Brazil's Hidden Gems: Vassouras, the City of the 19th-Century Coffee Barons

One of the biggest economic drivers of 18th-century Brazil was coffee, and in the same way that Ouro Preto was the backbone of the gold and diamond trade, so was Vassouras the financial and commercial heart of the coffee trade during the 19th century, Brazil's imperial period.

Vassouras didn’t start out that way, however. Its name refers to “vassoura” which is Portuguese for “broom”. Before becoming the most important coffee producing region of Brazil, the hills around Vassouras were covered with a kind of shrub (tupeiçava) that was excellent for producing brooms. Hence the name “Vassouras”

Going back to the 18th century, when the gold and diamond mines of Minas Gerais were the colony’s primary source of wealth, Vassouras was merely a place where travelers used to rest on their dangerous quest into the deep interior, in search of fortune.

During the second half of the 18th century, the gold and diamond mines started to run dry, and Brazil needed another export product to finance its own, but also Portugal’s economical expansion and that product became known as the “green gold”: Coffee.

 


Vassouras was initially what was known as a “sesmaria”, which were pieces of land that were “given” to people with money and a sense of adventure in order for them to develop agricultural activity – mostly coffee.

This was one way the Portuguese Crown promoted the expansion of Brazil’s population and economy.

In 1782, the “sesmaria de Vassouras e Rio Bonito” was donated to Fransisco Rodrigues Alves, and thus started the development of not only Vassouras, but also of the coffee era. Many coffee farms (Fazendas) were constructed in the area, and by 1828, coffee production exceeded sugar for the first time.

At one point, the fazendas in the region around Vassouras were responsible for 65% of Brazil’s total coffee export.

The high prices on the world coffee market made the fazendeiros (fazenda owners) extremely wealthy, which enabled them to turn their farms into true rural palaces.

Some of the main tourist attractions in the city of Vassouras are:

  • Matriz de Nossa Senhora da Conceição – Main church of Vassouras
  • Praça Barão de Campo Belo – the square in front of the church
  • Museu da Chácara da Hera – Museum, former residence of one of the most wealthy coffee traders in the region
  • Antiga Estação Ferroviária – The antique train Station. (see picture)
  • Biblioteca Maurício de Lacerda – The library
  • Paço Municipal / Prédio da Prefeitura e Câmara Municipal – City hall and former prison
  • Chafariz D. Pedro II – fountain in honor of Pedro II, second emperor of Brazil
  • Colégio Santos Anjos – College.
  • Mausoléu da Família do Barão de Itambé – Mausoleum of the family of Baron of Itambe

For more pictures of Vassouras: Click here.

The coffee Fazendas


Map of the region around Vassouras showing the 33 fazendas (source: "Preservale": http://www.preservale.com.br/)


 

As mentioned above, the coffee fazendas are the main reason why tourists would want to come and visit this historically important region.


There are 33 fazendas that you can visit in a 5000km² area around Vassouras
. Some of them offer rooms where you can spend a few nights, exploring the region.

One example that I visited myself is Fazenda Ponte Alta, formerly owned by the Baron of Mambucaba and his family. This fazenda is also a pousada, offering rooms which have the original furniture and serving its meals in the original silver plates, just like in the golden days of the coffee barons.

Even an afternoon visit to the fazenda is a very special experience. It is a combination of cultural, ecological and pedagogical tourism, taking place at the exact location where the historical events occurred almost 200 years ago.

Visitors are welcomed by people in 18th century attire, representing historical figures who once lived and worked at the fazenda, like the baron of Mambucaba, a former owner.

 


As part of the visit, there is a sort of theater presentation, during which five actors tell the story of the history of the fazenda and the Vale do Café, also known as the Paraíba valley, after the Paraíba do Sul river that runs through the valley.

One of the actors is Dona Rosa, who is a direct descendant from the slaves who once did hard labor here.

The “senzalas” (slave quarters), the chapel, the “Engenho” (workshop) the water wheels, and the main house (casa grande) are beautifully restored to give the visitor the best impression of how it used to be, almost 200 years ago.

The senzalas hold a museum with original pieces used at the fazenda, like kitchen equipment, small devices used in the coffee production and devices used to torture the slaves. Another part of the museum is dedicated to art of the time, holding reproductions of jean Baptiste Debret, the French painter who made many valuable lithographs, depicting the people of Brazil.

A few times per year, you can also enjoy events like festa Junina, and an imperial gala evening, where all the participants are dressed in 18th century clothes. The fazenda can also be booked for weddings and birthdays, Conventions, and has yearly Christmas and new years events.

For everyone interested in the history of Brazil, a visit to the Vale do Café and one or more of its fazendas is a not-to- miss experience.

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