Here we are visiting yet another UNESCO town on our travels through Brazil. Heading north out of Rio de Janeiro, our overnight bus wound its way over the deeply forested mountain range north of the city and into the state of Minas Gerais.
Arriving into Ouro Preto at dawn was one of the most enchanting experiences. The rolling hills were enveloped in fog gently drifting through the valleys and cobbled streets of the old town centre; momentarily revealing a terracotta roof or church steeple before smothering it again completely.
Being so early in the morning, the streets were free of traffic; maybe one or two people quietly walking along in the chilly air that was a welcomed change from the warmth of Rio.
Arriving at the crack of dawn also meant nothing was open yet. There wasn’t even somebody to let us into the pousada we’d booked a room in, so we trundled our bags back to Praça Tiradentes in the town centre and sat at the only place that had open doors.
The friendly guys at Maria Bonita – Lanchonete & Padaria didn’t mind us hanging around for an hour or so as we waited for the front desk guy to turn up for work at the pousada. The longer we waited, the more locals began appearing, dropping into the padaria for a stand-up breakfast of fried savoury breads and pastries – all gulped down with a steaming glass of cafezinho.
We joined in on the breakfast offerings, tucking into freshly made pão de quejo (puffy cheese rolls), kibbe and bread sticks stuffed with shredded chicken and mashed potato. We may not have gone back for more food while we were in town, but they also do a R$15 lunch buffet that sounds like pretty good value.
Ouro Preto is somewhere you could easily spend a couple of days wandering its many steep (and often traffic-clogged) streets, gawking at stunning preserved baroque architecture, dropping into specialty stores peddling artisanal cachaça, chocolates or handicrafts.
There’s a great choice of restaurants, although many were beyond our travellers budget, but good inexpensive food can always be found.
Out of all the places that serve up coffee, two of them got our attention. Located in the lower floor of the cultural centre on Praça Tiradentes is Cafe Cultural Ouro Preto, a very comfy space that puts on light meals, wine, artisanal beers, cakes and coffee from an espresso machine.
It’s always a good sign when you spot an espresso machine in a Brazilian cafe, because there are many places that don’t use them. Not that we get our hopes up when we see one, mind you, as a lot of the operators haven’t a clue how to use them properly.
Here at Cafe Cultural they know their way around the machine. The espresso is good, but if your coffee requires steamed milk, it can be hit and miss.
The second cafe was one we found purely by exploring the steep streets away from the centre of town, out of sight through a single doorway in a concrete wall.
Coffee O’Clock fills a minuscule space that has one or two small tables inside by the counter, or outside at the entrance beneath shady umbrellas. There are no substantial food items here, just a few sweet things like homemade pies, cakes and pastries. I gravitated towards the coffee brigadeiro – a hefty dose of sugar and espresso. You can even have a local beer, if you like.
Coffee-wise, the first time we visited it was verging on remarkable. The following day, I couldn’t even drink it. The tree in the garden enjoyed it more than I did. Such a waste.
Considering the small size of Ouro Preto, there’s a wealth of things to spend your money on. You can always wander over to the Praça to see what kind of jewellery the local hippies have made – you’ll find them in just about every touristed city and town in Brazil – or step inside a multitude of stores that specialise in jewellery crafted from local gems and stones.
If jewellery isn’t your thing, there are more than enough places selling woven and carved handicrafts, artworks, sculptures and trinkets to take home.
If an outdoor market is more your thing, head down to Igreja São Francisco de Assis and you’ll find dozens of small stands at the feira that predominantly sells objects made from the local soapstone. Jewellery, religious statues, trinket boxes, plaques and my favourite – the cookware. Flame and ovenproof trays and cooking vessels that would easily tip you into excess baggage territory.
Sadly the only things I could get were some handmade silver and semi-precious stone serving spoons – although I really wanted a couple of cooking pots and round, copper-trimmed trays.
If you’re anything like me and love to sniff around local grocery stores to see what kind of unusual things they sell, then Garapinha is the place to go in Ouro Preto.
You’re first greeted by boxes overflowing with fresh fruits and vegetables, even salt-dried cod – including trays of those beautiful little teardrop-shaped chillies from the Amazon. I’d only ever seen them pickled in jars, not in their natural state, so you could imagine my excitement.
Step inside and you have loads of shelved pantry items on both walls and a long glass cabinet filled with cheeses. On top are packeted cakes and sweets and many jars of bala na palha – soft toffee-like sweets made using unrefined sugar laced with a variety of things.
My favourite are the ones with shredded fresh ginger at the centre, and you’ve got to love the way each sweet is wrapped in corn husk.
At the back of the shop is a small seating area for anyone wanting to grab a sandwich or pastry and enjoy it in-house.
We were already very familiar with the per-kilo restaurant concept that Brazil does oh-so well. Grab your plate, head to the food and grab whatever you want. It gets weighed, noted and you sit and enjoy. If you go back for seconds it’s noted again. You basically pay one price for the weight of your food.
Here at Buteco do Chopp the buffet comes with a very budget friendly R$18/kg. It isn’t the hugest array of dishes we’ve seen at a per-kilo buffet, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t good.
All the dishes are typical of the Minas Gerais state we were in – from chicken & okra stew to couscous, fried calabresa sausage and polenta cake. I also loved seeing the food bubbling away in the same locally crafted soapstone and copper pots we saw at the markets.
The one place we visited the most was the cheap and cheerful Satelite just down from the Praça. Not necessarily for the food, but for its rocking caipirinhas and ice cold beer – sitting at one of its coveted window tables, watching the world go by and the afternoon sun transform the sky into a watercolour painting.
If you are here for the food, expect to see pizza, burgers and a bunch of local offerings. The linguiça de frango (chicken sausage 12.8) was a little on the uninspiring side, but the linguiça de porco com aipim (pork sausage with cassava chips 25.3) kind of rocked our world.
Fried chunks of pork sausage spritzed with fresh lime and the fluffiest, most divine cassava chips we had in all of our Brazil travels.
Downstairs from the Praça is a subterranean resto-bar that has a good spread of local food on it’s menu, plus the usual Brazilian-Italian offerings which are very much a staple in this country.
For some reason the whole town was quiet on this particular night, so the entire restaurant was all ours. Not that it made the drinks and food come out any faster.
When the food did arrive, it was a mountain of calabresa pasta (22) for Dean, and a bit of a feast for me. I ordered the tutu (33.9), a local specialty that’s a distant cousin to Mexico’s refried beans. These slow-cooked beans have a thick, smooth consistency and also contain onion, garlic and maybe a herb or two for flavour. Manioc flour (cassava) is used to help thicken the tutu and it’s usually eaten with rice.
That’s not all that came. Presented on a sizzling soapstone platter, there’s also pork loin, sausage, cracking, collard greens, fried egg, onion and some rice and farofa on the side. I was one happy camper that night!
Tucked away beneath the illuminated façade of Igreja de Nossa Senhora do Carmo is the cute little Italian restaurant – Mamma Roma. Head down here for a fix of arancini, bruschetta and fresh, homemade pasta. It could well be the closest you’ll get to real Italian food in this town.
There’s tagliatelle, gnocchi, ravioli, girasoli and good old lasagne. For the pastas, it’s as simple as choosing your variety then choosing a sauce to go with it. Funghi, pesto, four cheese, arrabbiata and al burro.
The pesto may be unlike the pesto we’re used to, but the gnocchi (36) on which it sat was impossibly light, fluffy and addictive. It was a cheesy extravaganza with the leek & gorgonzola risotto (40), and a generous one, as well.
Dessert-wise, it’s either tiramisu or a serving of gelato della Mamma (17) – home-made honey ice cream with dates and nuts.
How we got to Ouro Preto from Rio de Janeiro.
We used Util bus company that departs Terminal Rodoviário Novo Rio at 11.30 pm and arrives in Ouro Preto at 6 am. Cost is R120 pp.
Just 14 km from Ouro Preto is the smaller town of Mariana, easily reached by catching the local bus from Terminal de Intergração or along Rue Conselheiro Quintiliano Macel; the main road east out of Ouro Preto.
Whilst there may not be as much to see or do in Mariana as there is in its larger neighbour, it’s well worth a day trip or just a few hours of easy exploration in what was once the states former capital.
Many 18th century buildings fill the compact historic centre, including some stunning churches. Sit and relax in the shady Praça Gomes Freire and take in the colonial palaces that sit on its peripheries – a great place to linger and escape the intense heat that Minas Gerais is known for.
One block up the hill is Praça Minas Gerais and the Pelourinho, where slaves used to be publicly beaten. Looming over this are two churches sitting at right angles to one another – Nossa Senhoura do Carmo and Igreja de São Francisco de Assis. An impressive sight, for sure.
There’s a handful of craft, jewellery and souvenir stores in the historic centre for those that want to take a piece of Mariana away with them, plus a small selection of eateries and ice cream shops to keep cool in.
To get the bus back to Ouro Preto, head over to the concrete bus shelter on Rua do Catete by the bridge, opposite the information centre.