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  • Writer's pictureTim and Lindsey

One Golden Day in Ouro Preto - Day 431

We spent one golden day in Ouro Preto which means Black Gold, and I'm not talking about Coal.

Arriving one hour early from our 23 hours bus ride from Brasilia, Ouro Preto was quiet at 7 am apart from an occasional dog barking. Getting our bearings, we carefully walked towards our Homestay. My knee felt extremely weak as if my calf was being held on by a thread. It serves me right. I find it difficult to sleep in a chair and like to curl up in a ball — not the best thing to do for a dodgy knee. The steep decline on the uneven cobbled track, wearing fit-flops and my bag on my back (only the second time I have worn it as a rucksack) meant that our descent was slow. However, that was ok; we had plenty of time.

Along our way, the bells of churches started to chime, calling the residents to worship. It seemed that at every corner was a church, mostly grand and ornate in contrast to the simple single-storey houses with Roman terracotta curved roof tiles, white plastered walls and a variety of colours around the sash windows, many still with their wooden shutters shut.

We reached our homestay. It too had its shutters firmly closed, so we sat on the raised doorstep like a couple of urchins. Eventually one of the windows opened “Ola” I called. The door opened and Horacio, the owner, greeted us warmly and ushered us in. We had a quick chat, he is a researcher in geology and living in the perfect area. We left our bags and zoomed off for breakfast.

At 10 am, our tour guide, Sueli arrived to take us around Ouro Preto for the next few hours. She had lived in Germany for nine years and now back in her home town showing people, like us, around. We first had a great chat about the history of Brazil and Ouro Preto. This lovely small city, with its 70,000 residents and 8,000 University students, bloomed as part of the Gold Rush in the 17th century.

We were standing outside the Basilica of Nossa Senhora do Pilar, now considered to be one of the best examples of Baroque architecture in the area. We commented on the number of churches in the area, and it transpires that the gold mined here was for the Portuguese, except for when gold was used in a place of worship. What a great way of preserving the gold for future Brazilians!

When we entered the church, we could see this “keeping of gold” in action. The place had hundreds of kilos of gold and silver leaf covering it, all very blingy. The wood for the balustrade was made from Jacaranda tree. We saw many of these trees in South Africa and were told that the seeds of them had been transported in horse feed from South America. Here it is a protected tree.

Our tour consisted of visiting this church and a gold mine, but Sueli wanted to give us extra time so that we could attend a late baroque, rococo church, Saint Francis of Assisi to see a magnificent painting there. Antônio Francisco Lisboa created the structure and carved decorations of this church, otherwise known as Aleijadinho (meaning little cripple, as he suffered from syphilis). Interestingly he was the illegitimate son of a Portuguese architect Manuel Francisco Lisboa and an African slave.

The entrance was stunning with a delicate, yet grand soapstone front piece above the green double doors leading into the church.

Moreover, the painting; did you imagine a large framed picture? I did, but in fact, it was an incredible painting called ‘Glorification of Our Lady Among Musician Angels’ painted on the wooden ceiling. It took artist Manuel da Costa Ataídeon nine years to hand-paint this masterpiece, and he used pigments of lock rock to get the amazingly strong colours of blues and oranges. What I immediately noticed was that ‘Our Lady’ had negro features as did many of the musician angels. Was this a request from Aleijadinho I wonder?

Next on tour was to visit the gold mine Chico Rei, As well as the actual mine, there were two interesting stories about this place. The first is that the mine is named after a legendary man. Chico Rei was a Prince in the Congo in the 18th century and brought over here as a slave. He worked in the mine and cleverly hid gold in his hair, and after five years, having enough money not only to buy his freedom but also to buy the mine from his former owner, Major Augusto. After that, the profits he made from the mine was used to pay for the freedom of other slaves. The legend of this man has become part of the Brazilian folklore, and the owner of Chico Rei mine, Mr Toninho, insisted that the story was true.

Talking of Mr Toninho, my second story is of him and his family. Back in 1949, his brother was playing ball in the garden and kicked it into a hole. Their mother, Dona Mariazinha went to retrieve it and discovered the long forgotten gold mine and the underground labyrinth of tunnels.

In fact, there were over 2,000 gold mines in this area. It must look like a giant ant’s nest underneath the land with all those tunnels. We donned our hair nets and hard hats, not the greatest of looks and made our way into the tunnel, crafted in a neat arch to take the weight of the rock from above. We often had to duck down to avoid hitting our head on the low passageway and could see stripes of quartz and iron ore with gaps where the gold was found. I kept seeing tiny sparkles and was hoping to find some nuggets – no such luck.

When we came back out Mr Toninho asked if we would mind checking some writing in English on the front of the house. We were pleased to do this, and immediately saw a couple of errors. When we returned to inform him of these, I offered to proofread the English on his pamphlet. Again, there were a few mistakes. It was so lovely to do something useful for someone. He seemed thrilled, I think. Probably groaning that he’d have to get his pamphlets reprinted now.

Our tour was over, and we invited Sueli for a fresh fruit juice at a café she recommended. As we sat chatting about all manner of things, Tim noticed a young boy eating, on first impressions, a large chocolate ice cream. It turns out it was Açai, made from the berries of the Açai Palm. We do like to try different things. We remembered Laura mentioning this when she was over here for Christmas and that it’s all the rage in London; people often have this for breakfast with muesli and fruit on top. Mmm… it wasn’t my cup of tea, a bit earthy, like beetroot juice. Luckily Tim enjoyed it.

Suddenly I realised what the time was. We were having a Skype with my family who was having a belated Christmas, due to George, John, Laura and Georgia being away for Christmas with us. We said our fond farewell to Sueli, being very grateful for a fascinating time with her and zoomed back to our homestay.

There was all my family, my sisters and husbands, niece Abi, Nephew Joel and our lads and their lasses. One by one, they showed us their Secret Santa that they had received from an unknown source. Many of them must have been very well behaved for 2018 from the look of their gifts. It was so lovely to see them all together. We left them to get on with some party games; A person had to put a board on their forehead face outwards and draw a picture of an article. Here is a photo of one that our brother-in-law did. What do you think it is?

No, we didn’t have a clue either!

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