Peter Morrell and his wife write about 2000 years of history, fearless fishermen, freedom fighters and fine artists south of the River Douro
Driving over the Arrabida Bridge across the River Douro at Porto we passed into the central region of Portugal, the Roman Province known as Lusitania. Here the sea, the land and the mountains have all had their affect on the people and the culture. Over the next few days we would discover just how rich its history is and how much of it is still evident.
Our first stop was Aveiro, a town sitting on a huge saline Ria or lagoon which over time has provided everything from seaweed to fertilise the fields to salt for curing fish. Aveiro is known as the Portuguese Venice, with a system of canals leading into to the central part of the town and traditional long cargo boats moored along the banks. Moliceiro, as these boats are called, have highly stylised decoration, with calls for God’s protection on the bow and some highly amusing saucy seaside postcard scenes on the stern.
A short trip on one of them gave us a good overview of Aveiro, from an old ceramics factory at the end of one canal branch to the rather alarming sight of Harry Potter cloaked students carrying out a fresher initiation ceremony that involved a baptism with a bucket of cold canal water.
We disembarked at the fish market, and location of the Obarrio restaurant, where we enjoyed an excellent dinner. Around the corner, home for the night was the Hotel Moliceiro, a stylish boutique hotel with fifteen of its rooms individually themed.
Almost next to our hotel was the Museum of Art Nouveau, with a beautiful facade very much in the style of Gaudi and a perfect example of the art. This is one of a number of buildings featuring this unique architecture that became known as ‘Aveiro Style’. Throughout the town many buildings are covered in ornate locally made tiles and the mosaic pavings are inscribed with insignias relevant to the area – for example fish and boats.
Travelling across the lagoon to the beach at Costs Nova, we found a totally different type of architecture, with a row of pastel coloured and candy striped wooden summer homes, it’s got to be one of the world’s most photographable spots.
It was from nearby Ilhavo that intrepid fishermen of the ‘White Fleet’ sailed to the distant waters off the coasts of Canada and Greenland to bring back that most sacred of catches to the Portuguese, salt cod fish or bacalhau. To find out more we went to the Maritime Museum at Ilhavo a few miles away. Here we heard stories of men working singly in open boats called Dorys for ten hours at a time, fishing by line, and then returning to the mother ship at sunset.
The White Fleet got its name from when the ships’ hulls were painted white during World War II to denote Portugal’s neutrality. These days the vessels are large trawlers but the dangers remain. By chance we met a sea captain in a restaurant who told us that he had been rescued after his ship had sunk in the North Atlantic. The museum has some excellent exhibits including replicas of the original boats, antique maps and artefacts from ships and salt production.
Close by at Gafanha de Nazaré is one of the few White Fleet ships to survive, the four-masted Santa Maria Manuela built in 1937. It has been completely restored and is now used for sail training. Cod fishing is woven into the very fabric of this part of Portugal and we felt respect for the men who brought back the fish, which is as popular as ever.
The next day it was into the mountains to the town of Viseu. Built on a hill with commanding views of the surrounding plain, it was founded by the Romans and remnants of their occupation can still be seen under glass panels in the main shopping street.
We heard about the local hero, Viriato (Latin: Viriatus), leader of the Lusitanians, who resisted Roman rule with an early form of guerrilla warfare. We check into Casa de Se Hotel which is run by an antique dealer and you can buy anything that takes your fancy – the carpets, the paintings, the furniture or any of the exquisite object d’art.
A short walk away is Viseu Cathedral, which dates back to the 12th century. It has many different types of architecture and the ceramic tiles in the cloisters are particularly striking. Inside there are good examples of the Manueline style that evolved during the reign of King Manuel 1, a golden age for Portugal, when trade with Africa and the Far East flourished. Typical of the style are carved ropes and knots in the roof of the nave denoting the importance of the sea and shipping. There is also a very elaborate high altar with tiled ceiling.
Next door to the cathedral is the Grão Vasco museum, taking its name from one of Portugal’s most famous artists, the great Vasco Fernandes, who had his studio in Viseu. In his early career Grão Vasco worked with Francisco Henriques, who had been studying in Bruges, they collaborated on a 14 panel polyptych, which is in the museum. Technically the paintings are not brilliant with flaws in the perspective, but the Fleming influence is unmistakable. Over the next 25 years Grão Vasco attained technical perfection, demonstrated in his painting of St Peter on his Throne which is also in the museum.
Across the Adro da Sé square is the Igreja da Misericórdia, Our Lady of Mercy Church. This stands out from its more sombre neighbours with its Rococo facade and white painted walls and this is reflected inside, with elaborate gilding and plasterwork.
Wandering down a small alley we passed the birth and death place of Augusto Hilário, a Fado artist who helped evolved a stylised form of this music genre in our next destination, Coimbra.
Viseu is in the middle of the Dão wine producing region so before leaving the area we took time out for a wine tasting and lunch at the Paço dos Cunhas de Santar vineyard where cod tongues and carpaccio were on the menu.
A late afternoon arrival in the city of Coimbra, once capital of Portugal and now home to the famous university, only allowed us to do one thing before nightfall. We went to the monastery of Santa Clara; flooded and buried in silt by the River Mondego, it has been reclaimed together with the adjoining cloisters. A visitor centre now holds the relics uncovered during the excavations.
Our hotel for the night was the historic Quinta das Lagrimas Palace, the Estate of Tears. It was here in the 14th century that Prince Pedro and Inês de Castro persued their illicit love. The affair was tragically brought to an end by killers working for Pedro’s father, King Alfonso who murdered Inês. In the grounds of the hotel is the Fountain of Tears and under the water are red stones, the symbolic blood of the victim. Walking back from the fountain we passed a massive sequoia tree planted by the Duke of Wellington who had a debt of gratitude to the Portuguese, they helped him defeat Napoleon.
From there we crossed the river to the citadel like complex of university buildings, originally the site of the royal palace. This dates back to 1290, and was the alma mater of Antonio Salazar. We joined a tour, passing through the main gate, adorned with a mosaic of the university seal, to the courtyard, where students in black gowns (Capas Negras) made their way to lectures. We entered the impressive Biblioteca Joanina, the library, with its ornate decoration and priceless collection of some 40,000 volumes. Entry of visitors is strictly limited to preserve the tomes and a colony of bats living behind the shelves serve a very ecological purpose by keeping page-munching pests at bay.
Almost next door is the São Miguel Chapel that sports a riot of gilding and an oversized organ installed in 1733. The final stop was to see the Great Hall of Acts, formally the Hall of the Palace. The most significant ceremony held here is a student’s PhD thesis defence, an oral examination required to obtain the degree of Doctor. Standing before the jury, dressed in the black cloak and watched by friends and relatives, it is a difficult and nerve-wracking experience.
Politely declining the opportunity to climb the 180 steps of the university tower we walked a few paces to the Machado de Castro National Museum. The visit was a revelation. Recently renovated, it occupies the site of the Bishop’s Palace, which in turn was built over a Roman forum. Now accessible these well preserved 2000 year old remains are a multi-level complex of walkway, arches and rooms and are totally absorbing.
Upper levels of the museum have religious statuary and other artefacts, even an entire chapel has been re-constructed. Probably the most spectacular work on show is the huge sun-like Monstrance, a vessel for displaying the consecrated Eucharist.
We left the museum and almost tumbled down the steep cobbled lanes and steps, passing the Romanesque 13th century cathedral, until we were stopped in our tracks by the sound from the Fado ao Centro, the focal point in the city for this music.
Fado is a uniquely Portuguese musical style which portrays in song the sadness of unrequited and lost love and it brings a tear to the eye. Coimbra has evolved its own genre of Fado, reckoned to be more lyrical than the Lisbon version, it is a tradition keenly upheld by the students.
This was the finale of our tour and from there it was a 90-minute drive back to Porto. Our trip had been a long series of interesting cultural revelations and it is surprising that the region of Central Portugal is so little known when it has this much to offer.
Direct flights, which take two hours, are available from TAP