Travel Black Book Ambassadors Series

Rio Grande do Sul: Brazil with a taste of Europe

The best of home: Ambassadors to Singapore provide an insider's guide to their favourite destinations

Who: Mr Flavio Soares Damico, 57, Brazil's Ambassador to Singapore

Favourite destination: Rio Grande do Sul, Brazil's southern- most state, has sentimental meaning for me. It is where I was born and lived until I was 25. I still have relatives and friends there, so I try to visit at least once a year.

It is also home to Vale Dos Vinhedos, where award-winning wines and 90 per cent of Brazilian wine are produced. It feels like Brazil with a little taste of Europe.

Bordered by Uruguay and Argentina, Rio Grande do Sul also has a strong gaucho (cowboy) culture.

SEE

Porto Alegre is the capital and largest city of Rio Grande do Sul.

To get to know the local culture, I recommend travellers go to one of the city's numerous Centre of Gaucho Traditions, which regularly organise dance and music performances and host traditional meals.

Every city in the region has at least one of these centres.

My favourite museum in the region is The Missions Museum in Sao Miguel das Missoes, a Unesco World Heritage Site 500km from Porto Alegre.

Located in the ruins of the Church of Sao Miguel Arcanjo, it houses works and relics from the church as well as religious statues from the region.

The ruins and museum recount a fundamental period of the region's history, when Rio Grande do Sul was on the front lines between the Spanish and Portuguese colonial empires in South America.

Every night, a light show spectacular, which re-enacts the history of the Jesuits, Guarani Indians (an indigenous group in South America) and the Portuguese and Spanish empires in this territory, is projected in the ruins. It depicts the struggle of the native Brazilians - who were assisted by resident Jesuit priests - in their fight against enslavement by Bandeirantes, Brazilian pioneers coming from the state of Sao Paulo.

  • GETTING THERE

    Start in the city of Sao Paulo in south-west Brazil, a main gateway to the county. The flight to Porto Alegre takes about 11/2 hours. Three local airlines TAM (www.alternativeairlines.com/tam), GOL (www.voegol.com.br/pt) and Azul Brazilian Airlines (www.voeazul.com.br/en/home) fly the route, which costs about $600.

    On arrival, rent a car and drive for about one hour and 40 minutes to Bento Goncalves, the capital of Vale dos Vinhedos. The roads are well signed and the drive will take you through romantic green hills coloured by hydrangeas.

    TIPS

    • One week will be enough to savour every attraction at a leisurely pace and have a good taste of the region, which sees its peak season from January till the beginning of May. The average altitude is 450m in the wine country, which means very mild weather. The annual average temperature is 18 deg C. The driest month is May and the wettest is March.

    • TripAdvisor and Lonely Planet offer excellent guides of the region, which is easily navigable.

    • O Tempo e o Vento (Time And The Wind) by Brazilian writer Erico Verissimo is a period novel which tells the history of two families across 250 years in Rio Grande do Sul and is the perfect read if you want to know a little of the history of this region.

    • Understandably, people are concerned about news reports of high levels of violence in Latin American countries. As a rule, most areas in the cities and tourist attractions are well-policed and there is little to fear.

    • Robberies are rare and it is even safer in the wine country as it is a close community. Nonetheless, it is advisable to avoid wearing jewellery and to keep a watchful eye.

EAT

In Porto Alegre, my favourite restaurant is Barranco Churrascaria (www.churrascariabarranco.com.br), a churrasco (Brazilian barbecue) restaurant where a meal costs about $75 a person. Besides excellent grilled meats such as sirloin, entrecot and flank steak, ribs and leg of lamb, the eatery has a splendid selection of salads such as heart of palm salad and pastas.

My favourite cut of meat is the picanha, or rump cap, the most popular cut in Brazil, though it is not common on menus elsewhere.

I also have a soft spot for its fried polenta (corn meal). This well- known Italian dish is typical of Rio Grande do Sul and is an example of our fusion of immigrant food.

In the wine region, my favourite restaurant is Mama Gemma (www.facebook.com/pages/Mama-Gemma/388048011241672), which serves excellent risottos. A meal here will cost about $50 a person, excluding wine, but a great bottle of some of the region's best wines will cost no more than $50.

Our version of brunch is the Cafe Colonial, a gigantic meal comprising all sorts of breads, jams, cheeses and cold cuts such as salami and prosciutto.

Save room for the desserts, including the region's famous cuca, a sweet cake-like pie which is our version of the German kuchen, often made in Germany with apples, but made with red berries, bananas, peaches and other fruit in Brazil.

You can find versions of cuca in any bakery, where a whole pie costs about $20 and a large portion $10.

For high tea, you will find a variety of cafes and restaurants along Padre Chagas Street in Porto Alegre, which is also a great spot for people-watching.

PLAY

When the Italians arrived in the late 19th century, they claimed the land in the hills, which was suitable only for vineyards.

Now known as Vale Dos Vinhedos, the region produces light red wines from Cabernet Sauvignon and Tannat grapes and rich white wines from Chardonnay and Viognier.

The town of Bento Goncalves, also known as the wine capital of Brazil, is a good base from which one can experience the local Italian influence and explore the region's vineyards. Many of them are open for tastings.

At Casa Valduga winery (www.casavalduga.com.br/), one will find a cosy restaurant that serves local food in rodizio (all- you-can-eat) style.

Two of the best wineries in the region are Lidio Carraro and Miolo.

Lidio Carraro (www.lidiocarraro.com) has award-winning and internationally recognised wines and Miolo (www.miolo.com.br/en/controller.php) has surprisingly excellent sparkling wines.

In fact, the region is best known for its sparkling Italian Spumante-style wines, and for sparkling wine lovers, Fenachamp (www.fenachamp.com), a festival of Brazilian Sparkling Wine held every October, is a must.

Take a drive along the winding roads of Caminho de Pedras (Trail of Stones), a small country road usually covered in mist that seems to take you back in time, past houses and villages which look like they belong to the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

For those who are more adventurous, I recommend visiting the Serra do Rio do Rastro mountain range 400km away in the neighbouring state of Santa Catarina, where one can go horseback riding and hiking and visit canyons and waterfalls.

We stayed in Rio do Rastro Eco-Resort (www.riodorastro.com.br), a farm-style resort with beautiful views over the Rio do Rastro sierra canyon.

Beach bums should go to Torres, 250km east of Bento Goncalves, where you can enjoy fresh coconuts and champagne, lie on the sand or admire the views from the nearby cliffs overlooking the blue South Atlantic Ocean.

SHOP

The vineyards are an ideal place to buy quality wine at a good price.

Of course, prices depend on their quality and vary from $10 to $200 a bottle, but a well-regarded wine can be had for $50.

Chocolate lovers will also have a field day as the region's chocolate is fantastic.

The best-known brand is Chocolate de Gramado, which is a chain found in almost every city.

The simpler chocolates start at $5 a box, but you can have more sophisticated gift boxes of chocolate truffles for more than $200.

STAY

In Porto Alegre, my wife and I stayed at Sheraton Porto Alegre (www.sheraton-poa.com.br/), which has a great location in the city and costs about $200 a night.

You can find lively cafes, bars and restaurants on Padre Chagas Street nearby.

The Moinhos de Vento (Windmills) mall, where one can find typical gaucho-style food and some Brazilian clothing brands, is adjacent to the hotel.

In wine country, we stayed in Hotel & Spa do Vinho (www.marriott.com/hotels/travel/bgvak-hotel-and-spa-do-vinho-autographcollection/) outside Bento Goncalves.

Located on higher ground, it offers a wonderful view of the misty surrounding hills and one can see vineyards in all directions.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on April 23, 2017, with the headline 'Brazil with a taste of Europe'. Print Edition | Subscribe