Antï¿½nio Francisco Lisboa, better known as Aleijadinho, the most important artist of the Minas Baroque. Mixed in with the colonial buildings is a fair amount of architecture from the turn of the century up to the thirties, which adds to rather than detracts from the pleasantly aged feel of this town.
Sï¿½o Joï¿½o is split in two by a stream, the Cï¿½rrego do Lenheiros, with colonial districts on either side in the center of the city. The two sides of the city are connected by a number of old bridges, which add to the baroque charm of the city. The scent of religion hangs heavily in the air in Sï¿½o Joï¿½o. It isn’t unusual to see a religious procession marching solemnly down its cobblestoned streets and evidence of its Catholic fervor can be observed in the often large and multiple crucifixes worn by town residents.
Another fascinating aspect of this pious town is the “language of the bells.” The pealing of the church bells acts as a sonic gazette, announcing all manner of events including masses and what time they begin and who the celebrant will be, processions, and funerals, including details such as whether the person was a man or a woman, and even the time of the funeral. All this religiosity is not to say that Sï¿½o Joï¿½o lives in stoic and prayerful silence. This is Brazil after all, and this town is one of the best in Minas for a party. Its Carnaval is provincial but lively, and could easily be considered as an alternative to Rio de Janeiro during this season.
The sights can be taken in on foot in a day with no problem.
Igreja de Sï¿½o Francisco de Assis
Amongst the most beautiful of all the churches of Minas Gerais, this Baroque wonder was built in 1774 at the apogee of the Minas Baroque period. Featuring the ornate exterior and elaborate yet uncluttered interior typical of the late Baroque period, it is so curvaceous it’s downright sensual. Stand under the front portal and look up, and Jesus will look back down at you.
The interior is adorned with a number of Aleijadinho’s contributions in the side chapels, and features a Baccarat crystal chandelier, the only one of its kind outside the Louvre. It was brought here after the Emperor Dom Pedro I, having requisitioned the piece for the Imperial Palace in Petrï¿½polis, rejected it.
Part of the charm of this church is due to its front garden which features royal palms and a curved walk in the shape of a lyre. When the sun hits the trees at the right angle, the shadows of the trees become the strings of the lyre.
Catedral Basï¿½lica de Nossa Senhora do Pilar
This beautiful church, built in 1721, features a ceiling painting and a stunning gold-leafed altar which marks it as one of the richest churches in Minas.
The colonial district
A leisurely walk around the colonial areas is essential. One particularly interesting street is Rua Santo Antï¿½nio. Walk down this time-worn street of whitewashed houses leaning to and fro at rickety angles. It seems so lost in time, you almost wouldn’t be surprised to see one of the rebels from the Inconfidï¿½ncia slinking around. Especially eerie at night. Note the headquarters of the local orchestras, dating back more than two hundred years.
For maps and information, unfortunately only available in Portuguese for the moment, stop in at this tourist office near the Igreja de Sï¿½o Francisco. If you can decipher Portuguese, they even have a pamphlet which can help you decode the language of the bells. Bosco, a wonderfully knowledgeable and helpful mineiro (a person from Minas) gentlemen, tirelessly answered my every last question. And I had a few.
With quartos (rooms w/o private bath), at R$10 and apartamentos (rooms w/private bath) at R$15, you can’t beat the price. Then again, you get what you pay for. As the old adage goes, it’s not the Hilton. There is no breakfast included, strange for a Brazilian hotel, and kind of a shame, as a hotel breakfast room is always a great place to meet people. Nonetheless, it’s clean, the management’s friendly, and it’s well-located, just across the street from the train station. Besides, it’s in a classic 19th century building with high ceilings. I like the jigsaw puzzle pictures of snowscapes and castles at the top of the stairs.
Av. Tancredo Neves, 395.
I didn’t stay at this place, but I sure would have if I hadn’t been cinching centavos. The location is beautiful, with a view of the stunning Igreja de Sï¿½o Francisco. It’s located in a storybook house with a very homey feel, at least as far as I could tell from the lobby and breakfast room. The friendly staff answered my questions with impeccable grace. You even get a swimming pool in the bargain.
Rua Ribeiro Bastos, 94.
Rua Marechal Deodoro, 209. (32) 3371-7566. There are several other possibilities in this area, in the colonial area on the same bank of the Cï¿½rrego do Lenheiros as Nossa Senhora de Pilar.
Food and Drink
For a very cheap meal, you will find a number of low-end restaurants which offer a set refeiï¿½ï¿½o (meal), usually a choice of beef or chicken with beans, rice, farofa (manioc meal), and salad; or a prato feito, often abbreviated to PF, the daily special. It’s often very decent, if not exciting. The price is typically low.
One place that offers this kind of deal is the simple Restaurante Estaï¿½ï¿½o on Av. Tancredo Neves 437, almost next to the Hotel Brasil, where a refeiï¿½ï¿½o or a PF can be had for a song. Try the chopp escuro (dark draft beer). Bump around the colonial area at lunch time and you’ll find a lot of small restaurants offering similarly inviting deals.
Drop in at the Cafï¿½ Tamandarï¿½ for coffee and a snack. It’s a tiny standup coffee joint at Avenida Getï¿½lio Vargas, 234. Friendly (it’s Minas, what did you expect?).
Cafï¿½ com Arte
As the name suggests, an artsy cafï¿½, in a sweet old colonial house. Good healthy food, coffee, and sweets at a reasonable price, inside or on the patio in the back. Cheap shots of the renowned Capitï¿½o das Geraes cachaï¿½a.
A great place for a drink, with a postcard view of the beautiful Igreja de Sï¿½o Francisco, directly opposite on the same square.
For drinks and general carousing, the bars on Avenida Tiradentes near the Igreja Sï¿½o Francisco are the place to go. Pull up a chair, order a beer, and mingle at will.
Sadly, the previously recommended Pastelaria Ponte de Pedra has now entered history. This tiny shop served simply the best pastï¿½is in the world. A pastel (s. pastel, pl. pastï¿½is) is a deep-fried treat, usually savory, made from a crisp pastry wrapped around any number of fillings. The pastel is ubiquitous in Rio and Minas, but unless you’ve been to heaven, I’d doubt you ever had them better than at Pastelaria Ponte de Pedra.
I discovered this gem by chance on a trip to Sï¿½o Joï¿½o del Rei when a friend and I unwittingly arrived in town on the afternoon of a local holiday and set out to look for a bite to eat. Everything had closed by lunchtime. Just as despair was setting in, we trudged by the doors of this little establishment, which were opened but a mere crack. Although the scent of fresh pastï¿½is wafting out into the street was tugging hard, the place had clearly closed for business, and I managed to resist. My friend did not. She sidled up, peeked through the opening, and asked if they were indeed closed. They were. I was embarrassed. My friend was not. She smiled, talked sweet, and before we knew it, we were grinningly seated at the counter while Dona Vï¿½nia and her husband Antï¿½nio, aided by the sweet as sugarcane Ana Daniela, busily prepared a huge order for a wedding that afternoon. While I apologized for imposing ourselves on their after-hours work schedule, Dona Vï¿½nia made no mind of it at all. On the contrary, she just smiled, insisted we make ourselves at home, and we were soon all chatting up a storm over pastï¿½is made with a pastry so light, making sure to eat several, just to keep us from flying away. How did we like Minas, they asked? Humming dreamy approvals, we gestured crumb-caked thumbs-ups and nodded vigorously. We floated out to the street, our faith in the world restored.
The task is now upon you to find the next best pastï¿½is, and when you do, please let me know.
If I should ever leave Brazil, I don’t know what I’ll do without jabuticaba jam. I shudder at the very thought. You can buy it at this tiny shop in the Largo do Rosï¿½rio. The main show here, however, is the array of homemade sweets. The batata doce (sweet potato) candy is out of this world. Also featured are tropical fruit liqueurs made from a base of cachaï¿½a. In fact, when I was here, I was in search, as usual, of some premium cachaï¿½a. I asked the couple who own the shop if they might know where I could pick up a nice bottle. The old man obligingly escorted me out the door to show me the way. Much was my surprise when he pointed me to the dentist’s at a house a few doors down.
Although hesitant, I asked a client in the waiting area if she knew anything about this. I was almost relieved at her astonishment. I pointed out to her that the joy-inducing, anesthetic qualities of cachaï¿½a might very well be a boon to modern dentistry. She chuckled askance, presumably at this pathetic attempt to justify my lowly habit. At any rate, she was good enough to ring the bell for me. A dental hygienist popped her head out the doorway and I pleaded my unusual case. She didn’t flinch, and instructed me to wait while she rang “the girl,” who appeared moments later, and with sullen impatience and a soupï¿½on of scorn, asked if I hadn’t brought an empty bottle. I shook my head sheepishly, whereupon she grunted and informed me of the price – R$2 a liter, and how many liters did I want anyway? I embarrassedly suggested that one would probably get me through the day, and off she rattled back to the kitchen.
The mild anxiety this little scene had provoked in me turned to delight as she returned and unceremoniously handed me a rotting plastic supermarket bag containing one glistening bottle of ï¿½gua que passarinho nï¿½o bebe (my favorite Brazilian pet name for this drink, “water that little birds don’t drink”). Those birds don’t know what they’re missing.
While Sï¿½o Joï¿½o del Rei is a living, breathing town, the village of Tiradentes just a half an hour away is a museum, a jewel, a flower. This little town, much smaller than its neighbor, and thoroughly walkable, is a flash from the past. Though it is certainly not devoid of sights, and boasts at least one important church, the best thing to do in Tiradentes is to walk around and soak up the atmosphere.
Largo das Forras – The center of the town, this pleasantly shaded square is the locus of activity.
Igreja Matriz de Santo Antï¿½nio de Pï¿½dua (1710) – A beautiful example of the early period of Minas Baroque, its altar is a golden extravaganza. See the sundial in front of the church, of the same vintage as the church itself.
Igreja da Nossa Senhora do Rosï¿½rio dos Pretos – The church of the slaves, engaging for its very simplicity. The little square in front has an outdoor cafï¿½, perfect for a refreshing beer break in the shade.
Chafariz de Sï¿½o Josï¿½ – A public fountain dating back to 1749. Legend has it that those who wish for a mate should drink from the middle fountain and those with the desire to remain or become single should drink from the left one. If you know what’s good for you, you won’t drink from either. This fountain is used to this day by local women to wash clothes.
Generally a little more expensive than in Sï¿½o Joï¿½o, but the village atmosphere may be just what you’re looking for. There is certainly no lack of lodgings here, as many of the residents have turned their houses into pousadas.
If you’ve picked up a taste for cachaï¿½a, the wonderful Brazilian cane spirit, you’ll love this shop, which stocks more than 180 varieties of this florid nectar. A number are available for sampling. While you’re at it, buy a couple of classic ribbed shotglasses to sample your treasures in.