Parati is a historic town set on the edge of the Mata Atlantica, the Atlantic rain forest, on the coast of the state of Rio de Janeiro. First settled by the Portuguese in the sixteenth century, it became the port for shipping gold and diamonds from the interior to Rio and on to Portugal. Miners, supplies and slaves travelled by mule train into the state of Minas Gerais (MG, `General Mines`) by the same route, the Caminho do Ouro, running along an indigenous path. Parati offered a break in the escarpment of the 1,500 kilometre Serra do Mar, and a natural harbour.
The town grew into a substantial settlement, with a good number of churches, and forts to protect it – the gold-laden ships were a target for pirates operating from the many nearby islands and beaches.
Parati’s economic fortunes have risen and fallen, its relative isolation preserving the Baroque architecture which underpins its revival as a tourist destination.
Baroque luxury raises an echo in Parati’s restaurants and antique shops, and modern luxury is also in evidence.
Its cobbled streets are hard going on foot, and motor vehicles are allowed only on Wednesdays, for deliveries. Horse-drawn carts carry supplies and tourists over the cobbles.
You could be back in the eighteenth century, though many of the town houses are now shops, restaurants and business premises.
Like Ouro Preto, the much larger Baroque town at the other end of the Caminho do Ouro, Parati allows you to see domestic Baroque architecture in operation. White-washed walls are thick – some with sandstone mouldings – decorated with stucco and paint, roofs of clay pantiles, and wooden floors above the ground floor flagstones.
Only the churches are higher than two stories. Rooms are high-ceilinged, window-frames painted in powder blue or grey.
Parati is set just below sea level in a river delta, with breaks in the sea wall which allow high tides to flood some streets. Flooding was once the only form of sanitation, and given the horses, it’s still a good thing, though it doesn’t smell entirely clean.
The river to the north of the historic town centre provides a cool corridor against the January heat.
Parati is undergoing renovation – two of its four historic churches are closed, and the SESC cultural centre is being refurbished. The elaborate Santa Rita church was built for the Portuguese and for freed slaves.
The Rosário, built for the slave population, has a much simpler facade, and its corner mouldings are of painted stucco, not sandstone.
Nossa Senhora das Dores – Our Lady of Sorrows – is an elegant little building on the Rua Fresca sea front. It was used by society ladies, and renovated in 1900. Behind the church is a walled church yard. The church was closed when we were there, with no sign of when it opens.
Nossa Senhora dos Remédios is large and central, with a tree-lined square in front, and a campanile for its clock. It’s structurally simple, a series of lean-tos, and the interior is modest by Brazilian standards.
Painted marble-effect mouldings and painted walls – which look like wallpaper – saints in glassed-in niches, and sober monochrome floor tiles all make for a subdued interior.
This looks a middle-class church, presumably built on the coffee trade which replaced the gold shipments.
Another active trade in Parati was the cachaça industry. A few small producers are still distilling this spirit from sugar cane – Parati was well-known for it. These days the best cachaça is said to come from the state of Minas Gerais, though it is still actively retailed to tourists in Parati. Proving the point, we found a large retailer whose display included a collection of old bottles from Parati …
… and a collection of miniatures – a smart way to sell to the souvenir market – which were overwhelmingly Mineiro.
Parati understandably promotes and preserves its former glory, but there’s a faint echo of other sentiments.
The land on which the historic centre is built was donated by a Senhora Maria Jácome de Melo on condition that a church dedicated to Nossa Senhora dos Remédios was built … and that the local indigenous Guaianá were unharmed.
Santa Rita is said to be haunted by the ghost of a young 19th-century bride found dead on her wedding morning. The groom reportedly went mad, having begged for the coffin to be opened. When years later the coffin was actually opened, the corpse was face down, a punishment meant to prevent the soul leaving the body through the mouth.
A smaller church in Parati, the Capela da Generosa, was funded by a local woman in memory of a Teodoro who is said to have drowned in the Rio Perequê-Açu while impiously fishing on Good Friday.
Standing on the Rua Fresca and recalling that it was the rich who enjoyed the sea breeze, that the streets were awash with sewage, that a slave who tried to escape could only could take the heavily-patrolled Caminho do Ouro through the rainforest or the sea road controlled by cannon and pirates, that the indigenous people were subject to the Europeans, that even Christian salvation was markedly stratfied, you sense a less pretty view of the Baroque town, driven by the greed for gold, by violence and military rule, by slavery and oppression.
It seems fitting that a vampire wedding – from the Twilight saga – can be filmed here. And this week in Parati, a shooting amid Carnaval celebrations … http://abcnews.go.com/International/wireStory/carnival-suspended-paraty-brazil-deadly-shooting-28988156