SÃO JOÃO DEL REI is the only one of the historic cities to have adjusted successfully to life after the gold rush. It has all the usual trappings of the cidades históricas – gilded churches, well-stocked museums, colonial mansions – but it’s also a thriving market town, easily the largest of the historic cities, with a population of just over 80,000. This modern prosperity complements the colonial atmosphere rather than compromising it, and, with its wide central thoroughfare enclosing a small stream, its stone bridges, squares and trees, São João is quite attractive. Come evening though, it’s a rather dreary place and overshadowed by Tiradentes, its much smaller and prettier neighbour, in terms of good places to stay.
Founded in 1699 on the São João River, the town had the usual turbulent early years, but distinguished itself by successfully turning to ranching and trade when the gold ran out early in the nineteenth century. São João’s carpets were once famous, and there is still a textile factory today. Among the famous names associated with São João are Tiradentes, who was born here, Aleijadinho, who worked here and, in more recent times, native son Tancredo Neves, the great mineiro politician who shepherded Brazil out of military rule when he was elected president in 1985. Tragically, Neves died before he took office and is buried in the closest thing the town has to a shrine in the cemetery of São Francisco.
São João’s colonial sections are complemented by some fine buildings from more recent eras, notably the end of the nineteenth century, when the town’s prosperity and self-confidence were high. The 1920s and 1930s were also good times – some of the vaguely Art-Deco buildings combine surprisingly well with the colonial ones. The main public buildings line the south bank of the stream, best viewed from Avenida Tancredo Neves on the north side; there’s a sumptuous French-style theatre (1893), and the graceful blue Prefeitura with an imposing Banco do Brasil building facing it. The relaxed atmosphere is reinforced by the number of bars and restaurants.
Igreja de São Francisco de Assis and Memorial Tancredo Neves
The most impressive of the town’s colonial churches, the Igreja de São Francisco de Assis (daily 8am–5.30pm, Sun 9am–4pm; R$2), is one block off the western end of Avenida Eduardo Magalhães. Overlooking a square with towering palms – some more than a century old – the church, finished in 1774, is exceptionally large, with an ornately carved exterior by a pupil of Aleijadinho. The master himself contributed the intricate decorations of the side chapels, which can be seen in all their glory now the original paint and gilding has been stripped off. From the plaques, you’ll see the church has been visited by some illustrious guests, including former President Mitterand of France. They came to pay homage at the grave of Tancredo Neves, in the cemetery behind the church. Sunday at 9.15am is an especially good time to stop in, when eighteenth-century music is played to accompany Mass.
Tancredo was a canny and pragmatic politician in the Minas tradition, but with a touch of greatness; transition to civilian rule in 1985 is unlikely to have been so smoothly achieved without his skills. He was born and spent all his life in São João, where he was loved and is still very much admired. Eerily, to some, he died on the same day of the year as Tiradentes, who was also born in São João – their statues face each other in Praça Severiano de Rezende, on the other side of the Córrego do Lenheiro. Just around the corner from the Igreja de São Francisco, on Rua José Maria Xavier at the corner with Avenida Eduardo Magalhães, is the Memorial Tancredo Neves (Wed–Fri 1–5pm, Sat, Sun & holidays 9am–5pm; R$2). This small nineteenth-century town house shelters a collection of personal artefacts and documents relating to the president’s life, and ex votos used to decorate his grave, thanking him “for graces granted” – only really of interest to those Brazilians for whom Tancredo was nothing less than a modern saint.
Museu de Arte Sacra and Rua Getúlio Vargas
Over on the other side of the stream, one block north from Avenida Tancredo Neves, lies the main street of the other colonial area, Rua Getúlio Vargas. The western end is formed by the small, early eighteenth-century Igreja da Nossa Senhora do Rosário (Tues–Sun noon–6pm; R$2), built for the town’s slave population, which looks onto a cobbled square dominated by two stunning colonial mansions. The one nearest the church is the Solar dos Neves, the family home of the Neves clan for over two centuries, the place where Tancredo was born and lived.
A couple of buildings east along from the Solar dos Neves is an excellent Museu de Arte Sacra (Tues–Sun noon–5pm; R$2), contained within another sensitively restored house. The collection is small but very good; highlights are a finely painted St George and a remarkable figure of Christ mourned by Mary Magdalene, with rubies representing drops of blood. As you go around, you’re accompanied by Baroque church music, which matches the pieces perfectly. The museum also has a small gallery for exhibitions by São João’s large artistic colony.
Catedral Basílica de Nossa Senhora de Pilar and other churches
Almost next door to the Museu de Arte Sacra on Avenida Getúlio Vargas is a magnificent early Baroque church, the Catedral de Nossa Senhora de Pilar (Mon 8–10.30am & 5–8pm, Tues–Fri 8–10.30am & 1–8pm, Sat & Sun 8–10.30am & 5–8pm), completed in 1721. The interior is gorgeous and only Pilar in Ouro Preto and Santo Antônio in Tiradentes are as liberally plastered with gold. The gilding is seen to best effect over the altar, a riot of Rococo pillars, angels and curlicues. The ceiling painting is all done with vegetable dyes, and there’s a beautiful tiled floor.
There are further churches to visit in this part of town, if you’re enthusiastic, though none of the same standard as either São Francisco or Pilar. The Igreja de Nossa Senhora das Mercês (Tues–Sun noon–5pm), behind Pilar, dates from 1750 and is notable for the variety and artistry of the graffiti, some of it dating back to the nineteenth century, etched into its stone steps, while the elegant facade of Nossa Senhora do Carmo (Mon–Fri 8am–noon & 1.30–5pm, Sat 8am–noon) dominates a beautiful triangular praça at the eastern end of Avenida Getúlio Vargas.
The Museu Regional
Near the cathedral, just off Avenida Tancredo Neves on Largo Tamandaré, is the excellent Museu Regional (Mon–Fri noon–5.30pm, Sat & Sun 8am–1pm; R$1), housed in a magnificently restored colonial mansion. Perhaps the most fascinating pieces here are the eighteenth-century ex votos on the ground floor, their vivid illustrations detailing the trials both masters and slaves experienced: José Alves de Carvalho was stabbed in the chest while crossing a bridge on the way home in 1765; a slave called Antônio had his leg broken and was half-buried for hours in a mine cave-in. On the first floor, look out for the several figures of saints – crafted with a simplicty and directness that makes them stand out – made by ordinary people in the eighteenth century.
Although it was founded as early as 1702, by the 1730s TIRADENTES had already been overshadowed by São João and is now little more than a sleepy village with a population of only 5000. The core is much as it was in the eighteenth century, straggling down the side of a hill crowned by the twin towers of the Igreja Matriz de Santo Antônio (daily 9am–5pm; R$3). Begun in 1710 and completed around 1730, it’s one of the earliest and largest of the major Minas Baroque churches; in 1732 it began to acquire the gilding for which it is famous, becoming in the process one of the richest churches in any of the mining towns. The church was decorated with the special extravagance of the newly rich, using more gold, the locals say, than any other church in Brazil, save the Capela Dourada in Recife. Whether this is true – and Pilar in Ouro Preto is probably as rich as either – the glinting of the gold around the altar is certainly impressive. You can tell how early the altar is from the comparative crudeness of the statues and carvings: formal, stiff and with none of the movement of developed Minas Baroque. The beautifully carved soapstone panels on the facade are not by Aleijadinho, as some believe, but by his pupil, Cláudio Pereira Viana, who worked with the master on his last projects.
From the steps of the church you look down an unspoilt colonial street – the old town hall with the veranda has a restored eighteenth-century jail – framed by the crests of the hills. If you had to take one photograph to summarize Minas Gerais, this would be it. Before walking down the hill, check out the Museu Padre Toledo (Tues–Sun 9–11.30am & 1–4.40pm, Sat & Sun 9am–4.40pm; R$3), to the right of Santo Antônio as you’re standing on the steps. Padre Toledo was one of the Inconfidêntes and built the mansion that is now the museum. He obviously didn’t let being a priest stand in the way of enjoying the pleasures of life; the two-storey sobrado must have been very comfortable, and even though the ceiling paintings are dressed up as classical allegories, they’re not the sort of thing you would expect a priest to commission, featuring, as they do, so much naked flesh. The museum comprises the usual mixture of furniture and religious art, but the interesting part is the old slave quarters in the yard out back, now converted into toilets. A more substantial reminder of the slave presence is the Igreja da Nossa Senhora do Rosário dos Pretos (Tues–Sun 10am–5pm; R$1), down the hill and along the first street to the right. There could be no more eloquent reminder of the harsh divisions between masters and slaves than this small chapel, built by slaves for their own worship. There is gilding even here – some colonial miners were freed blacks working on their own account – and two fine figures of the black St Benedict stand out, but overall the church is moving precisely because it is so simple and dignified.