Aveiro is on the west coast of Portugal, half way between the elegant cities of Porto and Coimbra. It is a world of its own, sitting on a lagoon with a network of canals that ferry locals and tourist alike on big, colourful gondolas. It is a sight to behold

Writing about Aveiro is not the easiest task for me, because writing about this city is telling a story about home. It was the very first Portuguese city I saw properly, the very first I lived in, and the very first I fell in love with.

And you know what they say: your first love never dies.

The history of Aveiro started in the time of the Roman Empire and lasted through the ages. Salt extraction defined how the city and the surrounding area looks today. While being just six kilometres from the Atlantic Ocean, the landscape of Aveiro is predominated by salinas and canals that allow easy water transport of salt and moliços, plants that were used in agriculture.

I walked down Avenida Dr. Lourenço Peixinho every day. It starts at the train station, where the rich azulejo decoration is one of the most stunning in the whole region. Maybe I can’t compare it to São Bento in Porto, which is filled with white-blue tiles from the bottom to the top, but Aveiro has the charm of a small city, with delicate beauty at its heart, and you can see it clearly in the railway station.

The smell of coffee and freshly baked bread fill the street that leads you straight to the heart of the city. Opening to the view of the canals that now create a unique landscape of the city but in the past played a crucial role.

Getting around by boat
Aveiro is sometimes called the Venice of Portugal. A very unfortunate name given to this city during the regime of Salazar, to prove that Portugal is a special country that really has it all. Even though you can see some resemblance to the former Italian capital of trade, Aveiro is rather a little Portuguese city that has a lot more to offer simply by being itself.

Observing the moliceiros, the local boats, from the bank of the Ria can create the same excitement as sailing in one. A beautifully painted vessel glides through the canal, marking the trail on the water which, after a while, disappears. Yet another boat passes by, then another one, and then another…

Aveiro’s ‘gondolas’ are much bigger than the Italian version, and it’s not surprising considering that they were used to transport goods, not people. At 15 metres long and 2.5 metres wide, they were a solution for transporting that vital plant life.

The colours of the boats can brighten up even the gloomiest day. With intense blues, reds, greens, and yellows, they stand out from the dark green waters of the canals. They’re also a great illustration of the Portuguese lifestyle, filled with religion, but also fun.

While on the bow of a boat the saints or the Holy Mary were represented to lead the workers safely home; on the back, humoristic, and very often erotic artworks were shown.

Today, however, you won’t see green algae piling on the boats, pressing them heavily into the water. Instead they are filled with tourists who observe Aveiro from the level of the canal with its splendid beauty peeking out from everywhere.

Places of distinction
Whether from the boats or simply from the land, one of many of the beautiful things that forms the very personality Aveiro is the architecture. Buildings with azulejos – whether public, sacral, or private – recall times when Aveiro was a trade centre. The Portuguese tradition of incorporating tilework – mainly blue and white – blossoms in this city. Panels on the train station show the history of transport. The glaze shines from the walls, floors, and even ceilings of churches and chapels.

On Praça do Marquês de Pombal, the Casa de Santa Zita building proudly decorates the square which nowadays is dominated by the modernist architecture of the courthouse and the police station.

The contemporary mural on Rua do Clube dos Galitos shows traditions that kept Aveiro alive for ages. Facades of the little, narrow buildings hidden in the streets near the canal on the western side of Aveiro, wait to be discovered by people who have accidentally strayed from the beaten path.

Aveiro was the very first Portuguese city I saw properly, the very first I lived in, and the very first I fell in love with.

Early autumn mornings, when the humid cold scares people away, is the best time to walk around the city and look for little signs of vivid culture, but I also love looking at them in full sunlight, or painted in pink by the setting sun. Frivolous lines, curvy pediments, and the iron decoration of the doors and windows draw viewers’ eyes to each building.

Aveiro is a perfect place to also see world-class art nouveau architecture. A screaming mask emerging from the stone, delicate flowers that entwine on cold walls, and rich details seduce passers-by with their originality and show some of the best examples of the movement in Europe.

Major Pessoa House, in which the Art Nouveau museum is currently located, is an emblematic building in Aveiro. Together with a few other properties in the same style, it overlooks the Rossio Garden. In the yard of the building, white iron chairs with stylish tables are surrounded by plants and azulejos. It’s a wonderful place to drink a coffee and listen to the bustle of the trade centre, to which the yard’s big iron gate leads.

Fishermen used to be one of the most important workers in Aveiro, bringing fresh food to the town every day. Praça do Peixe is is still very much alive today. Surrounded by little houses, in the middle of the square, there is a big building; one sniff is enough to know what is located inside.

It might not sound nice, but the smell of fish, algae, salty water and mud is typical of Aveiro. Brought by the wind from Praça do Peixe to each part of the city, after a while it becomes familiar.

Parque Infante Dom Pedro, called Parque da Macaca (Monkey Park) by locals, is not the only, but surely the most beautiful, park in the city. While approaching a yellow pergola covered with climbing plants that from time to time cover the ground with violet petals, it’s impossible to miss the large gazebo that used to serve as a place for live concerts.

After descending the stairs to the lower part of the park, hidden in the structure of the stairs, a romantic grotto reveals its secrets. On the wall right next to it, two panels of azulejos recall the important events from the city’s life.

The park was created around 1862. Designed and executed in an English style, it gives space to the imagination and secrets. Trees hover their branches to dip their leaves into the water of the lake that has become a home for ducks, geese, and water turtles.

The architecture around the city never fails to fascinate and enchant. You’ll discover benches covered with azulejos and hidden behind plants and man-made structures that will encourage you to stop for a moment, sit down, and relax in the shade while listening to the sounds of nature.

When the elements meet

To fully understand the beauty of the salinas and the Aveiro lagoon, you have to see it at sunset or sunrise. On a dirt road, a little bit away from the centre of the city, a real spectacle happens every sunny day. Imagine a place where all four elements meet and mix in perfect harmony.

Calm, steady water reflects the burning sun that slowly changes colour, starting from bright yellow, through golden, orange, pink, red, and purple. It’s a unique performance that is never going to be repeated. Because the next day the wind will paint different lines on the surface of the water, or a water bug will land on it. Or maybe the rain will change the appearance of the little island with its abandoned building that turns into a black outline every time the sun hides behind it.

This unique moment that is different every day, for everyone, from every place, is a perfect time to simply be, look, and realise that none of the sunsets above the Aveiro Lagoon will be repeated. Neither will any other moment that we missed because of the rush we may have been in.

I’ve already visited so many places in this beautiful country, from the North to the South and from the West to the East, but if you ask me to pick one place I wish to be able to come back to more often, it’s always and forever Aveiro. With its perfect connection of culture, architecture, and nature. With water that calms me with its steady murmur wherever you go in the city. And with the most beautiful memories about places and people.

I’m still in love with this stunning city, so don’t believe my words. Just visit Aveiro and discover it for yourself, but be careful, it can hypnotise you and make you want to remain there forever

Words: Anna Zielazny

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