Left: Aveiro | Right: Coimbra

Roman ruins, huge palaces, golden churches and a love story of a prince who put his dead lover on the throne. Everywhere you go in the Center of Portugal, you find cultural relics that bear witness to the country’s glory days. Portugal was once a nation of explorers, merchants and rulers and even though it is now a modern European country, the remnants of history are everywhere and the Portuguese are masters in transforming their old places into modern day tourist destinations.

hiEurope traveled through the Center of Portugal, and found many great stories and sceneries. From the Saint of Aveiro, buried in the Venice of Portugal, to the library of Coimbra University , background for the Beauty and the Beast.

A canal in Aveiro

Day One: The Miracle Princess

The guide on the seaweed boat that takes us past the salt fields and through the old town of Aveiro tries to teach foreigners the names of Portuguese beer brands, Super Bock and Sagres, and there seems to be a discussion about which brand is best. Aveiro is known as Portugal's Venice, thanks to the canals linking it to a vast, mysterious marshland. Apart from its brightly colored boats, this place is renowned for art nouveau houses, and very rich egg and sugar confections called ovos moles.

Touring a place that merits at least two whole days in one morning is intense, but we do manage to see the tomb of Joanna, Princess of Portugal, who refused to marry three kings and entered the Dominican Convent of Jesus in 1475 to become a nun instead. Many stories of miracles surround this woman – all three kings died before they were able to force her into marriage. Instead, she spent her nun life helping the poor and tending her garden, which died the day her coffin was driven past. Even though the princess wanted a simple life and death, she was still a royal, so members of the royal family had a beautiful ornate coffin and chapel made for her in 1693, 200 years after her death, when she was beatified by the Pope.

Ovos moles in Aveiro

Alone on a Boat

That the Portuguese did not create an empire by staying home, we all know. But I am surprised to learn about the men who went cod fishing in northern Newfoundland and Greenland. At the Maritime Museum in Ílhavo, we see the Faina Maior, a superbly crafted replica of a fishing vessel which would set sail on the arduous six-month journey from Aveiro.

Once in the North, the fishermen were lowered into the icy sea waters in small boats for shifts of up to 18 hours daily. They caught the Codfish with simple hooks, to return to the main ship to clean their catch and put it on salt. Terrible living conditions, and the fishermen would be paid after six months, while their families stayed on the shore and bought all their food on credit. “And still, the government as late as the twentieth century thought that these were heroic men, and it was a way to show the strength of the nation that they managed to live like that, “our guide says.

The object of all this suffering, a variety of different species of surprisingly large cod, are swimming serenely in an aquarium downstairs. When the guide claps they happily come to swim to the surface. They better be warned, as codfish is still one of the favorite dishes in the country. We had some that afternoon, in a small restaurant on a sandy beach.

Vista Alegre Porcelain Factory

Sleeping in Porcelain Paradise

With so much history around, the Portuguese have made it a specialty to convert historical buildings into hotels. The forests, hills and vineyards are dotted with luxurious places to stop over -- from palatial old school spas to converted castles, convents and mansions. Our first night we stay in porcelain-factory-turned-resort Vista Alegre.

Rich industrialist José Ferreira Pinto Basto had a vision here of building a glass and porcelain factory and in 1815 he bought the estate, with a palace, a chapel and various buildings around a large square. He didn’t just build a factory, but a whole village, with housing for the workers, a school for the children and even a theater. The factory became famous for delivering unique pieces for great personalities – like the service made for Her Majesty the Queen of England. Hotel guests can stay in Basto’s former mansion, or in the adjacent five star hotel, where the walls are painted in the different colors of porcelain and decorated with butterfly plates.

Day 2: An Underground Collection

Joe Berardo is Portugal’s most famous billionaire and hoarder, who made his fortunes in South Africa’s gold mines. He started collecting postcards and matchboxes when he was a child, and changed to modern art once he became rich. He bought the enormous Aliança Vinhos de Portugal wine cellars, which we are visiting this morning, not just to store wine. The cool climate tunnels also work well for the preservation and exhibition of art and Berardo has quite a lot of that.

We are shown eight different underground collections of Chinese jade, African art, historical Portuguese tiles, and an amazing collection of calcite, amethyst, quartz and tourmaline from the mineral-rich states of Brazil. And that is before we are shown the 20 million year old fossils, and the huge rooms with antique furniture surrounded by wooden wine vats. People can even get married in these rooms, where big pieces of pink crystal decorate a room full of 40.000 sparkling wine bottles.

The guide, who is a walking encyclopedia of art and archeology, also takes us to an exhibition of Indian photography and Gandhi’s life. During the tasting of the company’s latest Sangria wine, he tells us that we haven’t even seen three percent of Berardo’s collection. When the millionaire read about the Taliban’s destruction of Afghanistan’s enormous stone Buddhas in 2001, he bought a massive range of Buddhist statues, and created the Buddha Eden Gardens close to Lisbon. In the same city, the Centro Cultural de Belém houses a further 1800 of his works. And still the collector is looking for storage.

Bussaco Palace Hotel

Barefoot Carmelite Monks

In the afternoon we lunch in the Bussaco Woods, where the last king of Portugal decided to build a small lodging on his favorite hunting ground over 100 years ago. The result is the magnificent Bussaco Palace Hotel, where we admire especially the winding staircase with scenes from Portugal’s first battles in Morocco in 1415, marking the start of the Portuguese empire. The Duke of Wellington slept in the convent at night while fighting Napoleon’s troops, and he wasn’t the only famous visitor. Agatha Christie also used to stay here, in a simple room right next to the King’s suite.

The palace was built on the grounds of an old cloister, where barefoot Carmelite monks lived in the woods, far away from the real world. They recreated the Way of the Cross of the Christ the same size and length as the original Via Dolorosa in Jerusalem. The dedicated monks also planted a beautiful garden using plants brought home by Portuguese explorers from such far flung places as Mexico, Japan and Africa.


Day 3: Blood Stones of Coimbra

We have visited many impressive places these last days, but nothing beats Coimbra, place of a famous university and scene of a royal love story with an unhappy ending – a Portuguese Romeo and Juliet.

These are so many things to see in this city, which was once the capital of the country that touring it for one day is mind-boggling. There are the ruins of the Roman cryptoporticus, an underground gallery of arched corridors built in the 1st or 2nd century AD to support the forum of the city. It’s an amazing underground place, where you walk in the footsteps of the Romans, so well preserved that you feel like travelling back in time

Just a little further up the hill, the Jesuits built a college in 1542 - making it the oldest Jesuit college in the world. Many famous missionaries studied here before travelling. This included the Italian Matteo Ricci, who later introduced Western science, mathematics, astronomy, and visual arts to the Chinese imperial court in 1582. The Portuguese explorers brought trees to plant in the forests and animals to be studied by scientists, which is why the collection of stuffed animals in the science museum here is huge.

Joanine Library

The pride of the city is the university, which also served as a royal palace and is one of the oldest in Europe, established in 1290. Here is the magnificently ornate Joanine Library, ordered by Portuguese King John V, in the 18th century. You can see why this place features in movies. Around 250 thousand books dating from the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries are contained within this priceless icon of Portuguese culture. The collection represents the best works from Europe at the time, and they are in the best condition since the building is a perfect vault. The structure is constructed of oak woods, which has an odor that is repellent to insects, and a colony of bats hunt insects at night.

Outside, Coimbra is a lively place with so many students walking around narrow alleyways with bars and taverns serving cheap, hearty dishes. Visitors can occasionally hear the plaintive tones of Coimbra's own version of Portugal's bluesy fado music.

Outside, Coimbra is a lively place with so many students walking around narrow alleyways with bars and taverns serving cheap, hearty dishes. Visitors can occasionally hear the plaintive tones of Coimbra's own version of Portugal's bluesy fado music.

Coimbra fado

King Pedro and Ines

We hear the royal love story in the afternoon, when we see the monastery of Santa Clara. Ines de Castro lived here after she came to Coimbra to accompany Constance of Castile, who had just been married to the Portuguese prince Pedro for political reasons. But Pedro fell in love with Ines, and started to neglect his lawful wife, endangering the already feeble relations with Castile. Moreover, Ines's brothers became the prince's friends and trusted advisors. King Afonso IV of Portugal, Pedro's father, disliked Ines's influence on his son and when Constance of Castile died, Afonso tried several times to arrange for his son to be remarried, but Pedro refused to take a wife other than Ines. After several attempts to keep the lovers apart, Afonso ordered Ines's death.

This wasn’t the end of the story. Pedro became king of Portugal in 1357 and this is when he stated that he had secretly married Ines before her death, so she was consequently the lawful queen. According to some stories, he even had Ines' body exhumed from her grave and put her on the throne, forcing the entire court to swear allegiance to their new queen. She was later buried at the Monastery of Alcobaça where her coffin can still be seen, opposite Peter's so that, according to the legend, at the Last Judgment Pedro and Ines can look at each other as they rise from their graves.

Hotel Quinta das Lágrimas

Over twenty operas and ballets have been written about Ines de Castro, and at hotel Quinta das Lágrimas, the story plays an interesting part. One of the fountains in the hotel’s incredible historical garden connects to the monastery, and was said to be used by the King to communicate with his lover downstream. As some of the rocks here are overgrown with red algae, locals believe that this is also the place where Ines was killed. This last palace hotel of our trip is the most magnificent and the meal we are served at night – called experience food – starts off with black and red chocolate rocks which explode in your mouth with fresh water, as if you were tasting the fountain.

It’s like tasting this region of Portugal, with all its explorers and miracles, all over again.

The article was reproduced with permission from hi-europe.net.