PC 37 A Small Town in ….. Brazil

“A Small Town in Germany” is the title of a 1968 John le Carré novel of the Cold War era. At the time, Germany was divided into ‘East’ and ‘West’, with the capital of the latter a small town called Bonn. The story is one of espionage and intrigue in Bonn. For some reason the title of the book remains with me, which is more than I can say for the contents!! This scribble has a European connection hence my mentioning the title (!) …. and I think it’s an interesting story …. OK! … rather historical but ……… see what you think?

The Canton of Friburg in Switzerland lies north east of Lake Leman; it’s capital on the river La Sanne, midway between Berne and Lausanne. In the early 1800s the Brazilian (Portuguese) government encouraged European emigration and in 1818 some 1500 people from Friburg settled in a mountainous area some 130kms north east from Rio. The place was chosen for its similarity with their Alpine home. Can you imagine making such a journey, in 1818 (three years after the Battle of Waterloo)? I guess the publicity campaign must have been extremely clever! Six years later a large party of German immigrants added to the population. Together they founded a little town and called it Nova Friburgo. Today Friburgo is mainly known for its tourism, but it has been, according to a guidebook, a thriving manufacturing hub for the ‘undergarment’ industry. Funny word that – ‘undergarment’!! These days we would probably say ‘lingerie’, and as you drive into Nova Friburgo the lingerie shops with scantily-clad models are ubiquitous. The architecture of this rather charming town reflects the nationality of its original inhabitants – somewhat Alpine and not a Portuguese-style church in sight.

The largest coffee plantation owner in Friburgo was not, however, of Swiss descent but a member of the Portuguese aristocracy, a Baron San Clemente. He was a hugely rich landowner and had become the mayor of Friburgo. In 1860 he built a large mansion befitting his status; these days one might think it suggests a certain ostentatious display of his wealth. A French landscaper, Glaziou, created a wonderful park and numerous lakes to complement the scale of the house. Today it’s known as Parque Sāo Clemente and is open to the public. In the late 1800s coffee was a major export of Brazil and the plantations up and down the country were only economically viable if they were worked by slaves. Somehow the plantation owners never believed that their vested interests would be ignored, but slavery was eventually abolished by royal degree in 1888, a year before Brazil expelled the ex-Portuguese monarch and declared itself a republic. The lack of cheap labour created a crisis and Baron San Clemente was not the only one to be affected. Unable to harvest his coffee bean crop, he eventually went bankrupt. In 1913 his large house on the outskirts of Friburgo was bought by Eduardo Guinle, the oldest son of Eduardo Palassim Guinle, a wealthy industrialist. Guinle senior, whose family had emigrated from the Haute Pyrenees area of France in the C19th, had been educated in the United States and, with two other entrepreneurs, developed under licence the main port of Port Santos, near Sāo Paulo. Additionally he became the Brazilian representative for, inter alia, two giant American companies, General Electric and Otis Elevators …. just when Brazil was embracing electricity! Talk about right place, right time!! He and his partners worked extremely hard ……. and made a fortune! His son clearly had the money to buy the large mansion from the bankrupt Baron.

In 1953 his grandson César divided the estate in Friburgo, selling the mansion to the Nova Frigurgo Country Club and building a house for himself in another part of the grounds. Whilst the current drought remains a top story here in Brazil, in 1995 it was severe floods that caught the headlines. The water from heavy rains in the mountains surrounding the town eventually made its way into Friburgo. Accumulated rubbish thrown into the river channels dammed up under bridges. Eventually the pressure was sufficient for it to break free, causing a wall of water to rush downstream, engulfing the Guinles’ house. It was Christmas Day …. lunchtime … and various members of the Guinle family had travelled up from Rio. They were eventually evacuated to safety by the local fire brigade. Once the waters had subsided, it was clear to see the enormous damage that the water had done and the house was never the same again. You can still see the ‘tide mark’ of the water in the exposed stone walls.

In 2011 another terrific thunderstorm brought further flooding and landslips to Friburgo, killing 1000 people and again inundating the ground floor of the family home. The lake in the garden retains a huge amount of silt and today needs to be dredged. The dark wood floors, once much lighter …..and polished …. and even, are rather dull and warped. The house is owned by four siblings who want to sell it …. but so far they have been unsuccessful and it’s become a real millstone around their necks. And whilst they attempt to interest those developers with money to convert it to something different, it soaks up money just keeping it secure and rainproof.

Old Long Playing records lie abandoned on the dusty top of the grand piano, as if the last guests from some fun 1950’s weekend had just left. I felt somewhat awkward visiting this house that I had heard so much about, a house that holds so many memories …… yet belongs to another time. Family portraits and photographs stare at the empty rooms, the office of the man who built it a shrine; dusty and untouched …. but very much loved. There is a reverential feel to the place, this family ‘millstone’, and I can understand the conflicting emotions that run through those who own it. But it stands in splendid silence, a memory to a different time and a different generation, and that silence is broken only by the bell being rung to summon the staff to clear the dishes from the dining room table.

Richard Yates – richardyates24@gmail.com

P.S. Celina is the great great granddaughter of Eduardo Palassim Guinle

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