It wasn’t until after we arrived that we found out Ouro Preto is officially the steepest town in Brazil. In hindsight, it seems like a daft place to visit in a wheelchair.
Not only is it the steepest town, but I’d be willing to wager my left testicle it’s also the cobbliest. I’m not talking about those silky smooth cobblestones separated by concrete that you get in Covent Garden either – these ankle snapping bastards stick out of the ground like the decaying teeth of a neglected dog.
The entire town looks like it hasn’t been touched in over 200 years. Its unblemished baroque architecture is some of the most beautiful and mysterious I have ever seen. But why anyone would want to build anything at all on this godforsaken near vertical incline is no mystery at all – for over a hundred years between the 18th and 19th centuries Ouro Preto produced over a third of all the world’s gold.
We set out to explore. The ‘Mysterious Cities Of Gold’ theme tune pulsed through my iPod headphones.
After twenty minutes trying to scale the particularly vicious hillside directly outside our hotel, my girlfriend and I abandoned all hope of navigating our way around Ouro Preto unaided. Instead, we got taxis everywhere, always a Fiat Punto or Volkwagen Polo (any other model of car is too big for the roads).
The roads were too steep for any handbrake to function properly, and so each time we arrived at a destination we faced a race against time to get the wheelchair out of the boot of the taxi before the mechanism gave way and we tumbled to our certain deaths.
The state of the cobblestones were as such that I managed to propel the wheelchair at a rate of about one metre every ten seconds. The callouses on my palms started turning to blisters.
Pain and death turned out to be a recurring theme in Ouro Preto. In Praça Tiradentes (literal translation ‘Teeth Puller Square’) the Musea da Inconfidência (a former prison turned museum) boasted an impressive selection of torture instruments used to keep the mine slaves in check. The conditions in which slaves lived and the diseases they contracted were all recounted in exquisite detail.
There were stories of men that died of starvation with pockets full of gold. Then there was Felipe dos Santos, ringleader of an early attempt to oust the Portuguese from Brazil – he was hanged, his body pulled apart by several horses and dragged through the streets until his skin flayed off.
Tiradentes himself (a dentist by trade, hence the name ‘Teeth Puller’) was yet another failed Brazilian revolutionary. When eventually rumbled, Queen Maria I of Portugal personally ordered for him to be hanged and quartered and a document written in his blood declaring his memory infamous. His body parts were displayed at various points throughout the town until they succumbed to the weather.
Elsewhere in Ouro Preto, church crucifixes were fabulously graphic. Back in England we like to signify the brutality of crucifixion with a small dot of red paint on each of Jesus’s palms. In Ouro Preto, Jesuses on crosses have exposed ribcages with gore flowing down their emaciated bellies
Chunks of flesh were missing from Jesus’s limbs. The expression on his face was not the same tranquil mournfulness I remember so well from school assemblies – it was pathetic and gaunt. Jesus had blood streaming from his eye sockets, and he stared through us vacantly like a doll from a horror film comes alive at night and kills you in your sleep.
The people of Ouro Preto, it seems, have endured a lot of suffering, and not all of it in the distant past – exactly two years and one week before we arrived in the city, two taxi drivers were killed after when a bus station was destroyed by a landslide.
After the gold rush…
We left Ouro Preto and headed higher in to the mountains, noting the deep scars on the landscape from its century of greed, plunder and violence. The road turned from cobbles to asphalt and then to dirt, the taxi’s wheels spewing huge plumes of dust behind us.
We landed at Rancho Alefer, a secluded chalet perched on a rare plateau just above cloud level, where we planned to spend the next four days. The soft grass underneath my wheelchair wheels was like heaven. That evening we sat out on the balcony listening to the summer air rustling through the cornfields below. We had only stars, fireflies, crickets and a box of cheap Brazilian red wine for company.
With its gold supply is long since exhausted, these days Ouro Preto relies on tourists to stay afloat. I felt glad it hadn’t sold out by paving over its utterly unforgiving cobblestones with sightseer friendly tarmac and lifts and drive-in McDonalds.
Ouro Preto’s bleak history and stunning architecture makes it a Mecca for people like us – sugar coating that in any way would have defeated the object of going there in the first place.