Belo Horizonte

The best way to approach BELO HORIZONTE is from the south, over the magnificent hills of the Serra do Espinhao, on a road that winds back and forth before finally cresting a ridge where the entire city is set out before you. It's a spectacular sight: Belo Horizonte sprawls in an enormous bowl surrounded by hills, a sea of skyscrapers, favelas and industrial suburbs. From the centre, the jagged rust-coloured skyline of the Serra do Espinhao, which gave the city its name, is always visible on the horizon still being transformed by the mines gnawing away at the breast of iron.

Despite its size and importance, Belo Horizonte is little more than a century old, laid out in the early 1890s on the site of the poor village of Curral del Rey of which nothing remains and shaped by the new ideas of progress that emerged with the new Republic. Belo Horizonte was the first of Brazils planned cities and is arguably the most successful. As late as 1945 it had only 100,000 inhabitants; now it has well over twenty times that number (forty times if one includes the citys metropolitan hinterland), an explosive rate of growth even by Latin American standards. It rapidly became the most important pole of economic development in the country, after So Paulo, and while it may not be as historic as the rest of the state its difficult not to be impressed by the citys scale and energy. Moreover, Belo Horizontes central location and proximity to some of the most important cidades histricas (Sabar is just outside the city, Ouro Preto and Mariana only two hours away by road) make it a good base for exploring Minas Gerais.

The central zone of Belo Horizonte is contained within the inner ring road, the Avenida do Contorno; the centre is laid out in a grid pattern, crossed by diagonal avenidas, that makes it easy to find your way around on foot, though difficult by car because of a complex system of one-way traffic. The spine of the city is the broad Avenida Afonso Pena, with the Rodoviria at its northern end, in the heart of the downtown area. In the central zone, you can visist the Sanctuary of Bom Jesus do Congonhas.

This sanctuary in Minais Gerais, south of Belo Horizonte was built in the second half of the 18th century. It consists of a church with a magnificent Rococo interior of Italian inspiration; an outdoor stairway decorated with statues of the prophets; and seven chapels illustrating the Stations of the Cross, in which the polychrome sculptures by Aleijadinho are masterpieces of a highly original, moving, expressive form of Baroque art.

Just down from the Rodoviria along Avenida Afonso Pena is the obelisk in the Praa Sete, the middle of the hotel and financial district and the citys busiest part; a few blocks further down Afonso Pena are the trees and shade of the Parque Municipal. A short distance south of the centre is the Praa da Liberdade, Belo Horizontes main square, dominated by a double row of imperial palms and important public buildings, while beyond lies the chic area of Savassi, with its restaurants, nightlife and boutiques.

The only places beyond the Contorno youre likely to visit are the artificial lake and Niemeyer buildings of Pampulha, to the north, and the rambling nature reserve of Mangabeiras, on the southern boundary of the city.

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