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Aveiro, the colorful Venice of Portugal

Translated by flag-it Emma Barbacini — 4 years ago

Original text by flag-it Maddalena Losi

A rich history of sailing, enchanting beaches, melancholic cities and green landscapes interspersed with wheat and olive fields. Portugal is a land of contrasts: the nostalgia of Lisbon, the splendor of Obidos, the euphoria in Porto, the wistfulness of Coimbra. But today I will describe for you another little pearl vaunted by Portugal: AVEIRO.


Leaving from Coimbra and determined to see this jewel, I managed to catch the first train from the station - luckily there are many trains at many times during the day, so I had no problem coordinating the leaving and the returning train. All the trains that connect Coimbra and Aveiro are also those (slow trains, obviously, don't dream of high speed) that connect Porto and Lisbon, so don't worry about reaching it, it's very well connected on both sides. Accompanied by myself & me & a good book, and therefore not alone, between words I could appreciate the scenery sliding along beside me. The nature welcoming me had a rugged, harsh beauty: dark green tree-tops tugged by the wind, a crystal-colored sky, dried grass that gave everything the perfect touch of yellow... a thought, two shoot lightning-fast from the bow that is my memory: the coasts of my beloved Puglia and Van Gogh. Those coasts, where the wind kisses, caresses, and hurtles itself at the beaches and cliffs, and the pines, alert observers, always there, trunks consumed that could tell oh so many stories if someone would but lend an ear, the smell of the sea deeply penetrating the spirit... And Van Gogh's trees, all his nature, proud of their wounds, screaming always despite everything "long live life, whatever else may be"... loving in their suffering... I believe that the sky gains another sort of breath when it meets the sea, and the ocean: it becomes freer. Every shade captivates me and has made me and keeps making me fall in love.

Aveiro, in the mid-north province of Le Beiras, is not exactly a tourist-y place. You could generally say that the whole region of Portugal between Douro and Estremadura doesn't get much attention, and yet I remember the landscape I saw on my way to the Atlantic Ocean as the most beautiful in the country. Hills and mountains covered in olive trees and vines amongst which a village blinks into existence every now and again, laying in a vale or perched on a slope. As you get closer to the coast the scenery transforms, and in the wide lagoon of Ria (once an unhealthy marsh, but now a natural reserve) there appears the town of Aveiro.

As soon as I got there I understood it was a place for me: lots of people, a thousand colors, music, a young and dynamic atmosphere due to the presence of many students from the university. Immediately people explained to me why Aveiro is dubbed the small Venice of Portugal: it's a sea-town, full of canals, steep bridges connecting the two parts of the city, and countless, colorful, gondola-looking boats. Let's say it... it's a bit of a stretch, as paragons go! Still, the web of canals spanning the whole town, the little arched bridges and the picture perfect elongated boats that resemble a gondola make the parallel a little less odd. These boats, called Moliceiros, are made out of pine wood, painted in bright colors and decorated - often by their very owners - with everyday life scenes on the bow (mostly bountiful women or sirens). The ones sitting prettily along the canals are used to take tourists on tour, much like their "cousins" from Venice. In the lagoon, on the other hand, fishermen still use them to collect seaweed (called, in fact, molico in Portuguese). Therefore I couldn't not seize the occasion to visit the city on one of these colorful water vessels and be borne along the calm waters of the canals. Once we had done away with the requisite introductions between tourists aboard, our guide started to illustrate to us the jewels of Aveiro with wit and irony: we started on a beautiful tour that brought us, on our brightly colored boat, on all the city's most prominent canals.

What fascinated me most about the Moliceiros were the colorful figures painted on the bow and stern; they all represent scenes from everyday life in the fields, in the salt flats and on the fishing boats. The peculiarity of these scenes, which was promptly spotted by all the men present, is that most of them are rather, shall we say, risqué...


Our tour continues along the canal that flows in the most ancient part of Aveiro, flanked by wonderful Art Nouveau houses. The fishing quarter was also bewitching, with its low houses draped in colorful azulejos (typical ceramic tile decorations); the atmosphere there is still as simple and straightforward as it must have been once, while on the other side of the city more modern, though still fascinating, houses can be found. The method used to determine precedence between boats where the canals are so narrow and twisted that you cannot see other coming from the opposite direction is quite amusing: the guide of a Moliceiro sounds a small, stadium - like trumpet, then runs to the stern and dismantles a piece of the boat's spire to allow it to pass under the low bridges!

After my Moliceiro tour I went to visit the famous fish market, one of the most well known in Portugal, surrounded by spectacular and perpetually crowded fish restaurants. The best moment to visit the market is early in the morning, when the fishers, calling out on top of their lungs, try to sell everything that has been caught during the night. Another absolute must is touring the city aboard one of the Bugas, free bicycles provided by the town, with which you can arrive all the way to the salt flats, just outside the city, to admire the tall mounds of salt. For the lovers of savory foods, the salt flats produce a magnificent flor de sal and it is also possible to visit them for 1, 50 euro (while the connected natural park is free and always open).

But the lovers of sweet foods will also find wonderful surprises here. A typical sweet made in this town reminded me a lot of my childhood. It's called Ovos moles and it's made of yolk beaten with sugar syrup, wrapped in a (non consecrated) particle and shaped to take the form of something found in the lagoon (mussels, clams etc). I loved them, and they really brought me back in the years to when our favorite dessert, as children, was a yolk beaten with sugar. To make a parallel, ovos moles are to Aveiro what Belem's pasteis de nata are to Lisbon - and if you don't know what Belem's pasteis are, go read my previous post about them, quick! Throughout all Aveiro there are pastry shops and cafés selling ovos moles, both to eat on the spot and packaged to bring home. Therefore, during an on the road trip of Portugal, a stop in Aveiro cannot be avoided!

Aveiro also has a big university, one of the most important in the country, and this encourages the flourishing of pubs and places in which to have fun. A must-see in Aveiro is also the museum, especially since it is located in a wonderful art nouveau building with special exhibitions and a beautiful café (salon de cha - tea room).


The city is a triumph of colors, the sky-blue gets into Aveiro through the canals of the Ria, accompanied by the wind, and mingles with the azulejos on churches and houses.. and the azulejos become murals. You can find several throughout the city, all displaying themes connected with typical activities of the town: the salt flats, the harvest of "molico" (seaweed that can be found in the Ria de Aveiro that were once collected to be used ad feed for the animals), the moliceiros, the "ovos moles".. And then the basics, black and white for the pavement that still recalls the sea and the ocean through various symbols and bubbles of different shapes and sizes.

I didn't catch just the beauty of azulejos and moliceiros in Aveiro, but also that emanating from some more or less hidden treasures: the restaurants. After all, you have to eat, and where Portuguese cuisine is concerned, you always eat with flair! To start with the restaurants, some look like holes in the wall, others like eateries from a 60'-70' movie.. in the style of the Grassman & Manfredi dinner, to make an example. Others are modern in style, some forgettable, some exquisite and typical at the same time. Anyway, everything tastes better in good company, and a glass of wine is also a great help. Portuguese cuisine can look poor at first glance, but it is in actuality very rich in garlic, onion, oil, eggs, sugar.. it is certainly flavorful, and it draws on the richness of it's basic components, as I have had cause to notice in every one of the restaurants where I have eaten. Take the first place where I had occasion to go to as an example, O Adriano, close to the Aveirense theatre: a warm and nourishing sopa do dia (soup of the day), with no extra cream or other thickeners, just potatoes forming a luscious cream of their own and savoy cabbage, and for the second course, what I can say without exaggerating was the best octopus of my life! I am generally not very fond of fish with tentacles, and yet I had to change my mind beholding that dish. Served on a ceramic plate, with a generous sauce made up of oil and garlic in pretty much equal parts, was a cut up octopus covered in diced celery and onion - and when I say covered, I do mean covered... the flavor and texture are impossible to describe, and I am famously difficult to leave speechless! All accompanied by a salad of mixed greens - with onion, of course. I made just one mistake, and no, it wasn't not to take a breath freshener: it was to order an entire portion, because here they are especially abundant and therefore it is always possible to order half a portion, which is the perfect size to eat.

A second place where I had the pleasure of eating is the wonderful O Batel in the Fish Market square, populated by an incredible staff. Very, very cozy place... hidden behind a small door and three steps, which make you look as though you were actually boarding a ship (the name of the restaurant means The Boat), the warmth provided by the wood mingles with the niceness of the staff that serves and advises you. To be on the safe side we got the sopa do dia, a real comfort food, and after that the real star of the show: the bacalao (or stock fish). Fantastic, roasted with abundant oil and garlic, every bite was a spectacle, and the coal - cooked potatoes really were the perfect side. A good white wine to compliment, and to end the meal with style a good glass of true Porto. Absolutely contained costs for a stunning quality. And if you're looking for a social dinner in one of the "in" places in Aveiro, an ex - ceramic factory converted into: restaurant, wine bar, lounge bar complete with DJ set is the perfect place! Beautiful view from the terrace, non superlative the food's quality but good company always makes up for that.. and besides, after a couple glasses of Portuguese Sangria, it suddenly becomes the very best.


Costa Nova beach is one of the main attractions for people visiting Aveiro. I personally couldn't believe it, but maybe a few of you will already know that you have already gotten a glimpse of the city; why am I so sure, you ask? Because in Italy, it is exactly the background of the famous ad for pavesini(a typical Italian cookie, with which Tiramisu is made)! Indeed, as soon as I arrived, despite the charming enchantment of the landscape, I immediately thought that the place looked somewhat familiar, and only after I made the connection to the famous ad XD


It's a small but thoroughly charming beach located only some 10 kilometers (about 6-7 miles) out of Aveiro! The landscape is made up of a long stretch of sand, a few measly umbrellas and many, many, many beach tents... a clear signal as to the weather conditions of Portuguese beaches: windy! And unforgettable. The temperature of the water wasn't exactly an invitation to take a dive - but then, we hadn't gotten all the way there just to bathe. Our driving purpose was to see the "palheiros", typical pastel - striped houses!


Costa Nova has some nice fish restaurants and also pastry shops that make some delicious pasteis de nata (not as end-of-the-world spectacular as Belem's, but almost! ), but any tourists that arrive all the way to here mostly do it to surf and to admire the shock of color of the houses neatly placed one beside the other on the seaside walk. Wooden houses with a white-and-green, white-and-yellow, white-and-red or white-and-blue striped façades! They are called "palheiros", which means haystack, because up until a few centuries ago they were built by the fishermen using straw and canes, and mostly utilized as magazines for nets and fishing implements. Then the town transformed into a touristic location, and the stripes appeared, to cover the horizontal wooden planks... nothing now remains of the humble shacks: every detail of these houses is meticulously planned and from the windows you can peek into rooms decorated in the style of the 60es.

And again I will close this post with my usual piece of advice: get yourself a ticket as soon as possible, and don't let one second pass before you come see these fantastic places!

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