The most visited attraction in Brazil isn't Rio's Sugar Loaf or Iguacu Falls--it's the Imperial Palace in Petropolis.
This is the Brazilian equivalent of Hampton Court or Versailles, an attraction which draws visitors away from Rio or Buzios for a bit of gentility and culture. The beautiful city of Petropolis is high in the interior's jungle-clad mountains and not far from the Serra dos Orgaos NP. It's renowned as one of Brazil's classiest cities, with that touch of European elegance--rather like Florence or Bath--which stems from the fact that it was the royal capital of the Brazilian Emperor.
We visited after spending a night at the Serra dos Orgaos NP on the SouthAmericaExperience bus (see Ilha Grande journal) on our way to the coastal resort of Buzios. It looks very European--almost Bavarian architecture. For the Brazilians it's a chance to experience what they think of as real cold, as it's very high up and during the deep part of July/August the temperature can reach 10-degrees Celsius. The pousadas here play up the European ambience with open fires and mulled wine, making it one of the most expensive Brazilian towns to visit. Trains and buses leave Rio's rodovavaria and central railway station up to six times a day making this a perfect day or overnight trip from Rio, Niteroi, or Buzios.
I thought it was beautiful. Little streams meander through the center of Petropolis, which is lined by palms and classical architecture. In 1808, Napoleon invaded Portugal and the Braganza royal family had to flee to their gigantic Brazilian colony. After Waterloo, some of the family went back but others stayed to create the Brazilian royal family who were first centered on Rio then onto Petropolis. They declared Brazil independent in 1808 and the city was the seat of power until Brazil declared itself a republic in 1888.
Our guide, Marcelo, was particularly proud of Petropolis as it gives her country historical roots. She pointed out the Germanic architecture and the freestanding glass-and-iron Crystal Palace (a miniature version of the one built in London in 1851). But the big attraction is the Paco Real (Royal Palace) which stands in extensive palm-dotted grounds on Rua da Imperialtraz. For 5 reals, you can enter this scarlet-and-white-striped building (see below photo); felt slippers are fitted over your shoes upon entrance so that you don't damage the parquet floor of this national treasure. It is quite fun sliding over the floor or negotiating stairs just wearing tiny bits of felt on your feet.
Marcelo really came into her own in this palace and gave us a good run-down on the family history of the Braganzas. She led us through ornate dining rooms, suites of bedrooms, and the throne room. Every room was covered in portraiture mainly showing Emperor Dom Pedro and his bearded father. It was a very informal court where the Emperors lived in a kind of regal scruffiness with books and paraphernalia scattered about. More interesting were the watercolor landscapes of colonial Rio. The needle peak of the Corcovado loomed above the bay and streets now buzzing with skyscrapers were just mud-tracks. One massive portrait had Dom Pedro looking every inch the imperial Emperor with bushy beard and gown. And who would have thought that the Brazilian crown jewels would be bigger then that of Windsors.
This is the most visited attraction in Brazil and there are lines around the block at Christmas time to get in. I loved it, as it gave me my fix of culture and history which is an antidote to the beaches of Buzios. There were lines of Brazilian school children while we were there. One of our group, Sandra, was trapped in the toilet with hundreds of schoolchildren waiting for her to finish. And of course they want try out their English on you: "Where are you from?" followed by laughter as they make up their own jokes.
Why do schoolchildren say the same things all over the world?