Outside the palace the sunny streets of Petropolis are lined by white mansions which sit behind tall black railings, surrounded by manicured lawns and hedges. Some have been converted into a luxury hotels and restaurants, while others are being used as government buildings. The Cathedral, looking every bit like a Norman church in an English or French town, houses the mausoleum of Pedro and his family. Perhaps the most striking structure of all is the Crystal Palace, inspired by the 19th-century London creation which no longer exists, with its blue-tinted glass and decorated white roof looking every bit like an over-sized greenhouse.
The famous legacy of Petropolis extends beyond the country’s rulers; the city was also home to Brazil’s most famous aviator. Ask a Brazilian who was the first man to fly and you’ll only get one answer; the Wright Brothers will not get a mention. Alberto Santos-Dumont earned worldwide fame in 1901 when he flew his dirigible around the Eiffel Tower and landed safely nearby to collect the Deutsch de la Meurthe prize of 100,000 francs. He is considered a national hero and the domestic airport in Rio de Janeiro bears his name. Despite his successes, it’s highly likely that Santos-Dumont lived in Petropolis in relative obscurity, given that his neighbours were some of Brazil’s most powerful and influential people.
Inside his modest house in the centre of Petropolis there’s a small museum dedicated to Santos-Dumont’s remarkable flying exploits. And yet his story is one with a tragic ending: he committed suicide in 1932 after years of depression. His friends said that this was caused by him witnessing the horrors of aerial bombing and realising that the knowledge he spent his life developing had been used for a murderous purpose.
While Pedro and the Brazilian movers and shakers may have come to the mountains for fresh air, there’s less of that about in today’s Petropolis as heavy traffic chugs its way through the streets. Yet it still offers a contrast from the noise and chaos of Rio and remains a place that holds a special place in Brazil’s relatively short history as an independent nation.
Petropolis can be visited as a day trip for Rio de Janeiro, as part of Sunvil Traveller’s 14-night Highlights of Brazil itinerary, or as part of a tailor-made itinerary.