Friday, 30 July 2010

A very special place for an ethical beagle

It is hard to get away from the holiday theme when glorious sunshine continues to greet us every morning for weeks now.
Well, I don’t want to jinx it, so here’s some more holiday talk. Maybe it will persuade the good weather to stay.
I was going through some holiday photos and journals (right, notes on restaurants and bars and hotels, inconsistently scribbled with the occasional – and not strictly sober - thought on the destination) and was filled with joy when I came across some very happy shots taken back in January.
Just before New Year’s, I dragged Mr Schmethical for a whole month of Brazil. There, we spent a lot of time catching up with my – let’s called them eccentric and perhaps unconventional, for the sake of diplomacy – family in Sao Paulo. But it was a short break taken while we were there that summons up all that we’d like to see in a perfect ethical holiday.
Sao Francisco Xavier is really not the tropical destination one would immediate associate with Brazil. It is a remote little place in the Serra da Mantiqueira range of highlands, quiet, peaceful, but with enough breathtaking views and walks to make you want to stay there forever. What you won’t find in Sao Francisco Xavier: beaches, samba, parties, scorching temperatures, loud jungle drums, exotic public celebrations of religious syncretism, half naked babes.
Trust me, this is a much welcome break if you happen to be travelling around Brazil and have already visited the phenomenally beautiful beaches – any of the 2 thousand and something of them.
Apart from the sheer beauty of the place, it was the lodge we stayed in that made this such a very special break.
It was spectacular.

If I think of the values we’ve been trying to adhere to in this blog, The Teto do Cafundo’ have them all nailed.
You’ll travel a couple of hours to leave gigantic Sao Paulo behind and gradually approach a region of high altitudes, much fresher climate and astonishing beauty.
Until you reach an unassuming gate, which reveals a very well hidden gem of a place.
I’m trying not to be too superlative here, but the place really inspires that kind of reaction.
To start with, as you take in the view, you’re greeted by one of the very adorable Beagles. Yes, there are 5 resident beagles at Teto do Cafundo’. Each of them quite happy to keep you company, or leave you alone, if you just ignore them – which of course you will be completely incapable of doing. One look into their eyes and you’re doomed. Be particular wary of Bob : he seems to be the gang leader and has developed very cunning devices to make you fall for him and miss his dearly the minute you go back home.

From that moment on, you really have nothing else to worry about. Our suitcases seem to have disappeared as soon as we arrived, and then suddenly I was swinging in a hammock, prosecco in hand, stunning views in front of me, chatting happily to the lovely hosts.

Tatiana and Renato are the incarnation of the dream 99.9% of city people have at some point in their busy lives. They left university, built good careers for themselves, and came back from each holiday thinking, shouldn’t we abandon the rat race and build a more rewarding life for ourselves?
So 6 years ago they bought a plot of land in the middle of a very beautiful nowhere, half of which was being used for pasture, the other covered in impenetrable jungle. And they gradually built their home there, the first of 6 carefully designed houses that now occupy the land - set well apart from each other and giving you all the privacy you need.
We stayed in the Refugio. And yes, our suitcases were waiting for us there, in case you're wondering. Just look at some of the photos on their website. Tatiana’s taste and attention to every single detail of what a guest may need is incredible. The woman is like a machine of second guessing your needs and spreading beautiful objects around the place. A lot of the paintings, rugs and vases used to decorate the rooms come from local craftsmen. Sao Francisco Xavier is fast establishing its identity as a centre of arts, and a visit to the town will reward you with great little shops … or so I am told, as I could not bring myself to leave Teto do Cafundo’ the 3 days we spent there.
We had a waterfall right next our place. A waterfall! Where I am told Renato bathes in every morning, but luckily we never had any uncomfortable run-ins during our stay.
As for my own washing arrangements, I was blessed with Atlantic forest views as I showered with the many – oh so nice – local artisanal soaps we were treated with.

A bit of my guilt at using hectoliters of water during my excessively long showers was assuaged by the knowledge that water treatment and recycling was being taken care of as well.
Having met while agronomic engineer students and well aware of conservation issues, the couple also went to great lengths to make sure the landscaping project respected local species and environment – there is a great big rock right in the middle of their living room, as removing it would be an unnecessary and aggressive task.
(Disastrous land slidings in Ilha Grande, Rio de Janeiro, that same January, reminded us of the effects of irresponsible and excessive building in mountainous terrain.)

And then there was the food. On top of everything else, Renato is also a trained chef. Really, if I had to think of one downside, it was that I felt a bit inadequate when confronted with such multi-talented couple.
Anyhow, one of our travel companions happens to be an overworked father of 2 beautiful young girls and spouse of a – let’s call her lively and slightly demanding, for the sake of diplomacy – wife. Upon arrival, he announced that he wanted a complete rest and was therefore not prepared to spare any thinking cells by deciding what to choose from the menu. And so Renato gladly obliged by cooking Inha a surprise dish at every meal.
Although it was right in the middle of summer in Brazil, the altitudes in Sao Francisco Xavier reach over 720 metres above sea level, and temperatures remained in the low 20s at all times. And so I was free to taste his famous mushroom risotto. His passion fruit sauce used with the fish – I think it was trout, but am not sure – was unforgettable.
In the sweet department – for me, where Brazilian cuisine really shines – I was treated to guava soufflé, ginger ice cream, delicate little banana cakes, all made by Renato with local ingredients. The ice cream they buy from this sort of angel who turned up at their door step one day with a range of unusually flavoured organic ice creams he had just devised.

Our routine for 3 days was as follows:
1. wake up whenever you feel like;
2. struggle to leave the supremely comfortable bed and sheets of some billions of threads of organic cotton;
3. have long shower looking at forest and birds;
4. marvel at the interior design;
5. attempt to go for breakfast, but get stuck in the verandah reading or looking mesmerised at the mountains in front of you;
6. attempt for the 2nd time to go for breakfast;
7. meet plotting beagles and spend some more time chatting to them and caressing their velvety ears;
8. finally make it for breakfast: homemade cakes, cheese bread (have you not tried them yet? Seriously?), coffee, made to order fried-up (Mr Vegetarian English Schmethical was so delighted!), and fruit, plenty of fruit and fruit juices;
9. decide whether to read own books or to explore the collection of books and – woohoo, NEW and shiny –magazines left everywhere. I particularly like the touch of a basket full of glossy magazines left in the loos!;
10. take a pick of books and go find one of the various places with a privileged view and sleep- inducing recliners;
11. soon forget about the book and chat idly about the plans you will definitely stick to when you go back home: no long working hours, more walks in the wild, more healthy and local eating;
12. accept the offer of a caipirinha, and struggle to choose between limes, passion fruit or fresh cashew – the fruit, not the nut. So very delicious.
13. Discuss lunch options with Renato with the seriousness required for an UN meeting on Russian disarmament;
14. Maybe a little nap with the beagles;
15. Walks, chats, light reading;
16. Repeat steps 9 – 12 for dinner;
17. Die of the laughter at anything, as you gradually relax and feel happy for no reason whatsoever;
18. Sleep like an angel to the music of millions of crickets, frogs and other unidentifiable creatures.

As ethical holidays go, you hit the jackpot here. True, you may need to debate the carbon offsetting for the flights. And we plan to go back to this topic in future posts, by the way. But once you’re there, you can really tick all the boxes for respectful use of local resources, sustainable tourism, development of local economy and overall happiness.
Before I go, and just in case you’re wondering if there’s more to SFX than serious idleness, there is plenty:
According to Sao Francisco Xavier's official website, the area’s landscape offers the perfect terrain for paragliding, rapell, free flight (I have no idea what that is, but it sounds adventurous) hikes, mountain biking, rowing and trekking.
I did consider taking up some of those activites while I was there, but then I saw the look in the beagles' eye and opted for another caipirinha.

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