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A serene and glorious stolen moment at the Alambique Flor do Vale distillery. (photos by Brian Major)
A light rain- snow mix fell as I stood on the chilly street brightly lit by thousands of Christmas lights attached to trees, buildings, walls, signs and just about every open space on up the downtown pedestrian plaza. Christmas carols rang out from loudspeakers all around the streets, and although it was after 10 p.m., happy families rushed to and fro, braving the chill to crowd into several open-air restaurants that lined the streets.
Amazingly, I wasn't in a small New Jersey or Pennsylvania town, but in southern Brazil, enjoying the charms of the small tourist town of Gramado.
Paradoxical as it seems in a country famous for the warm-and steamy weather of Rio and the Amazon, Gramado offers a cold-weather experience that is extremely popular among Brazilians. Winters here are downright cold, with temperatures falling regularly to 32°F.
Gramado is sure to attract a new level of international visibility as one of 55 Brazilian cities recognized as official tourist areas by FIFA, sponsor of the 2014 World Cup tournament taking place in 12 Brazilian cities beginning in June.
Puerto Alegre, capital of the southern Brazilian state of Rio Grande do Sul, will host four matches at Beira Rio stadium. The two-hour drive from Puerto Alegre to Gramado, along the "Route of the Flowers" journeys through mountain roads into deep valleys studded with pastoral farmland.
Located in a mountain range and settled in the 19th century by Portuguese and later German and Italian immigrants, Gramado features a fairy tale quality with cozy lodges, quaint German gingerbread-style homes, and a variety of restaurants, accommodations and attractions designed for families with children.
With only 34,000 year-round residents, Gramado is a true tourist town, hosting five million visitors annually mainly from around other parts of Brazil.
Gramado is the go-to region for Brazilians in search of the cooler climates and (relatively) wintry weather found in the southern half of the country.
PHOTO: We found ourselves in the middle of a Christmas celebration in Gramado.
During the holidays, Gramado offers a variety of theatrical shows highlighting Christmas traditions, along with winter parades and Natal Luz ("Christmas of Lights") an annual festival featuring tree lighting shows, contests, games, parades, reindeer exhibits, musical performances, and dramatic readings of classic holiday plays.
Gramado is already preparing for the summer and the World Cup. The city is building 1,500 additional hotel rooms in anticipation of visits from World Cup travelers to nearby Puerto Alegre.
They will also host cultural and artistic programs including dance presentations, singers and samba concerts, according to local tourism officials. Large screens broadcasting the contests will be placed in tourist areas around the city.
One town over from Gramado is Canela, another tourist city offering outdoor "adventure" activities and noted distilleries for wine and cachaca, a traditional rum-like beverage made from sugar cane that is Brazil's most popular distilled alcoholic beverage.
Overshadowed by its wine-making neighbors of Chile and Argentina, Canela's Vitivinicola Jolimont winery was established by a family from Toulouse, France in 1948 and today produces world-class vintages. Tours here are free.
Also located in Canela is Alambique Flor do Vale, a cachaca distillery set in a protected mountain valley surrounded by pine trees, waterfalls and lush trails.
The expert cachaca makers provide a stimulating look at the manufacturing process and gave our group of media touring the country with Embratur, Brazil's tourism board, a view into the beverage's role in Brazilian society. We even took a look at some generations-old cachaca bottles with intriguing and humorous labels at the facility's museum.
We ended our time in Canela with a rousing exhibition of the gaucho culture at the Garfo & Bombacha churrascaria, a traditional Brazilian restaurant serving a South American style rotisserie originated from the gauchos' fireside roasts.
In addition to the outstanding fare, the restaurant features a cultural show with traditional music, singing and dancing, and a variety of thrilling rope tricks performed by entertainers in full gaucho attire.
The show's emcee started the show by recognizing the various states of Brazil, one-by-one, to wild cheers from restaurant guests from those regions. Later that evening we departed the restaurant into the chill night air, very much warmed by the emotional and entertaining performance.
Brian Major is Managing Editor for Digital Publications & Guides/Caribbean.
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