Aveiro & Viseu

Calling itself the ‘Venice of Portugal’ is always going to get expectations racing wildly!

Aveiro, on the coastline, midway up the country is a bustling waterfront town alongside a saltwater lagoon. As we discovered, it’s a town of two markedly different halves.

A prosperous seaport in the 1500s, Aveiro was linked by the Rio Vouga to the Atlantic until a storm blocked its mouth. For two hundred years, the formerly wealthy town languished in obscurity with its population falling victim to fevers spread by the newly formed marshlands.

Barrio de Beira-Mar houses

In 1808 the opening of the man-made Barra Canal provided a passage back to the sea and Aveiro boomed back to economic life, evidenced by the gloriously sculptured and tiled art noveau houses that still line the little network of three main canals and short extensions.

At that time, the canals were kept clear of clogging seaweed by workers in ‘mocileiros’ – gondola shaped boats. Seaweed was collected and dried on threshing floors to be used as a fertiliser on the poor soil farmed around the town.

Moliceiros on Canal Central

As the 20th century introduced the era of chemical fertilisers, demand for the sustainable and natural alternative dried up and the boat owners transformed their business into one of leisure.

We watched the mocileiros scoot along the canals, crossed by small footbridges. A tour of the network takes just 45 minutes, which gives you an idea of the small and compact scale of the waterfront side of town.

Tiled seafood restaurant

Just behind the canals, open-air squares full of parasols over tables and chairs were filling up with hungry diners, eager to try the local seafood dishes. Prices seemed high after the meals we had enjoyed at the southern fishing village of Fuseta.

Noticeably, just a street away from the busy tourist hub, the houses lining the small lanes are much smaller but are still brightly coloured and tiled. In the oldest neighbourhood, the Barrio de Beira-Mar we enjoyed spotting the different patterns of tiles and paintings depicting the sea-faring town’s patron saint, San Goncalinho.

Purportedly good natured, the saint is still prayed to by couples anxious for a child and by singles anxious for a partner. The blue and white tiled roof of his church tops a balcony from which tonnes of sweet, white cavacas cakes are thrown down upon gathered crowds for the celebration of the saint’s day on January 10 every year.

However, venturing further into the old quarter, we were surprised by its evident poverty as the small properties became more dilapidated. This was a very different experience to admiring the mansions and merchants’ houses lining the canals.

Portuguese flag on balcony

The cottages of former boatmen, fishermen and salt pickers seemed to prop themselves up on each other and several looked to be in a state of dereliction.

We spotted a striking house decorated with art deco floral tiling and with ruined shutters that looked abandoned, then were surprised to see a hand open a broken window frame on the top floor. Someone was clearly living in it. It felt very sobering.

Turning another dilapidated corner, we saw an old chap in the front window of his battered-looking and tiny terraced house. Giving him a cheery wave and smile, he flagged two fingers back to us, albeit a little uncertainly. It seems there are winners and losers in today’s leisure driven Aveiro and we wondered if livelihoods were generally better in the old days of farming, fishing and salt picking.

After driving along the salt lagoon and being buffeted by strong gusts, we decided against staying at the coast and instead headed back inland to spend the night at Viseu. This was a treat!

Viseu Old Town view

A brooding hillside town, Viseu was settled by the Celts and then aggrandised under the Romans, being at the intersection of a series of roads linking Merida, Lisbon and Galicia.

During the Middle Ages it frequently switched hands between the Christians and the Moors, who called it Bazu. In peace times it had mixed religious communities of Muslims, Christians and Jews.

Its notable sons included Alfonso Henriques, the First King of Portugal and Duarte I King of Portugal and Algarve, whose phenomenal mausoleum we had seen at Batalha.

We managed to miss the free funicular ride up to the crest of the town, so hiked up the steep hill to emerge at the grand courtyard square formed by the cathedral, the old Bishop’s Palace and the baroque Misericordia Church.

The cathedral was begun in the 12th century on the site of an earlier basilica. During the Middle Ages it was extended, but it was in the 1500s that its most important work, the construction of a new stone roof and new façade were completed. It’s an appealing mix of Gothic, Manuelline and Rennaisance styles and entry is through a columned courtyard of blue and white tiles depicting scenes from Viseu’s episcopal history.

Columns and mosaics courtyard

It was very pleasant to wander down around in the early evening warmth amongst tall and shuttered terraced houses in the old town. A beautifully dressed lady in silk was improbably gardening on her balcony and planting up pretty pots of begonias.

Today’s economy is largely wine-driven, and the winding streets that spill down the hillsides teem with vinoteks as well as handicraft shops of embroidery and copper and wrought iron articles.

Balcony gardening in window boxes

We found an interesting corner bar and sat amongst locals, managing not to get served until the bar tender had explained to a friend the various intricacies of his motorised scooter.

Life seemed unhurried as people ambled about and greeted each other cheerfully. It had a good feel to it and we spent a comfortable night in the town’s free aire, far down below.