Last weekend we went to visit Ouro Preto, an old capital of Minas Gerais. The town was founded in 1690s, soon after gold was discovered in Minas Gerais and at one point was the largest city in Brazil. It eventually got the name “Ouro Preto” (“black gold”) because local gold was mixed with iron ore. (The name of the state – “Minas Gerais” – also refers to mining – “General Mines.”) By the end of the 18th century the gold rush was over, the city started losing importance, and the capital of the state eventually ended up being moved to Belo Horizonte, about 100 km away. Ouro Preto is now a small touristy town, a bit dilapidated, but unscarred by later architecture.
Ouro Preto features a remarkable number of churches, most of which look rather alike on the outside but vary dramatically inside: some are relatively ascetic, while others are decorated with ridiculous amount of gold. We were told that 400 kg of gold was used in construction of one of the churches, which was enough to gold-plate pretty much everything inside. The gold-plated altar serves as a backdrop for a crucifix made of silver, reflecting the fact that, as our guide told us, silver was twice as expensive as gold in Ouro Preto at the time: while gold was mined in abundance nearby, silver had to be brought from Spain, and the transportation was expensive. (I didn’t quite understand why they were bringing the silver back from Spain, given that most of the silver was coming from the mines in the Andes).