Treasures of the Royal Road
A 17th century gold rush brought exceptional wealth to a handful of little mining towns 150 miles inland from Rio de Janeiro. Their riches were lavished on churches, town houses, civic buildings and religious artefacts in a baroque style of extraordinary intensity, matching and exceeding the peak of baroque in Europe. The historic buildings of one of the little towns alone, Ouro Preto, represent the largest homogeneous collection of baroque art in the world.
Little changed since that time, these peaceful and welcoming country towns are connected by a single 'royal road' by which their gold was carried to the sea at Paraty and Rio - now retraced in this simple but extraordinary journey.
Day 1 You are met on arrival at Belo Horizonte airport (which has frequent connections to Sao Paulo) by your English speaking local guide and transferred to a nearby hotel.
The rest of the day is free to relax, assuming you have just arrived in Brazil after a long flight.
Alternatively we can arrange an excursion to visit the suburb of Pampulha, where the brilliant modernist architect Oscar Niemeyer created one of his first significant buildings, a museum of contemporary art, in collaboration with landscape designer Roberto Burle Marx. The sensuous curves of the building stand on a promontory over a manmade lake.
Day 2 B You are collected from your hotel, having rested and found your feet, and driven to the airport where you pick up your hire car and say goodbye to your guide. From here you are on your own, but with a detailed driving guide, maps, a guide book and plenty of support available by telephone if you need it.
Your first stop is the little town of Sabara, the oldest of the historic towns on the Estrada Real. It's a sweet little community built on a hill, around a handful of cobbled streets and small squares. There is a fascinating early theatre dating from 1770 (seemingly little changed since then), a small 'gold museum' and a small church - your first example of the baroque style of which you will soon see so much more. Sabara's steep cobbled streets, like the other towns, need walking shoes.
You continue to Ouro Preto, the most important of the historic towns, where you stay for three nights at a characterful restored historic property in the centre of town, with parking facilities.
Days 3-4 B Ouro Preto's historic buildings represent the largest homogeneous collection of baroque art in the world.
Declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1981, Ouro Preto is built over numerous steep hills. Its narrow, winding cobble streets are lined by grand, two-storey townhouses some with elaborately carved soapstone facades.
Among Ouro Preto's many splendours are the Igreja Sao Francisco de Assis - one of the most important examples of Brazilian colonial art, Igreja Matriz NS da Conceicao and Museo Aleijadinho, the Igreja do Carmo, the Municipal Palace, the Museo da Inconfidencia and the Casa dos Contos.
The nearby town of Mariana is well worth a short visit.
Congonhas and Sao Joao del Rei
Day 5 B Today you drive south on the Royal Road through a countryside of low mountains and wide vistas, first to Congonhas then onwards to Tiradentes - a total of about three and a half hours in the car.
Congonhas holds the undoubted masterpiece of the baroque era in Brazil: the Basilica do Senhor Bom Jesus de Matosinhos.
A succession of chapels marking the stations of the cross line a long approach to the church itself, in front of which stand stone statues of the 12 apostles, each carved by Aleijadinho at the height of his artistic power. Within each of the twelve chapels is a wooden tableau carved by Aleijadinho and painted by Ataid.
Taken together as a single whole, the conception and execution of this work is intensely dramatic and exceptionally moving, especially in its context - remote from Europe in a lawless land of impossible hardship, with the artist in an advanced stage of a progressively deforming illness - his own cross.
Your next stop is the gorgeous but cheery and humble little town of Tiradentes. This part of the journey can be broken at Sao Joao del Rei where it is fun to visit the steam engine station. We would also recommend the Church of Sao Francisco de Assis with its elegant lyre-shaped plaza with palm trees. Tancredo Neves is buried here, the first elected president of Brazil after the military dictatorship of the 1960s-1980s.
Day 6-7 B Two days in Tiradentes, exploring its arty gift shops, antique shops, and small cafes.
Tranquil during the week, Tirdentes fills up at weekends with second-homers and visitors - many brought by the steam train from Sao Joao del Rei, known as 'Maria Fumaca', or Smoking Mary.
Tiradentes has an honoured place in the history of Brazil as the home of Padre Toledo, the leader of the conspirators against Portugese rule.
Day 8 B Leaving Tiradentes, you continue on the Estrada Real to the small city of Petropolis.
Petropolis is set high in the cool forested mountains inland from Rio. Here in 1843 Emperor Pedro II built a sumptuous palace away from the muggy heat of Rio below. Soon the city became an important summer retreat for up to six months of the year.
We suggest you visit the very splendid Imperial Museum (unless today is a Monday; if so then you could fit in a visit early tomorrow if your onward connection permits). You could also take a self-guided walking tour of the city's finest buildings (we will supply a route for you to follow if you wish).
Rio de Janeiro
Day 9 B The modern highway from Petropolis down to Rio de Janeiro is the worst of this trip, with some tight bends in the mountains and numbers of heavy trucks. Allow plenty of time and take it slowly.
When you are getting close to Rio the international airport is well signed. You drop off your hire car at the company's office and either catch their shuttle to Departures for an onwards flight, or take a taxi to the hotel of your choice if you are going to stay on in Rio. (We can pre-book an airport transfer into Rio if you prefer.)
9 days / 8 nights. Tailor-made holiday
Guide prices, choose:
self-drive from: £995pp
private guided from: £1,640pp
Airport transfer on arrival in Belo Horizonte, 8 nights accommodation on a B&B basis,
if selfdrive: Cat F hire car with a/c and full insurance.
if guided: services of a private English speaking guide with vehicle
International flights, domestic flights to Belo Horizonte (if required), petrol, entry fees to museums of your choice.
Timing your trip
As most museums in Brazil are closed on Mondays, the best day to start this trip is either a Monday or a Sunday if you are also keen to see the steam train in Tiradentes.
Alternatively you could start on a Wednesday if you are keen to maximise all museums and experience Tiradentes in its week-day quietude.
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