Vassouras (pop. 32,495) is one of the main towns in the Paraíba River Valley, also known as the Coffee Valley. Located about 72 miles from Rio de Janeiro, the city is home to several old urban residences and to preserved historic farmhouses built during the area's Coffee Cycle, which lasted for most of the 19th century and lived its heyday from 1830 to 1850.
As a college town, Vassouras has a young crowd during the school year. It's also a popular family vacation getaway - many Rio residents own chácaras in the verdant countryside.
The city's name, meaning "brooms" and pronounced va-SO-ras, comes from a plant used in broom manufacturing.
Historic Coffee Farms
One of the main reasons to visit Vassouras is the chance to spend at least a few hours at one of the area's historic coffee farms, most of which are open to day visits scheduled in advance.
Visits to a coffee farm include a meal - usually coffee and regional delicacies, served in the sumptuous coffee barons' farmhouses.
The Barão de Campo Belo Square, with an 1846 water fountain and lined with rows of palm trees leading to the two-towered Matriz de Nossa Senhora da Conceição (the city's Main Church), is a great first stop in a tour of downtown Vassouras.
Behind the church, a row of ancient ficus is an impressive sight. While there, note a historic construction, Casa das 14 Janelas, an unmistakable private home with 14 windows.
A walk in the historic downtown area, listed by IPHAN - the Brazilian Institute for the National Historic and Artistic Heritage, will reveal other homes of coffee barons and buildings of historic interest, many of which can only be seen from the outside.
To the right of the Main Church, the recently restored house which belonged to the Baron of Itambé has a stunning frontispiece with a winged lion.
Baron do Amparo's house has windows facing the square.
Other buildings worth a look are the forme home of the Baron of Massambará, Casa da Cultura, the City Hall, the Forum, and the old train station.
Museu Casa da Hera:
Visit the Manuel Congo Memorial, which marks the place where the leader of a failed mass slave escape was hanged in 1839. Fazenda Freguesia, where Manuel Congo lived and worked and one of two farms from which the slaves ran away, is now Arcozelo, a cultural center open to visitation in the nearby city of Paty do Alferes.
Another outstanding stop is the Vassouras Jewish Memorial, which honors the memory of Jewish immigrants in Brazil, especially Moroccan Jews who established themselves in the Vassouras area.
Where to Eat:
In recent years, Vassouras has taken a leap in quality dining, thanks to a concerted effort on local restaurants to promote local culinary.
The Vassouras Gourmet Project groups the city's best eateries, such as the ones in the Varandas group or the restaurant at the Mara Palace Hotel. Request the Vassouras Gourmet folder at your hotel or at the City Hall.
Local Flavors to Go:
Empório Sabor e Arte (phone: 55-24-249-11872) is a surefire stop for some of the best treats the Paraíba River Valley has to offer, including cheese, goiabada cascão, and the area's renowned cachaça.
Cachaça brands from nearby cities available at the emporium include Pilão and Guaribu from Paty do Alferes and Magnífica from Miguel Pereira.
Empório Sabor e Arte doubles as a bistro where you can eat pies and sample some wine.
Where to Stay:
For the best accommodations in town, choose from:
Fazenda Mulungu Vermelho is a rare historic coffee farm in Vassouras offering overnight accommodations. Contact the farm for more information.
How to Get to Vassouras
Normandy (www.normandy.com.br) has buses to Vassouras from the Novo Rio bus terminal in Rio de Janeiro.
However, being in Vassouras without a car makes it difficult to visit the historic coffee farms.
Consider taking a tour from Rio with a tour operator such as Triple M (www.triplem.com.br).