Sometimes life throws something straight at you and I experienced this the first time I ever saw a photo of Ouro Preto. In the picture was a town nestled in hills but my eye was instantly drawn towards the quite unremarkable moss-covered church on a hill where I knew I was going to see some sort of sign. Later I found out this church was called São Francisco de Paula and that my premonition of a sign had been correct all along.
Set along the Royal Road leading from Rio up into the hills to the town of Diamantina, Ouro Preto was the old capital of the state of Minas Gerais and is considered by some to be the finest, most picture-perfect town in all of Brazil. In 1750 more people were living in Ouro Preto than New York and five times that of the population of Rio de Janeiro. At first named Vila Rica (Rich Town) and for long the wealthiest town in the Americas the name had later been changed to Ouro Preto meaning Black Gold. The town was also the location of the Inconfidência Mineira, the first uprising for independence in Brazil. It was led by an inhabitant of Ouro Preto, a dentist named Joaquim José da Silva Xavier better known as Tiradentes (Tooth Puller). The Portuguese crushed the uprising and Tiradentes was dismembered his limbs scattered along the Royal Road to terrorize the populace while his head was said to have been exhibited on the main square where a stone pillar marks the spot today.
Praça Tiradentes and the stone pillar with a statue of Tiradentes on top
Leaving the bus station we decided to walk into town as the quotes the taxi drivers where throwing at us were outrageous considering our hotel was only a fifteen minute walk away. We strolled along a cracked sidewalk which was no easy feat considering my suitcase was a spinner and past a custard-coloured church. Turning the corner of the church towards it’s façade I realised it had been built on a ridge overlooking the town which was suddenly revealed before us like a surreal oil painting by Alberto da Veiga Guignard. I couldn’t help but notice that the town was sloping away from us and built on steep hills giving the impression of a perilous sea of orange rooftops and rainbow-coloured window frames, between the waves loomed the huge steeples of Baroque churches acting as lighthouses for mankind before the homes surged towards the horizon and into the foothills of Itacolomi State Park. They were right, with it’s cobbled lanes, iron lanterns and red shutters Ouro Preto was indeed beautiful and inhaling the smell of a million eucalyptus trees I realised I could quite happily visit there every year.
Pousa do Chico Rei just after dawn
drawing on the wall of Chico Rei
Pousa do Chico Rei is full of framed drawings and letters, here is Guignard
Marvelling at the wrought iron balconies and artsy shops selling regional stones like topaz and diamonds we walked past the town’s main square, Praça Tiradentes, and turning right at the Igreja Nossa Senhora do Carmo made our way along Rua Brigadeiro Musqueira to the Pousa do Chico Rei where we would be staying. I couldn’t remember why I had decided to stay there but vaguely knew that it would be something special. After walking into the reception area I realised I was in some sort of shrine, snapshots of a life seemed to line it’s walls with poems and love letters, of faded photos and silly doodles framed in glass. Reading the name Lilli over and over again I realised where I was, the former home of Lilli Correia de Araújo, the Danish innkeeper who had lived here and had hosted a who’s who of the twentieth century. I adored everything about this 18th century building, the massive, creaking bedroom doors with even bigger gaol-like iron keys, antique beds that could have been from the palace in Sintra, squeaky floorboards smoothed from footsteps of long ago, the incredible views across town from it’s rambling garden and most of all the fact that it seemed as if Loulou and I were the only traveler’s who knew of it’s existence. On every trip it is a small pastime of mine to try to find a connection to the journey I had taken previously and spotting a painting of Saint Michael by the Cusco School on the wall of the breakfast area I felt a nod of recognition from Peru and saw it as a good sign.
The guesthouse is now run by Lilli’s grandson Ricardo and as he led us upstairs, at times tripping over a small, black, grey-moustashed mongrel, he told us we were the only guests and we would be staying in the best room of the house, the Pablo Neruda Suite named after the Chilean poet-diplomat who had stayed there. I was fascinated reading the names of former guests like Kissinger and Burle Max and knew I was going to sleep in a place surrounded by the ghosts of people I admire. I must say I have the best memories staying there, talking with Loulou for hours on end, running across squeaking floorboards at all hours of the night, raiding the kitchen for snacks and most of all the feeling we were free to explore the whole building. It really was like staying with your long lost uncle who was never around. I wondered too about the conversations that had been debated here, Marxism and Hedonism when Sartre and de Beauvoir had slept here, or of Guignard and his ideas of dreamy landscapes, of the laughter and clinking of wine glasses of all those years ago. Talking with Loulou about our own varied, alternative lives I wondered if the guests of past would have welcomed us too. At night as I lay on the bed clutching my stomach still in the last throws of food poisoning I couldn’t help but think of our room’s namesake, Pablo Neruda, and the irony of it all when he, in the last hours of his life, had too, clutched his stomach and pleaded for help from his wife convinced that he had been poisoned by members of the Pinochet regime.
Most of all I cherished the moments around dawn when I would try to hush the creaking doors and tiptoe across the living room floor and sit on the balcony where I could marvel at the church right outside. This was the spot where Elizabeth Bishop had wrote her poem Under the Window: Ouro Preto. As I thought of her words “…here am I for whom you have been waiting…” I would stare towards the Igreja Nossa Senhora do Carmo which at that time would be bathed in the softest kaleidoscope of purples and pinks sliding across it’s façade. The fat-cheeked cherubs sculpted by Aleijadinho seemed to dance in this light, hovering above the doorway it was as if they were dancing for me, a final show from Christianity before I turned my back on it forever.
Nossa Senhora do Carmo. This is the view from the balcony of Pousa do Chico Rei at dawn
the first light of a new day on Rua Brigadeiro Musqueira
Places with hills are always a shock for me at first as I spend most of my time in The Netherlands but being in Ouro Preto and fighting both food poisoning, a viral infection and along with that the hot temperatures after coming out of a European winter, walking in the town was particulary tough but I managed to soldier along. I believe it was the kindness of the inhabitants of the town and the amazing companionship of Loulou that helped with my recovery.
Ouro Preto is famous for it’s churches, the soapstone market and it’s souvenirs of white doves so days were spent wandering it’s lanes buying presents made of soapstone and visiting the many churches, my favorite being the Igreja Santa Efigênia. Named after an Ethiopian saint this church didn’t have the wealth of it’s more famous neighbours like the Igreja Nossa Senhora do Pilar with it’s 400kg of gold but it was it’s history that beamed it into the stars for me. Santa Efigênia had been funded by the slaves who had been shipped over from Africa. It is said the churches construction had been funded by the gold dust collected in the fountain where the slaves had washed their hair after being forced to work in the mines. It was amazing to look inside this church and see traces of Africa in it’s artwork although such a pity it’s not allowed to take photos.
find the puppy!
Pousa do Chico Rei from Igreja Nossa Senhora do Carmo
man catching the first sunlight on Praça Tiradentes
As the days passed and our list of churches to visit were ticked off there still loomed the moss-covered church of São Francisco de Paula which was ever-present from our room window. As this was the church I had saw in that first photo I told Loulou that I needed to go there before we left the town although I didn’t know why and that I knew I would see something. It all sounded a bit crazy but having faith she walked with me over to the Tourist Information Office where we hired a driver who told us there were nicer churches than that one but still I was adamant that we must go there. Driving into the grounds of the church I was shocked. It was the only church in the town, and infact the rest of what I had saw in Brazil, that seemed unkept. Covered in grafitti and locked up with smashed windows I realised it was in the type of place where you have to watch out that you don’t step on used syringes. My heart sank thinking I could never see anything remarkable in such a place as that and feeling defeated we asked the driver just to drive us around and take us to places where he thought could be interesting.
It wasn’t until later when we were on the other side of the town that I noticed across the valley stood the abandoned church and right above it was a cloud in the shape of a white dove with outstretched wings. I knew instantly that this was the sign I was seeking although I didn’t know what it all meant. I later asked a shopkeeper why they sell so many trinkets of white doves and she told me in Brazil they place them above their doorways to protect households and that in Christianity it symbolizes the Holy Spirit. All through my journeys into Romania, Peru and now Brazil I had visited many churches and had now become aware that all along I had been saying in some way a farewell to Christianity, a religion that I had loved as a child. It was amazing for me to see this sign, the White Dove as a cloud, confirming that there is something higher that we don’t understand. The White Dove, a symbol of peace the world over, it was in many ways closure for me and a confirmation that I must persevere on my journey towards belief but in a different form.
the cloud that changed it all, on the left hovering above the Igreja São Francisco de Paula
It’s strange why sometimes we have to travel half way across the world just to find what we always had at home and in Brazil I realised this . . . I had belief. The White Dove of Ouro Preto was the sign I needed in my life, a final blessing from Christianity and a form of guidance for me to embrace a new religion, one that I had been aware of as a four year old child and one that I had been aware of even before that of Christianity.
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