Mountain Getaways for Cariocas
By LARRY ROHTER
PEDRO and Teresa, the second emperor and empress of Brazil after it gained its independence from Portugal in the early 19th century, had the right idea. Each year, around the arrival of summer in late December, they would flee the heat, disease and intrigue of Rio de Janeiro, then the capital of Brazil, and decamp to the cool and quiet of the mountains.
These days Cariocas, as residents of Rio are known, no longer need to worry about the yellow fever epidemics that frightened the imperial family. But just as the Hamptons draw New Yorkers during the summer, the twin cities of Petrópolis and Teresópolis, named for the emperor and empress and separated from each other by 30 miles of a densely wooded national park, remain what the Brazilian edition of Interview magazine has called "the chic refuge for the Carioca."
Fast-growing Petrópolis, 42 miles north of Rio and with a population of 300,000, calls itself the Imperial City because of its rich heritage, which remains a principal reason to visit for those of us ordinary folk who don't regard ourselves as particularly fashionable. Along the narrow, palm-lined streets and canals of downtown, apartment buildings have sprung up alongside quaint older homes that range in style from Tudor cottages to Swiss chalets, and in both Petrópolis and smaller Teresópolis, 60 miles northeast of Rio, Brazilians now flock to local outlet stores to shop.
But the region's spectacular topography serves as an equally powerful lure, drawing groups of tourists as diverse as mountain climbers in search of adventure to couples in the mood for a romantic weekend getaway. There are also a few nightclubs, of course, but both cities make an effort to appeal to people who want to avoid the chaos and cacophony associated with Carnaval, which is taking place this week in Rio.
The Imperial Museum in Petrópolis, where visitors line up early for a glimpse of the imperial grandeur of their past, is the country's most-visited museum. Built during the reign of Pedro II as the summer residence of the imperial family, a branch of the same Bourbon and Orleans-Braganca lines that once ruled France and Portugal and still rules Spain, the pastel, neo-classical palace, surrounded by a carefully tended tropical garden, now harbors, among other imperial possessions, a remarkable Sèvres gilt chest and the emperor's crown jewels, a riot of gold, diamonds and pearls.
Another relic of the imperial family's wealth is the Crystal Palace, a glass-and-steel structure with impressive chandeliers that was originally intended as a ballroom. Built in 1884 for the Crown Princess Isabel as a gift from her husband, the Conde d'Eu, the palace is the centerpiece of a quiet park that is a convenient place to rest; on weekends the building is often used for concerts.
When the emperor moved to Petrópolis, of course, the rest of the court had to accompany him. To make themselves comfortable, barons, dukes and counts built Italianate villas along what is today the Avenida Koeller (named for the architect who built the Imperial Palace) that were notable for their opulence. The smaller fry flocked to the nearby Avenida Ipiranga, where the estates, with their pastel facades, are more modest but perhaps even more charming.
Most of the mansions remain in private hands, and it can be tantalizing to stroll the Avenida Koeller and speculate about the lives behind the grand exteriors. The grandest of these residences, known as the Palácio Rio Negro, at Avenida Koeller 255, became the official summer residence of Brazil's presidents, and is open to visits by the public except on the rare occasions when the president is staying there.
Originally the home of a coffee baron, the Palácio Rio Negro offers guided tours in Portuguese, English and Spanish. The period furniture gives a sense of late imperial luxury, but perhaps most impressive are the parquet floors: each room is done in a different design, with 13 types of tropical woods used to make the mosaics.
Over the years, the region's alpine climate and lush green landscapes have attracted immigrants from Germany, Switzerland and Austria and, to a somewhat lesser extent, Russia, Finland and Poland. Intellectuals settled in the area, including the Austrian novelist Stefan Zweig, the Chilean poet and essayist Gabriela Mistral and the American poet Elizabeth Bishop.
One of Bishop's most celebrated poems, "Questions of Travel," was written while she lived in the Samambaia area of Petrópolis in the 1950's. The poem ponders nature's extravagance in the region, beginning:
There are too many waterfalls here; the crowded streams
hurry too rapidly down to the sea,
and the pressure of so many clouds on the mountaintops
makes them spill over the sides in soft slow-motion
turning into waterfalls under our very eyes.
Many moneyed Cariocas have their own homes in those mountains, and over the years I've been lucky enough to have had weekend invitations to Brazilian friends' chalets or cabins. Some of these retreats are also working farms; on more than one occasion I have found myself unwinding by joining my hosts in pruning coffee bushes or helping to collect fresh honey from a beehive. It's possible to visit on a day tour from Rio, but for those who want to stay overnight, there are hotels and resorts. The most exclusive and isolated is the Locanda della Mimosa, which also has an acclaimed Italian restaurant. Each of the six rooms is named for a flower and decorated in those colors, and the view from the grounds is of the surrounding cliffs and mountainsides.
Closer to town is the Pousada da Alcobaça. A pair of good restaurants, one serving French cuisine and the other specializing in trout, are on the same street. On a recent visit I found myself lingering in the fragrant gardens with their trellises where one can read in the shade and walking through bamboo groves on a path alongside a stream.
Teresópolis is smaller and even quieter, with chalet-style homes on hilly, winding cobblestone streets, but little of interest downtown except for dedicated shoppers. The area around the town is also dotted with lodges and inns, the most appealing of which is the rustic, remote Pousada Rosa dos Ventos, off the road to Nova Friburgo. After the cacophony of Rio, the silence can be startling; the only sound at night is the wind rustling through the trees. By day, the attractions include horseback riding, trail walks and a sauna that overlooks a small lake with a boathouse offering canoes and kayaks.
Teresópolis's main attraction, however, is the Parque Nacional Serra dos Órgãos, created in 1939. The name means Organ Mountain Range, acquired because the Portuguese explorers who first saw the area thought that the odd-shaped peaks and rock formations they encountered looked like the church pipe organs they knew in Europe.
The most spectacular of the peaks, thrusting 5,502 feet into the sky, is known as the Finger of God and can be appreciated from various curves on the highway driving up from Rio. But the others, some visible only within the park, have equally colorful names: the Friar's Wart, the Devil's Needle, the Gates of Hercules, the Fish Head and the Nun's Nose.
The Serra dos Órgãos National Park is also worth visiting because it harbors one of Brazil's few remaining stretches of protected Mata Atlântica, the tropical forest that flourished along the coast when the Portuguese arrived 500 years ago. That means wildlife in abundance, with signs along the highway warning tourists even before they reach the park to look out for monkeys, armadillos and coatis crossing the road.
The park's presence has turned Teresópolis into Brazil's mountain climbing headquarters, and while I'm not partial to that sort of adventure myself, Brazilian friends swear that waking up on top of the Pedra do Sino at sunrise is akin to a religious experience: from the lordly height of 7,365 feet, the 360-degree view offers vistas of both Guanabara Bay and Rio to the south and mountain peaks sheathed in clouds to the north.
For those of us who are not so plucky, the nature trails that wend their way through the park past waterfalls will have to suffice. If you're lucky, you may even catch a glimpse of the rare muriqui, or woolly spider monkey, the largest primate in the Western Hemisphere, thought to be extinct in Rio de Janeiro state until spotted by hikers in the park, or the minuscule flea-toad, which Brazilians claim is the smallest amphibian in the world.
The visitors center at the main entrance of the park has a brief but interesting movie about the muriqui, and a display of species of native tropical woods with melodic and exotic names: itambarana, candiuba, andiroba, sapucaia and of course jacaranda.
The region is also a paradise for those interested in orchids or bromeliads. On the outskirts of Teresópolis, just off the northern road to Petrópolis, the place to visit is the Orquidário Aranda, which has a permanent exhibition and a working greenhouse.
The Emperor Pedro II was so enamored of the area that he eventually had a railway built to transport his family and the rest of the imperial entourage to the summer palace. Today, however, both Petrópolis and Teresópolis are served by multilane highways that wind their way up from the flatlands through dramatic mountain scenery, snaking through tunnels and past gorges.
That means that on a Friday afternoon in January, you can leave Rio, where the temperature is a stifling 102 degrees and the beaches are packed elbow to elbow, and little more than an hour later be at a hotel outside Teresópolis where the temperature is a refreshing 68 degrees. On the way up, you just might want to offer a word of thanks to Pedro and Teresa.
The Imperial Museum is at Rua da Imperatriz 220, telephone (55-24) 2237-8000, and is open 11 a.m. to 5:30 p.m.; closed Sunday. Admission is $2.70 (prices at 2.9 reals to the dollar); an electronic guide in English with headphones can be rented for $1 .
The Palacio Rio Negro, Avenida Koeller 255, (55-24) 2246-9380, is open Wednesday through Sunday 9:30 a.m. to 5 p.m.; noon to 5 p.m. Monday. Admission is 65 cents, and guided tours are available in English.
To get to the Locanda della Mimosa, (55-24) 2233-5405, www.locanda.com.br, take the BR-040 highway out of town for about 10 miles to the Vale Florido area and turn right. Open Thursday through Sunday; children under 16 not accepted. Rooms are $150 a night, with breakfast and tea included.
The Pousada da Alcobaça, (55-24) 2221-1240, fax (55-24) 2221-3162, or see www.pousadadaalcobaca.com.br, is at Rua Agostinho Goulao 298 in the Correas neighborhood. There are 11 rooms in this Normandy-style mansion, available at $95 a night.
The elegant chalet-style Pousada Rosa dos Ventos, (55-21) 2644-9900, fax (55-21) 2240-8125, www.hotelrosadosventos.com.br, sits atop a hillside just off kilometer 22.6 of highway RJ-130. Rates for the 42 rooms start at $103 a night; no children under 14.
Founded by a Russian refugee in a stately old mansion, Dona Irene, on Rua Ten. Luis Meireles 1800, (55-21) 2742-2901, serves cuisine of the czarist era. The menu is fixed-price at $20 a person; closed Monday and Tuesday.
The main entrance to the Parque Nacional Serra dos Órgãos, (55-21) 2642-1070, is on highway BR-116 on the southeastern outskirts of Teresópolis. Open 8 a.m. to 5 p.m.; closed Monday. Entrance is $1 a person, plus $1.70 per vehicle and $2 for a camping permit. The best time to visit is May through October, the driest time of year.
On the other side of Teresópolis, the Orquidário Aranda, on Estrada Quebra Frasco, (55-21) 2742-0628, is a flower lover's delight, and visits are encouraged. Call one day in advance for a 40-minute guided tour, available on weekdays 9 a.m. to 5:30 p.m.
In Petrópolis, the best place for flowers is probably Florália
Orquidários Reunidos, at Rua Maestro Octavio Maul 1700, where hundreds
of varieties are grown. It is up a winding road in the Samambaia neighborhood
where the poet Elizabeth Bishop once lived. Visits are by appointment only,
and hundreds of varieties are grown. Call (55-24) 2242-4340; ask for the
manager, Sandra Altenburg Odebrecht.
LARRY ROHTER is chief of the Rio de Janeiro bureau of The Times.