"When people think of Brazil, they think of Rio and the beach. They don't know about how great it is up here," says John Konarski, a former Manhattan resident who lives in Araras, a hillside village outside Petropolis.
Just 42 miles north of bustling Rio de Janeiro, Petropolis is nestled in the Sierra de Orgau, a dramatic range of odd-shaped mountains. It has become increasingly popular with hikers, ecotourists and those looking for a weekend retreat or a change from the sweltering heat of Rio. An excellent highway leads from Rio to this city and the forested landscape around it.
Petropolis was named after Brazil's emperor in the early 19th century, Pedro II. It was his father, Pedro I, who purchased the land as a summer retreat. Completing the job of building a palace was left to Pedro II.
Every December _ summer, below the equator _ Pedro and his wife, Teresa, moved the royal court to Petropolis from Rio, then Brazil's capital. The Imperial Palace they built still stands on Empress Road near the city center, beautifully preserved as one of Brazil's most popular museums.
Of course, wherever the emperor went the court followed. As a result, palm-lined streets around the palace are lined with dozens of splendid, European-style mansions with decorated facades.
The capital has since moved to Brasilia in the interior, and Rio has been overtaken in importance by the vast metropolis of Sao Paolo to the southeast.
But Petropolis is now a fast-growing city in its own right. It still likes to call itself the "Imperial City." Many of the old homes are well-preserved and are used as private residences or offices.
These old buildings make for an enjoyable stroll along the main avenues, which run along the tree-lined banks of the river Piabanha. Several attractive and shady parks draw locals to sit and chat during the day and to take early evening strolls.
Home fit for an emperor
The pastel, two-story, neoclassical Imperial Palace is said to be South America's largest museum. Built in 1845, the palace was designed to the specifications of European royalty. Besides sharing the same lineage as their European cousins _ the Bourbons of France and the Orleans-Bragancas of Portugal _ the Brazilian royal family also shared their tastes.
The palace is set in a beautiful garden of pine trees and swaying palms. Before entering visitors are asked to put on a pair of rudimentary slippers over their own shoes to protect the wooden floors, a finely crafted blend of jacaranda, rosewood and mahogany.
Highlights of the palace are Pedro's jewel-studded crown, said to have 639 diamonds and 77 pearls, and a remarkable porcelain and gilt-bronze chest that was a wedding gift from the king of France to Pedro's sister.
The royal family enjoyed music, and several rare instruments are displayed in one salon, including a jacaranda Chickering piano, a one-of-a-kind 1788 Portuguese espinette, and an 1878 French-made violin.
The museum is full of other curiosities including several elaborate infant cots decorated with gold leaf, bronze and ivory. On Pedro's office desk is Brazil's first telephone, which he acquired after meeting Alexander Graham Bell at the Philadelphia International Exhibition.
An outbuilding has Pedro's coronation coach, which was imported from England and was drawn by eight horses.
A few streets from the Imperial Palace, the royals had built a Crystal Palace, a premolded cast-iron and glass structure originally intended as a ballroom but later turned into a conservatory.
The 19th century architecture of the Imperial Palace and courtiers' homes is complemented by the later construction of local industrialists and coffee barons, who prefered Swiss-style villas.
During its 150-year history, Petropolis has attracted such famous residents as Austrian novelist Stefan Zweig, American poet Elizabeth Bishop and Brazilian aviator Alberto Santos Dumont.
Beyond the fine architecture and museums, the allure of the area is in its location, especially the mountain scenery of the Sierra de Orgau.
One geologic feature is the 6,000-foot-tall Maria Comprida, an enormous sheer wall of basalt and granite that soars over the surrounding forest. The countryside hums with the sounds of waterfalls and the calls of the tiny Kiskadee flycatcher. In the daytime, the sun glints off the silvery leaves of the Imba-uba tree. At night, the stars glow red, green and gold.
These surroundings are about as far from his life in Manhattan as John Konarski could have imagined.
Formerly the senior vice president of the International Council of Shopping Centers, Konarski says he had often promised his wife, Katia, they would one day retire to her home country.
Their plans were accelerated after the attacks on the World Trade Center. "Sept. 11 did it for me," he said. Having just given up his job, he was interviewing on Wall Street. After the attacks, the job market dried up. His wife also lost her office-furniture design job.
So they moved to what they say is their dream home, in hills noted as one of the best orchid-growing regions in the world, according to Konarski. There are several commercial orchid growers in the region, and Konarski himself is a grower and collector.
Another U.S. expatriate delighted with this area is Paul Mason, who with his Brazilian-born wife, Nazareth Serpa, discovered it a few years ago. "The clouds come through the valley. It's never the same. The view is always changing," says Mason. The couple is building a small hotel just outside Petropolis.
"We've got everything here," said Mason. "We're close to Rio, the people are friendly, the nature is spectacular and the gastronomy is great. What more could you want?"
If you go
Petropolis is easily reached by car from Rio.
STAYING THERE: Petropolis has several comfortable hotels, but visitors would be far better advised to try one of the many pousadas, or small inns and bed and breakfasts in the surrounding villages. Most have Web sites or can be found in the local tourist-information booklets.
Here are accommodations best-known among the Rio social elite but which are relatively pricey:
The Pousada das Araras, Estrada Bernardo Coutinho, No. 4570, Araras, (55-24) 2225-0555, or visit www.pousadadasararas.com.br. It has 24 rooms for two or four people. The lowest rates are for Sundays to Thursdays and begin at about $80; they increase by almost 50 percent for Fridays and Saturdays.
The Pousada da Alcobaca is at Rua Agostinho Goulao No. 298 in the Correas district. There are 11 rooms available at $95 a night. Call (55-24) 2221-1240. To view the Web pages, go to Google and enter the name of the pousada and when the results show, hit translate to English, or visit www.petropolis.com.br/alcobaca.
SEEING THE SIGHTS: The Imperial Museum is on Rua da Imperatriz 220, call (55-24) 22378000. It is open 11 a.m. to 5:30 daily but is closed Sunday. Admission is about $2.90 (at an exchange rate of 2.7 reals to the dollar) for adults. Children 5 and younger are free. For another $1.25, you can rent a 90-minute audio tour of the museum, in English.
For more information visit www.museuimperial.gov.br.
For tour packages (hotels, biking and hiking), contact Ernesto Valente Gubert at Today Tours Brazil in Rio de Janeiro. Ernesto speaks English. Call (55-21) 2247-8999 or e-mail to ernestotodaytours.com.br.
EATING TEHRE: The city is considered one of Brazil's top gastronomical destinations, with a wide variety of excellent dining along country roads.
One of the more unusual homes is a bizarre chalet on Ipiranga Road No. 716, which houses one of the city's best restaurants, Arte Temperada, in an old barn. Chef Ana Salles does wonders with the local trout and meats, accompanied by rice flavored with oregano and thyme, or a tasty creamy coconut rice.
The Petit Palais in the grounds of the Imperial Museum offers a "full tea" for about $8 per person that inclues cake, juice and ice cream. Alternatively, it offers Imperial cod for $15, or the Dom Pedro II sandwich of pork and cheese on corn bread for $3.
The less-expensive Casa D'Angelo just across from the museum on the corner of Dom Pedro park offers excellent local cuisine in an indoor cafe. Try the Petropolis sandwich: egg, cheese and beef on toasted French bread for only $3.
The valley boasts a number of fine restaurants, including Alvorada and Sabor Fazenda, which offers vegetarian fare.
FOR MORE INFORMATION: The Petropolis Tourist Information office Petrotur is on Avenida Koeler, No. 255; call (55-24) 2433561. Details of some of the restaurants and inns mentioned here can be found at www.verdeserra.com.br.