Sunday, December 23, 2012

Luiz's holiday decorations for OUR house

Click to enlarge.

Luiz spends countless hours helping other people decorate their houses for the holidays.  But he never forgtes about our place. Our dining room table is beautiful!

Our trip to Gramado

Gate to the town.

Luiz and I joined in a group package tour to Gramado. A social club Luiz’ mother Zozó belongs to filled a tour bus with members for a super discounted trip. So we signed on.

Our tight group withn the larger group.

The tour idea was a good fit for us. We do not own a car and Gramado is nearly a two hour drive outside of Porto Alegre in Rio Grande do Sul, up in the mountains. Plus, visiting nearby towns like Canela, Caxias do Sul, Nova Petropolis, etc. would be a local bus nightmare.

Gramado is famous for being the chocolate capital of Brazil. There are numerous artisan chocolate companies that operate out of this tiny town. Plus, more importantly for this tour, each year for the months of November through January the whole city rallies to celebrate Christmas with daytime parades, extensive municipal decorations and three different nighttime Christmas performances/parades that feature a gazillion lights. One thng that is pretty cool is that the city creates their lighted decorations using thousands of carefully carved recycled plastic soda bottles.

This cute little town is in the heart of the part of Brazil that was colonized by Germans and Italians after the slaves were freed. Local fazenda owners needed a new source of cheap labor, so the Brazilian government went to these countries and bamboozled people into thinking paradise awaited them in the untamed wilderness of southern Brazil (ha!). So destitute Europeans immigrated. The climate in this part of Brazil is very similar to the climate these immigrants were used to. But they had to start from scratch to buid housing and communities, living in absolute poverty for years on end.

The business and residential buildings have a distinct German look.
You can really see the European influence in the architecture. To a lesser extent, the food is influenced by home country flavors and recipes, but it is still quite Brazilian in nature.

These days Gramado’s economy is more than 90% connected to tourism. The population of Gramado is about 35,000 people. They host more than 5 million tourists each year. There are NO crappy hotels or pousadas in Gramado, although if you want a pool, you will have to look around. Note - all the electrical outlets everywhere (even the airport) are 220V. One amazing, amazing thing is that EVERY municipal avenue and most residential streets are lined with hydrangias. There are MILLIONS of blooms that line all the streets and fill the parks. It is almost unbelievable.

The whole town participates in keeping the hydrangia wonder going.
The town is absolutely pristine and peaceful.  No chain stores or eateries of any kind. Free parking everywhere. And drivers actually stop when a pedestrian steps into a crosswalk. If you like boutique shopping, this place is for you.

On the topic of shopping, this was the great disappointment of our organized bus tour of Gramado and surrounding villages. We learned from our tour guide (who was spectacular at her job) that the tour company only pays her R$150 per day. So the only way she can make a livable wage is if she can make deals with local merchants that if she brings her bus full of “shoppers” they will give her a commission on all sales. As a result, the bus took us to more shopping stops (shoes, glassware, Christmas junk, clothing, kitchen wares, etc.) than points of interest for tourists. It was – two shopping stops, one historical site – two shopping stops – one church – two shopping stops and then a winery or chocolate factory (thinly veiled shopping stops.) URGH! We complained, but to no avail. Actually, many of the older women in the group PREFERRED the shopping to the cultural stops.

The chocolate factory "tour" was a 7 minute robotic explanation of the process, then it was off to the chocolate store...

There are, in fact, cultural and natural spots worth seeking out.
The same was true for lunch stops. We ate at mediocre buffets that could accommodate busloads of people, but the food was both plain, and expensive.

The guide tried her best to provide a local context of relevance for most of the shopping stops – but if you are looking for a tourist points of interest tour – dig deeper than the big agencies.

So we spent 5 days on this adventure, bought loads of chocolate, enjoyed a spectacular parade of lights and marveled at the small town (safe) atmosphere.

Photos from the lights parade, until our camera battery went flat.
Gramado – go check it out, any time of the year.