Following the Traces of European Settlers

Part 2 about our slow travel in Southern Brazil: we discover historic European settlers’ houses, wineries, and lovely landscapes.

As we travelled further inland in Rio Grande do Sul [previous post] we noticed more and more references, like plaques and memorial statues, to the ethnic origins of some of the most important migrant groups which founded the cities and initiated new industries in Southern Brazil.

An idyllic rural scene in Rio Grande Do Sul, Brazil

An idyllic rural scene in Rio Grande Do Sul, Brazil

Before this trip, we had never really considered that most of South America, like our home country Australia, has actively encouraged immigration for centuries. Much of Southern Brazil was initially settled by Germans and Italians. In the Europe of the early eighteen-hundreds, the beginning of industrialisation drew thousands of poor farmers into the cities, in the hope of finding better paid work. Many, who didn’t succeed in the growing cities of Europe, were then lured onwards to South America.

In Rio Grande do Sul we travelled through countless comparably wealthy farming communities, all founded by European settlers. Once you look beneath the surface you find entire regions with either German, Italian, Polish, or other Eastern European ancestors. And each brought their own particular skills, which shows in the crops cultivated and the style of buildings they initially erected.

Early spring in one of the vineyards of Vale Dos Vinhedos outside Bento Gonçalves.

Early spring in one of the vineyards of Vale Dos Vinhedos outside Bento Gonçalves.

Did you know that Brazil has a prospering wine industry?

The wine industry might be small by international standards, nevertheless we saw evidence of big, multinational companies; for example a large sparkling wine production, owned by Chandon , outside of Garibaldi. It was Italians, from around Trento and Verona, who brought grapevines into this part of Brazil.

Between Garibaldi and Bento Gonçalves you will find the Vale Dos Vinhedos, the most popular wine region, with well developed tourist infrastructure. Yet vineyards, or sign posts for them, continue to line many roads for several hundred kilometres further west.

Large wheat fields, originally introduced by German settlers, dominate the west of Rio Grande do Sul, Brazil.

Large wheat fields, originally started by German settlers, dominate the west of Rio Grande do Sul, Brazil.

Wheat & Beer

Further inland, towards the border with Argentina, we drove through enormous wheat fields; it was the Germans who started to grow wheat in Brazil. The Germans are also credited with bringing beer to Brazil. Without wheat you can’t have beer.

And everywhere we passed through we noticed small well-kept vegetable gardens in people’s backyards – another familiar sight from travelling in rural Europe.

A group of historic stone and wood farm buildings along Caminhos de Pedra, near Bento Gonçalves, Brazil

A group of historic stone and wood farm buildings along Caminhos de Pedra, near Bento Gonçalves, Brazil

Influence in Architecture

First and foremost we noticed how neat and orderly everything looked in almost every town and small village; more so than we remember from our last visit. This might be a sign of Brazil’s recent economic success, but the roots of it probably go back to the European mentality.

You will also notice a significant number of protestant churches, unlike in other countries of South America which are predominantly catholic. Yet it’s the style of buildings which remind us most of Europe. We saw countless houses and barns that looked like they could have stood anywhere in Germany, Italy, or even the Alps. In many of our photos the only indication of their true location is the surrounding subtropical vegetation.

Unfortunately, during the peak of WWII, the Brazilian government took sides, and not only ordered the closure of German and Italian schools and newspapers, but also the demolition of many buildings in German and Italian style – otherwise there would be more now. Yet what’s left is mostly really well-cared for or even under special protection orders.

For example, outside Bento Gonçalves we found the Caminhos de Pedra, preserving the century old stone and wooden buildings erected by early Italian settlers. Most now house tourist-oriented cottage industries – it’s lovely to see that this heritage is being preserved.

We also spotted weathervanes on many roofs, often with the typical rooster in the centre. In another town, Antônio Prado, north of Caxias do Sul, we found a town centre full of beautiful early settlers’ houses which are now protected through IPHAN, the Brazilian National Historical and Artistic Heritage Institute.

Migration after WWI and WWII

At the end of WWI more migrants arrived, mostly escaping the hardship of Europe and the following economic crisis. They were mostly people from destroyed industrial centres, bringing with them different skills. Many settled in the already established communities of their homeland people, and set up various trades.

This formed the basis for Brazil’s flourishing manufacturing industry. To this day you see many medium to large companies with distinctly European sounding names; in some towns almost every second business has either a German, Italian, or Polish name.

Refugees of WWII arrived later and thus, for example, São Paulo has a large Jewish community. Leading figures of Germany’s Nazi regime became rather infamous because of media attention they attracted, although their numbers are minuscule compared to the overall influx of migrants at that time.

neatly restored German "Fachwerk" houses near Nova Petropolis in Brazil.

Neatly restored German “Fachwerk” houses near Nova Petropolis in Brazil.

I find it interesting to look behind the history of the sights we see, or to speak with local people, often-times in their 20s or 30s, who are proud of their ancestors’ heritage and their roots. If I could get more internet time I would love to delve further into it.

One group, we haven’t seen much evidence of so far, are the Japanese in Brazil. They were brought in as farm workers, mostly to help with the coffee harvest after Brazil officially ended slavery in 1888. Apparently the number of people with Japanese roots living in Brazil is even higher than those with German…

An old wooden settler house outside Canela, now a coffee shop.

An old wooden settler house outside Canela, now a coffee shop.

Travel Tip

If you are planning to visit the region: Bento Gonçalves has a good smart phone app (also in English and Spanish) for iPhone and Android , providing information about the different sights around the area. Otherwise, visit one of the tourist information offices for their well designed brochures.

Further reading suggestions

Our dare2go post about unexpected German-ness in the Americas
Lidio Carraro winery homepage (in English)

Focus Migration Brazil , with many statistics and historical numbers
German Immigration to Brazil 1824-1969
recommended (despite splash screen): FORBES online Welcome To Brazil: The Effect Of Immigration On The Country’s Economy


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18 Responses

  1. Alli says:

    Interesting about the Japanese people – that is something I never would have thought! I didn’t experience the kind of knowledge here in your post when I was in Brazil so thank you for sharing!

    • Yasha says:

      The enclaves of particular nationalities often seem to be concentrated in specific areas. If you don’t happen to travel through those areas you can remain unaware of their existence. We haven’t seen the Japanese but read about them somewhere.

  2. Kate says:

    Having lived in Peru, I was well aware of the Spanish immigrants that came to South America but I didn’t really know much about the German or Italian people who went there. It is fascinating to find out about all of the different groups of people and their heritage. Great post!

  3. Interesting article. I actually learned about the Brazilian wine industry last year. It kind of took me by surprise.

    • Yasha says:

      I’m getting the feeling that almost every country in the world has some sort of wine industry hidden away – and my goal is to find as many of them as I can!!!

  4. Brasil (and South America) is full of traces of European culture. Italian was definitely standing out but I have yet to see Rio Grande do Sul! I slow trravelled Brasil for 6 months and it was one of the most fantastic experiences of 2014! Thanks for sharing this. xx

  5. Incredibly interesting! It’s easy to forget the impact of immigration across the world and we didn’t realize how much of an influence various European countries and cultures have had on Brazil!

    • Yasha says:

      Thanks for your comment – nice to hear from you. We are totally fascinated by this in every country we have visited in South America! The German migrants are especially interesting because Juergen is a German who migrated to Australia. In the south of Brazil we found very distinct enclave.

  6. I didn’t know Brazil has a thriving wine industry. It sounds like an interesting trip tracing European Settlers. Is there tremendous poverty still in Brazil – it would break my heart to see that.

    • Yasha says:

      In the parts we have travelled we haven’t seen a lot of evidence of people living in poverty. I think you have to go into the big cities to see the endless slums. It is a sad fact that so many in the world live in poverty – even in our supposed first world countries.

  7. That coffee shop at the end is so cute! It’s very interesting to see the influence of so many people settling in the area over the past century – and it’s a richer, more beautiful place as a result.

  8. Carol Colborn says:

    Brazil and South American seems still remote from our travel plans but I like your post on Rio grande do Sul. I thought it was mostly Portuguese who settled Brazil. I did not know Germans and Italians and Japanese did, too.

    • Yasha says:

      We were also surprised to find more than just Portuguese here, although I suppose that coming from Australia we shouldn’t be. South America is an amazing continent to visit – keep it in mind!

  9. Sarah Ebner says:

    Such an interesting blog post. I didn’t realise there would be Protestant churches, nor that German or Italian schools would have been closed down. Fascinating history – sounds like such a worthwhile trip.

    • Yasha says:

      We are still surprised by the strong presence of other European immigrants in South American countries. It was common in war time for the closure of schools and the internment of people from our so-called enemies. It happened in Australia so i wasn’t surprised that it also happened here in Brazil.

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