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Colonial town near World Cup city Belo Horizonte is home to Brazil's 1st independence dreams

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OURO PRETO, Brazil - Removed from the bustling World Cup host city of Belo Horizonte lies a charming colonial town that gave birth to Brazil's independence.

Ouro Preto, a UNESCO world heritage site whose name means "Black Gold," is a former mining village a two-hour drive away from the metropolis of Belo Horizonte, where thousands of soccer fans will gather Tuesday to see Brazil face Germany in the tournament's semi-final match.

Following a road that climbs southeast through mist-shrouded hills and valleys, visitors approaching Ouro Preto first see the red-tiled roofs of its whitewashed colonial buildings before reaching the town's cobblestoned streets and its astonishing 18th century Baroque church, a tribute to the riches of gold and gems extracted for the country's former colonial masters.

The tremendous wealth of the town made it a cultural focal point of the era. Remarked British tourist Steve Tanner, "the biggest connection for us would be the gold rush" in California.

By the late 1700s, the fervour for independence from Portugal was ripe in Ouro Preto. Demands for a new 20-per cent tax by Portugal's royals sparked a Boston Tea Party-styled revolt in Brazil's first uprising for independence.

"They wanted a republic, because they considered the crown very oppressive, very abusive," said David Fleischer, a political scientist at the University of Brasilia. "There was a large tax for gold production."

Known as the "Inconfidencia," or "conspiracy," the 1789 revolt was inspired by the revolutions in the United States and France. Some participants had contact with Thomas Jefferson and one was thought to have met with him in Paris to seek support. But the plot fell apart after one of the conspirators betrayed the group to get out of paying a huge debt to Portugal.

Ouro Preto became the execution site of one of the leaders of the uprising, a soldier named Joaquin Jose da Silva Xavier who today is remembered in history lessons by his nickname "Tiradentes."

Known as the "Tooth-puller" because he also worked as a dentist, Tiradentes was hung, following a three-year trial in Rio de Janeiro. His head was put on a stake in Ouro Preto's main square and other body parts were displayed across Brazil. Other conspirators escaped brutal deaths but were exiled to Portugal's former African colonies of Angola and Mozambique.

Independence finally came to Brazil in 1822 and Tiradentes became a national hero. Each year, the April 21st date of his execution is honoured as a national holiday.

The legacy of Tiradentes resonates in Brazil because of the deep divide that exists between rich and poor here even today. Unlike the other rebels who included intellectuals, mine owners, lawyers, a priest and a poet, Tiradentes was not wealthy.

His story is honoured with memorials and by streets named for him in many Brazilian cities. Schoolchildren learn about him from an early age while being taught that the Portuguese stole Brazil's mineral riches.

A monument in the centre of Ouro Preto's square marks the spot where Tiradentes was hung. The plaza also has Ouro Preto's Conspiracy Museum showcasing the wooden gallows that were used, as well as the execution order signed by Portugal's Queen Maria I.

British visitor Ian Hicks took his son to the museum because he had heard about the failed plot and wanted to learn more about a part of Brazilian history that is unknown to most people outside of the country.

"They tried to start something here," said Hicks, who lives in Edmonton, Alberta.

Revolutionary history aside, Ouro Preto is a pleasant break from Belo Horizonte, a bustling and traffic-clogged city of about 3 million known mainly for its food and nightlife.

Brazil's most famous Baroque sculptor, Antonio Francisco Lisboa, was born near here. Known widely by the name Aleijadinho, he suffered from a degenerative disease that forced him to work with tools fastened to his wrists. Some people refer to him as the Michelangelo of Brazil and one of Ouro Preto's many churches has the best examples of his work.

A shrine to Brazil's first rebels is located in a room of the Conspiracy Museum, which also holds some of their cremated remains. On the wall hangs the flag of Minas Gerais, the Brazilian state where Ouro Preto is located, and the state motto is emblazoned in Latin: "Libertas quae sera tamen," meaning "Freedom, however late it might come."

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