Aveiro: where bawdy boats meet Art Nouveau, Centro region

Aveiro: where bawdy boats meet Art Nouveau


Central Canal, Aveiro

Aveiro is a small university city located between Porto and Lisbon and when we saw the uninspiring industrial outskirts (including a rather smelly paper factory) as we approached Aveiro by train, we were glad we had decided to make our stopover in the city a short one. However, as we walked out of the very modern railway station we encountered the first of many buildings which made us wish we were staying longer, the original railway station; a pretty whitewashed building with azulejo panels on the exterior depicting scenes of Aveiro.

Former railway station, Aveiro

After dropping our bags off at the Veneza Hotel, a beautiful 1930’s house, with a photogenic staircase,

located near the station, we made our way down Avenida Dr Lourenço Peixinho to the historic centre and Aveiro’s most famous attractions, the moliceiros on the Central Canal. Moliceiros are flat-bottomed boats with a high curved prow and each one is uniquely decorated with colourful, often witty or bawdy, images. They were originally used to collect seaweed (moliço), which was used as a fertilizer. It is this image of Aveiro which has given it the nickname ‘Venice of Portugal’ and like Venice the canal was bustling with boats filled with tourists, but this is where the similarity ends. Aveiro has its own distinct personality.

Mural depicting the collecting of seaweed, Aveiro

It had become a very wealthy seaport by the sixteenth century as a result of the salt industry and the cod-fishing industry. The locally harvested salt was used to preserve the cod caught in Newfoundland as it was transported to Portugal. In the late-sixteenth century the mouth of the River Vouga silted up and the former seaport became stagnant, disease-ridden marshes and the wealth disappeared, until the early-nineteenth century, when the marshes were drained, leaving a shallow lagoon in their place, and a canal was built linking Aveiro to the sea. The wealth that returned to the city is reflected in the Art Nouveau buildings that line the Rua João de Mendonça along the Central Canal and the Praça Humberto Delgado, and elsewhere in the city.

Many of these former mansions now have pastelarias (cake and pastry shops/cafés) on the ground floor selling the other tourist attraction that Aveiro is famous for, the ovos moles (meaning soft eggs and comprising a mixture of egg yolk and sugar coated with a soft wafer). The shops are full of pretty barrels and baskets displaying them.

The historic centre of Aveiro is small and had we arrived earlier in the morning we would have been able to easily cover it in a day, but due to a lengthy lunch and a lack of itinerary we ran out of time to visit the Museu de Aveiro, which closes at 6pm. The museum building, which we could enjoy from the outside at least, was a former convent dating from the fifteenth century at which Princess Joana (the daughter of King Afonso V and Queen Isabella) lived from 1475 to her death in 1490. She was later beatified and the museum is largely dedicated to her. There is a large statue of Princesa Santa Joana (as she became known) on the traffic island in front of the museum.

Museu de Aveiro

There were plenty of other things in Aveiro to enjoy and as we wandered aimlessly we discovered the Igreja de Nossa Senhora da Apresentação (Church of Our Lady of the Presentation) in Largo da Apresentação, a lovely church with a statue of a former Bishop of Aveiro in front of it and two azulejo panels depicting scenes of Christ as a child by Fernando Pereira and Lucínio Pinto dating from 1935 on the facade.

Igreja de Nossa Senhora da Apresentação, Aveiro

From here we wandered to another charming square, the Praça da República, with jacaranda trees in full bloom and two wonderful buildings, the Igreja da Misericórida (Church of Mercy) and the Paços do Concelho (City Hall), and in the centre of the square, appearing to conduct everything, is a statue of José Estevão Coelho de Magalhães (1809-1862), an Aveiro-born nineteenth-century politician.

Statue of José Estevão Coelho de Magalhães, Praça da República, Aveiro

The Igreja da Misericórdia dates from the seventeenth century and has Mannerist features on the facade, comprising two levels of columns with niches containing statues, including one of Our Lady of the Conception above the main door, and along the top decorations of Manueline crosses and armillary spheres. In contrast, the rest of the facade is unadorned except for a covering of blue and white patterned azulejos dating from the nineteenth century.

The Paços do Concelho dates from 1797 and is an elegant building divided into five symmetrical sections with a turret used as a bell tower in the middle.

From here we made our way to São Domingos Church, the cathedral of Aveiro. The building is on the site of a former fifteenth-century convent, but very little of that remains after being largely destroyed by fires in the nineteenth century. The church is part of the original convent and the Baroque main entrance, with figures of Faith, Hope and Charity above the door, was added in the early-eighteenth century, and the bell tower added in the mid-nineteenth century using the original bell. The interior of the cathedral, which has sections dating from different periods, was rebuilt in the twentieth century in an attempt to unify the parts, including the beautiful eighteenth-century main altar depicting St Francis of Assisi and St Domingos de Gusmão either side of Our Lady of the Conception; in a small chapel, a powerful life-like statue dating from 1900 of Christ falling in agony as he carries the cross on his back watched over by a grieving Virgin Mary, by Carlos Leituga from a design by the sculptor António Teixeira Lopes; and a new organ which was inaugurated in 2013. As a result of the rebuild there is a simple harmony to the cathedral. In front of the cathedral is a late-fifteenth-century gothic cross, the Cruzeiro de Nossa Senhora da Glória (Cross of Our Lady of Glory).

The aforementioned Museu de Aveiro is very close to the cathedral, but as we were unable to visit it on this occasion we had some unexpected free time, so we walked over to the very modern Forum Aveiro shopping centre, which was unremarkable except for the canal and pretty bridges which ran alongside it.

Canal by Forum Aveiro shopping centre, Aveiro

We followed the canal back to the bridge on the Praça Humberto Delgado roundabout, which pays homage to the former workers of the salt industry, with a statue of a worker at either end: O Marnoto, a salt harvester with his traditional tools and A Salineira, a salt worker carrying a basket of salt. They have been beautifully sculpted by António Quintas (1994) and take pride of place above the Central Canal.

Next to the bridge is the stately Hotel Aveiro Palace with arcades running along its lower level and a small square with patterned cobbles, Praça Joaquim de Melo Freitas, beside it. In the middle of the square is the Obelisco da Liberdade (Obelisk of Freedom) a memorial erected in 1909 to the people of Aveiro who fought for freedom, particularly those who died in the Liberal rebellion of 1828.

Praça Joaquim de Melo Freitas, Aveiro

Our final meanderings before we went to dinner were around the fishing quarter with its small but charming tiled and brightly painted houses on the narrow street along an arm of the canal. This area is where many of the restaurants are located and most offer fresh fish from the nearby fish market.

We opted to eat at O Arco da Velha in Largo da Praça do Peixe and really enjoyed well-cooked and hearty portions of barbeque chicken and pork with rice and black beans. Afterwards we headed for the canal-side gardens of Largo do Rossio for a nightcap where large TV screens and tiered seating had been set up to show a football match featuring the Portuguese team. The atmosphere when Portugal scored the winning goal in extra time was electric and made a memorable end to an unforgettable day.

Largo do Rossio, Aveiro