PC 06 Petropolis

The road to Petropolis, a one-way dual carriageway, rises up from sea level into the green and lush mountains where the city lies. The air is clearer here, almost 10 deg C cooler than on the coast and the pace of life more relaxed. We arrive at the central bus station after an uneventful 90 minute trip from the centre of Rio. One of the great aspects of life in Brazil is the quality of the loos and after our long journey this is where we head! Celina suddenly asks: “Have you got your passport?” …….. and here’s me thinking I’m just going to have a pee! “Yes!” I reply, not really understanding the significance of the question. Whilst in the UK we don’t have a national ID card, they do here in Brazil and it’s often asked for, so it’s advisable to carry one’s passport for ID purposes ……. I pull it from my pocket. The Loo Attendant (note the capital letters!) scrutinises it …….  and suddenly I am waived through the turnstile without paying  – being over 65 can be an advantage here!!!!

Whilst history was not one of my favourite subjects at school, I now love finding out how certain events have shaped nations and been catalysts for change. If history bores you, skip this bit! When Napoleon was rampaging through the Iberian Peninsula in the early 1800s, confronted amongst others by the Duke of Wellington, the Portuguese Royal family decided Lisbon was too dangerous and sailed for their colony Brazil. After Napoleon’s defeat in the Peninsular War, his failure to win at Waterloo, and his exile to St Helena, the Portuguese king, Juan VI, decided it was safe to return to Portugal. His (crafty?) son stayed on and in 1822 declared himself king, Pedro I, of an independent Brazil. King Pedro I liked Rio de Janeiro but found the summer insufferably hot, so decamped to the mountains some 90kms north, and started the construction of a palace. Well, he didn’t, obviously; he told some senior officials who told some lesser minions and so the palace was built ……. and Petropolis was founded in 1843. Pedro I eventually went back to Portugal and his son, Pedro II, and his family would spend the hot months here and it flourished as the summer court. German farmers from the Rhineland were encouraged to immigrate and to settle on the King’s outlying lands, to help give the palace a charming urban setting. The city becomes a magnate for the rich and famous, all anxious to be connected in some way to the Royal Family and it remained the centre of Brazilian society until the declaration of The Republic in 1889. Their huge ostentatious mansions, now either owned by the State or by medical clinics, stand as a reminder of a bygone age. Petropolis was the official capital of the state of Rio de Janeiro between 1894 and 1902, when that status transferred to the city of Rio. (What if Napoleon hadn’t lived? What if the King of Portugal hadn’t spent time in Brazil? What if his son hadn’t stayed? What if …..??)

We stayed in the summer house of Celina’s father Carlos’s half-sister Teresa, who sadly remained in Rio but who had ensured we had a comfortable night. Her house is very central and lies just behind the Cathedral of São Pedro. The cathedral is made of grey granite and reminded me of something Scottish, although it had been designed by a Frenchman. A small side chapel holds the remains of King Pedro II, his wife Teresa, their daughter Isabella and her French husband Count d’Eu.

The Imperial Palace is now the Imperial Museum, housing memorabilia of the family including the Imperial crown; it’s worth a visit. And for those who run stately homes and palaces worried about the wear and tear on the floors of countless visitors, do what the Imperial Museum does; soft slippers that fit over your shoes are provided, so you can glide around without scratching the floors! A little like speed-skating I suppose; never done it but I imagine?

Another interesting place to visit is a quaint little house built for the Father of Aviation Alberto Santos-Dumont. Whilst history debates whether he or the Wright Brothers could claim the title, this quirky rich son of a coffee plantation owner certainly flew the first heavy-than-air machine supported by a wheeled undercarriage in 1906. Most of his life he spent in France where his aviation inventions are hugely admired. His friendship with Louis Cartier led to the latter designing him a watch he could wear on his wrist, as he needed two hands to pilot his aeroplane and couldn’t look at his pocket watch! He developed MS and returned to his native Brazil in 1931, settling in Petropolis. Look on-line at this house and see the staircase that can only be used if you start with the right foot! His suicide in 1932 is generally thought to be caused not only by his depressed feelings about his MS but also the guilt he felt that his machines were being used in warfare, locally in a 6 month conflict in the state of Sao Paulo.

Growing up in England I used to believe that virtually all the important inventions in the world had been made by the British. Then I began to understand that that wasn’t quite true, that actually the Americans had had a few successes, not to mention the French, then that actually the Chinese had invented everything before everybody else …… and now I have to accept that it was a Brazilian who first flew a heavy-than-air machine and not the Wright Brothers. Heh! Ho!

Back to Rio the following day, a longer journey timewise because of the traffic. We came down to Barra de Tijuca which lies just to the west of the suburb of Sao Conrado and is the site of the main Olympic park for 2016. There is a new bus station and by 2016 the new Metro extension will link Barra with central Rio; currently it’s a huge construction site.

Hope all’s well with you. Smile!

Richard Yates – richardyates24@gmail.com

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