Situated close to the very northern border of the Centro de Portugal region, Aveiro is a surprise to the traveller who thinks they’ve seen and experienced all of which Portugal has to offer. In the lobby bar of the Montebelo Vista Alegre Hotel, I overheard two couples engaged in conversation. “I know,” said one of the ladies, “we were also blown away when we arrived here, we never imagined such a place could exist.” The others nodded vigorously in agreement.
The ‘here‘ they were speaking of is the uniquely attractive city of Aveiro – the second largest city in Centro de Portugal. What makes the place so unique is the fact that the entire city is built on a lagoon – Ria de Aveiro – the result of the confluence of many rivers at a point on the Atlantic coast which had silted up in the past, resulting in a vast network of canals and navigable water courses, winding through and around the city streets. Although slightly unfair to the city of Aveiro, it is difficult not to let the cliché, ‘the Venice of Portugal’ slip from your astonished lips.
Aveiro, The Venice of Portugal
The city’s uniqueness is also derived from a combination of elements; a place where Art Nouveau meets modernity, where spanking new shopping centres cosy up to the blue-tiled facades of centuries old fishmongers, bakeries and cafes, where the bountiful fruits of the ever present sea are paired lovingly with the land’s cornucopia of flavours. A place where the colourfully painted Moliceiros – the traditional boats used to transport the seaweed which nourished the lands – now carry tourists through the city’s canals, only metres from busy urban streets.
Seeing a city from the water changes its perspective; especially a city where the water and the sea play such a pivotal role in its existence. Aveiro city centre is compact, diverse and very beautiful. Care has been taken to ensure that modernist aesthetics embrace the antiquity of the place, that restored buildings are true to their past, or their future potential. It is a city easily navigated on foot, (or using the free BUGA bicycles from one of the city’s many outlets) over bridges, through narrow streets, or large pedestrian thoroughfares. But jumping aboard one of the Moliceiros, slipping easily onto the canals, hearing the stories of the boat’s captain, the visitor will garner a hundred new impressions, unseen on dry land.
Simple wooden-clad fishermen’s houses line the canals banks; some are unchanged in centuries, some have been gentrified and conjoined with the neighbouring building, latticed with glass and steel, but still retaining a living link to bygone ages. Nestled amongst them are the decoratively ornate houses of the bacalhau merchants – the purveyors of the dried cod so beloved by the entire nation – these boast balconies and friezes of stucco plaster in direct contrast to the simplicity of their counterparts.
Wooden, fish and salt warehouses have been converted into thriving businesses, like the exclusive Salpoente Restaurant, the premier bacalhau and fish restaurant of the city, and whose fame has reached far beyond the city. There are craft shops and dance academies, cosy cafes and wine-houses, humble dwellings and fashion studios, all of which take on a whole new light when seen from the deck of a Moliceiro.
Because of its location on the edge of the Atlantic, Aveiro rarely gets too hot in summer; but if it does you’ll be happy to know that there are an abundance of long sandy beaches in which to cool down and enjoy the refreshing sea breeze.
The nearest beaches – but you will need a car, bicycle or public transport to reach them – are those at Costa Nova, Barra and Sao Jacinto. At Barra, before you decide on your spot on the beach in which to soak up the sun and enjoy the rolling waves, take a trip to the top of the famous Barra Lighthouse – all 271 steps up – and enjoy the views of the beaches stretching from Costa Nova to the south and Sao Jacinto to the north.
The lighthouse is also the tallest in Portugal at 203 feet (63mtrs) and one of the tallest in all of Europe. It was constructed in 1893 due to the importance of the Aveiro (and nearby Ilhavo) fishing fleets and the dangers facing them when they returned to port (these very dangers also draw surfers from all over to experience the waves in the area).
Still a working lighthouse the structure is also a place to get one of the best panoramic views of the entire Aveiro Ria coastline and its lagoons, and a must visit on your trip to the region. Barra beach, along with being a favourite with sun worshippers, surfers, sailboarders, kite surfers and fishing enthusiasts also offers some of the best nightlife in the area with its strip of beachside restaurants and bars. If you travel to the beachside resort town of Costa Nova make sure to bring two things; your camera and a healthy appetite (and, of course, your beach clothes).
The town of Costa Nova is quite simply, postcard perfect. The long promenade, adjacent to the endless sandy beach, is lined by what were once simple fishermen’s storage huts; places where the local fishermen kept their nets and other equipment used to ply their trade. Over the years the buildings transformed from storage to summer homes, whose exteriors are painted in a procession of candy-striped colours. Under a clear blue summer sky the sight of hundreds of these gaily painted homes decorated with baskets of colourful flowers and on whose balconies tanned bodies take the sun, have visitors drawing their cameras like gunslingers.
Costa Nova, much to its credit, still possesses the feeling of a sea-faring town. A place, despite the numerous tourists, which buzzes with the activity brought by its nearness to the sea. One such place is the local fish market whose stalls and stands bristle with all manner of creatures fresh from the briny ocean. There is an air of jocularity amongst the fish sellers, who thrust octopus, wide-eyed fish and live lobster into the faces of the passersby. The market is a vibrant hive of activity and all the senses are truly brought to life amongst the displays of crustacean and mollusc, a myriad of fishes which come in a rainbow of colours, slithering knots of green eels, the shouts of the vendors, the juxtaposition of vegetables and bread, fruits and confectionery; a true sensory overload. One of the senses which will be stretched to breaking point amongst the market stalls is appetite.
But you won’t have to wander far to have this appetite serviced to the highest standard; the seafront is awash with restaurants and comfortable cafes. The Canasta do Fidalgo is one such restaurant whose raison-d’etre is the sea and the creatures which live within it. At a table on the restaurant’s terrace, you will be invited to select your fish or shellfish, fresh from the market; the choice is endless. Once your meal has been chosen, sit back over a glass of refreshing local wine, take in the sights of the candy-stripe houses stretching along the promenade, and wait to be dazzled by the tastes of the sea. Time will stand still, I promise.
Everywhere throughout the Ria de Aveiro there is something to excite your senses. From a visit to the salt plains on the outskirts of the city of Aveiro (first used by the Romans back in the 10th century) to birdwatching and cycling the paths of the BioRia Reserves. There is kayaking, canoeing, surfing, swimming, hiking, visiting places of historic importance or a visit to the world famous ceramics factory Vista Alegre, to simplicities like just getting lost among the many inlets and channels of the lagoon, watching the fishermen unload their catch at some tiny village as the sun sets, and following in their footsteps as they tramp their way to the nearest tasca to wash the salt from their lips with a draught of cold beer at the end of a long day.
I can honestly say, you will be welcomed, and rewarded handsomely throughout the whole region.
This Aveiro in Centro de Portugal post is a part of a series of 5 posts I wrote based on my journey to the Aveiro region in July 2016. Please find the links o the other articles bellow:
This Aveiro in Centro de Portugal post was written by my inspiring friend Brendan Harding as part of my ongoing collaboration with the Centro de Portugal Tourism Board. All opinions are my own. Photo credits to Emanuele Siracusa.