With Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo as its neighbours, it is all too easy to overlook the landlocked state of Minas Gerais. From 1700 to 1820 the state was responsible for an estimated 80 per cent of all the gold produced globally. Later gold gave way to diamonds and today the state is still the main source of many of Brazil’s precious stones. Responsible for producing nearly half of all the coffee grown in Brazil today, Minas Gerais is one of Brazil’s richest and most influential states.
The state capital, Belo Horizonte, where Team GB was based for the 2016 Olympics, is a vibrant and modern city with a good selection of bars and restaurants, especially in the Savassi and Funcionários districts. Rua da Bahia, in the city centre, is another good place to enjoy an evening out.
Belo, as it is often called, is the third-biggest conurbation in the Brazilian south east and with a metropolitan population of 5.6 million is Brazil’s third largest city. Laid out in a grid system, the centre of Belo is fairly easy to get around on foot or by public transport. A “planned” city, the area known as Pampulha is often credited with being the early blueprint for the Brazilian capital, Brasília.
The driving force for the development of Pampulha in the 1940s was the city’s then mayor, Juscelino Kubitschek. In 1956 he would be sworn in as the country’s president, a president who made the building of Brasília an absolute priority.
Many of the architects and landscapers used by Kubitschek on Pampulha, would go on to work on Brasília, most notable Oscar Niemeyer and Burle Marx. Pampulha, and Belo in general, is home to many outstanding examples of Niemeyer’s architectural genius.
Pampulha is also home to the Mineirão, one of Brazil’s largest football stadiums, which was totally refurbished to host six games during the 2014 World Cup. Belo hosted group games during the 1950 World Cup, most famously England’s 1-0 defeat to the US that effectively knocked them out of the cup. In 2014 it hosted Brazil’s infamous 7-1 loss to Germany in the semi-final.
Belo Horizonte is also one of the gateways to the real treasures of Minas Gerais, the historic and colonial towns that sprung up in the 17thcentury after the discovery of gold and precious stones in the region. “General Mines”, to give the state its English name, is home to Brazil’s best preserved collection of colonial towns.
Many of the towns have changed little architecturally since being first built, and several are considered by UNESCO to be World Heritage Sites. Towns such as Ouro Preto, Congonhas, Diamantina, Mariana, Tiradentes and São João del Rei.
For any traveller with an interest in history or architecture, the historic towns of Minas are a ‘must’ place to visit, especially if visiting neighbouring Rio de Janeiro. There are numerous daily flights from both São Paulo and Rio to Belo Horizonte, or the historic towns are a comfortable and interesting drive from Rio. One of the nearest towns, São João del Rei, being just over 200 miles (337km) from Rio. Accommodation in the historic towns is, as you might expect, mainly in picturesque, historic pousadas, inns and lodges.
Other attractions to consider in Minas Gerais include the spa towns of Caxambu, Lambari, São Lourenço and Poços de Caldas, as well as the beauty of a landscape dominated by mountains, valleys and cave , and Inhotim, the world’s largest open-air contemporary art gallery.
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Christopher Pickard – Brazil the Guide – Critical Divide
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