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The secret of the 13 churches

  • TEXT SOLVEIG FLÖRKE

Once the richest city in the New World, Ouro Preto still shines with the glory of the past and its magnificent colonial buildings are a World Heritage Site. But why do the city’s 70,000 inhabitants need more than a dozen churches?

Wrought-iron lanterns, wooden doors with intricately shaped hinges and handles, white houses with brightly-colored window frames. With their neat little shutters and sashes they look like the windows in a fancy doll’s house. At Tiradentes Square the glory of former days is almost tangible. In fact, the entire city of Ouro Preto in the Brazilian state Minas Gerais is redolent of a richer, more splendid past. Magnificent churches, baroque statues, cobbled streets. It is astonishing to find such a perfectly preserved 18th century town in Brazil, and it makes the sight of this picturesque place with its glorious past all the more enthralling.

Everywhere you go you find yourself surrounded by astonishing beauty: the city theater – the oldest in Brazil, wonderful mansions and magnificent colonial palaces with ornate balconies and pretty porches, baroque fountains like the Chafariz dos Contos (Fountain of Tales) and inviting little shops. The city is characterized by its colonial architecture, and the well-preserved old center was named a UNESCO World Cultural Heritage Site in 1980.

The richest city in the New World

In its heyday, roughly 300 years ago, Ouro Preto was richer than any other city in the New World. The reason for this wealth also gave it its name: “ouro preto” translates as black gold. Black because of the faint discoloration of the ore caused by iron oxide. The discovery of gold here around 1730 triggered a veritable gold rush. Within a very short space of time the population swelled to 100,000 people, more than anywhere else in Brazil. The city attracted adventurous Europeans – mostly from Portugal – who were determined to claim their share of the fabulous wealth that beckoned, and slaves who had been shipped from by the colonial rulers from Africa to Brazil. Three hundred years ago, they would be lined up on the city’s colossal stone bridge and sold to owners who would force them to mine Minas Gerais’ valuable mineral resources.

The name of the state also indicates what it is famous for: “Minas Gerais“ means “General Mines”. As well as gold, the region also has plentiful supplies of diamonds and topazes.

The heart of the city: see a 360° view of Praça Tiradentes. Use the arrow keys or mouse to navigate; for full-screen mode click the right mouse key and select “full screen”. If you’re using a mobile device, navigate with your fingers

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 Valmir has been a tourist guide in Ouro Preto for over 35 years. He recommends taking three days to explore his native city – and wearing sturdy shoes. Ouro Preto sits at an altitude of around 1200 meters and its terrain is characterized by vertiginous ascents and descents, making scrambling up and down  the narrow lanes and streets – sometimes in the rain, sometimes in the sweltering heat – a fixed part of any tourist program. “If you think of Brazil, you usually have visions of the sea, the beach, the Copacabana and the big cities,” says Valmir. “Here you encounter a completely different Brazil.”And one thing that makes Ouro Preto stand out is the city’s astonishing number of churches.

Although Brazil is the biggest Catholic nation in the world, how does that explain 13 churches in a town with a population of 70,000? Valmir has the answer: “Under Portuguese rule the inhabitants were forced to hand over all their wealth to their colonial masters. There was one single exception: gold that was needed to build churches was allowed to remain in the country. So the Brazilians built church after church, all lavishly decorated with gold.” The city became a paradise for artists and architects who were able to follow a unique creative vision here, designing churches and buildings in a style that became known as Barocco mineiro, a blend of European architecture and the skilled craftsmanship of artisans from Africa. For the slaves, each new project meant even more back-breaking  work. In the Nossa Senhora do Pilar church alone the lavish decorations from floor to ceiling were covered with more than 400 kilos of gold leaf – each kilo of which had to be mined by the slaves in the surrounding mines.

Here you encounter a completely different Brazil

Valmir, tourist guide

Despite its venerable architecture, Ouro Preto is a very lively place thanks to its distinguished, state-run university which attracts thousands of students into the city. They sit on the steps in  front of the city hall in the sun, their heads in their books. The evening parties in the “halls of residence” are legendary, and even as a tourist you may find yourself being spontaneously invited. It is also worth visiting the Universidade Federal de Ouro Preto for its mineral museum which has a large collection of gemstones.

The souvenir sellers on the large marketplace are exceptionally friendly and pleasantly unpushy. You can browse around the pottery items, wood carvings, pictures, sunglasses and necklaces without being hassled to buy. The prices are also comparatively fair and not overpriced for the tourists.

Valmir invites us to take a photo in front of the most famous church in Ouro Preto. The Igreja da Ordem Terceira de São Francisco de Assis da Penitencia attracts visitors from all over Latin America who come to admire its baroque architecture and decor. The church took 40 years to complete and was designed by one of Brazil’s most outstanding artists: Antonio Francisco Lisboa, better known as Aleijadinho. Born as the son of a black slave and a white carpenter and architect, his father also treated him as a slave, forcing him to labor on his building sites. When Aleijadinho was 20 years old, his  father sold him to a sculptor. Here, his phenomenal skill and artistry attracted attention and he started earning money, enough to buy his mother’s freedom. São Francisco de Assis Church is considered Lisboa‘s masterpiece and it has ensured that the man and his extraordinary story remains unforgotten.

Of course, we can’t go without visiting Valmir’s favorite church: the Igreja da Santa Ifigênia, which offers the best view over Ouro Preto. A city that has shaped Brazil’s national identity. A city whose golden glory is completely black.