Is Aveiro the Venice of Portugal?
Referring to Aveiro as the Venice of Portugal does a disservice to the city. Yes, there are canals and the traditional boats provide tours to visitors, but stating Aveiro as Venice, sets visitors expectations too high, and misses the real allure of the city. Instead of regarding Aveiro as Venice, it should be more considered an unhurried, traditional Portuguese city, which has canals and colourful boats (but not gondolas!).
Aveiro is popular day trip from Porto or Coimbra, (Lisbon is much too far away). There are typically two routes for a day trip: either a more relaxed one, which just visits the historic centre and the canals, and a busier day trip which also includes the beach resort of Costa Nova. Aveiro is ideal for tourists who are reliant on public transport, as the city is the final stop on the Porto urban railway, meaning that there are regular departures and inexpensive fares.
For a day trip, it takes around 2-3 hours to leisurely explore the historic centre of Aveiro. This sightseeing would include the Se Cathedral, Rossio Park, the fish market, the fishing district and the sights along the canals. To this, an 1-hour canal boat ride of the lagoons and waterways could be added, and with a stop for lunch, the perfect relaxed day trip could be had.
The busier day trip would include all of the above and also visit the delightful beach resort of Costa Nova. Costa Nova is the much-photographed town, comprising of rows of striped houses, which on one side overlooks the lagoons and to the other a vast and pristine beach. Costa Nova is a truly unique Portuguese town, and is highly recommended. There is a regular bus service from Aveiro to Costa Nova and can be visited without the need of a rental car.
So, what is the tortuous history of Aveiro?
Aveiro’s fortunes have always had a close connection to the ocean’s and that of the waterways which surround it, encompassing periods of great wealth and such severe devastation that the city was almost wiped out.
The Romans were the first to identify the potential of Aveiro as a harbour, considering the city as the best-sheltered harbour on the western side of the Iberian Peninsula. Up until the mid-16th century, Aveiro was an important harbour and prosperous city, with a major fishing fleet and significant sea trade.
This all changed in 1575 after an incredible powerful winter storm dredged up the seabed, forming a sandbank along the mouth of the harbour and blocking the port to create the Ria de Aveiro lagoons. Along with losing all of the trade routes, the stagnant lagoon breed diseases which ravaged the population (This went from 30,000 to less than 5,000 20 years later).
The resilient city did eventually recover, and by the early 19th century it was an industrial centre for kelp farming and salt production. The kelp, which was a basis of an early type of fertiliser, was harvested from the Ria de Aveiro lagoons and transported by the Moliceiros boats. The high-quality Aveiro salt was used by the Portuguese fishing fleet, who fished the cod banks off Newfoundland, to preserve the caught fish and make the much beloved Bacallao (salted and dried cod).
At the turn of the last century the emigrants who had deserted Portugal to find riches in Brazil, returned and recreated the extravagant Art Nouveau architecture in the houses they built along the canals. Today Aveiro is a major university city and the region is the manufacturing heartland of Portugal, but fortunately, this has not encroached into central Aveiro.