Viana do Castelo, Portugal: Paulo’s Portugal (part one)

An exploration of the Norte Region with a local

Atlantic Ocean, V do Castelo
Atlantic Ocean beach at sunset, Viana do Castelo, Portugal

Ah, social etiquette in foreign countries–so many opportunities to embarrass yourself in random ways.

For example, take my introduction to Dale’s friend Paulo.  Having heard many wonderful things about Paulo from Dale, I was excited to finally meet him.  So when Dale introduced us, I greeted him as I would anyone I consider a friend–I tried to give him a hug.  Turns out that amongst the Portuguese, a handshake or a kiss on each cheek are more appropriate greetings.  Paulo adeptly side-stepped my hug and gave me a quick peck on each cheek, smoothly saving the situation.  No harm done. We spent the afternoon touring Paulo’s hometown, and then he dropped us off at our hotel that evening.

The cheek kiss is a standard greeting in Europe, but it makes me kinda uncomfortable because it’s unfamiliar and, well, I’m picky about my personal space. Nevertheless, I decided to get over my silly American hang-up, and when I saw Paulo the next morning, I would not shirk from this customary greeting like a squeamish ten-year-old girl.  Morning came, Paulo approached us, and I was proactive with the cheek kiss, but I started with Paulo’s left instead of his right (tip: always start with the right) and almost planted a kiss on his lips.  Awkward…

Me, Dale, and Paulo, at the __ with Viana do Castelo in the background
Me, Dale, and Paulo, at the Santuário de Santa Luzia with Viana do Castelo in the background

Fortunately, Paulo is a lovely man with a great sense of humor, and my gaffe didn’t bother him in the slightest.  There were no more near-disasters on the trip, and he spent three days showing us his home territory, the Região Norte (Norte Region) of Portugal, a beautiful, vibrant locale.  Paulo was a fantastic host and went out of his way to show us not just the iconic sites in the area but also out-of-the-way places that meant something to him personally.

Over the next two blog posts, we’ll share our time with him, starting with Viana do Castelo, a town in the northeast corner of Portugal, on a stretch of coastline called the Costa Verde (Green Coast).

Viana do Castelo

Both Paulo and his wife Marlene grew up in Viana do Castelo, and they still live there along with their adorable five-year-old son and much of their family.  It’s easy to see why they stayed; the city sits at the mouth of the Lima River where it empties into the Atlantic Ocean, and the area has mild coastal weather and beautiful beaches.

The city was founded by King Afonso III in 1258 and given the name of Viana da Foz do Lima (the name was later changed; more on that below).  In the 15th & 16th centuries, Viana’s port was integral to the success of the country’s vast international trade and was one of the main exit-points for Portuguese explorers heading off to chart new worlds.  During this time, the city was the second largest center of commerce in Portugal, and exotic goods such as sugar, ebony, and ivory frequently entered Portugal through this port.

Viana do Castelo is now a medium-sized, modern city, but some of its main industries, such as fishing and ship building, still revolve around its historic port.

The old city

We spent a bit of time strolling around the well-preserved ancient city center with Paulo and Marlene, admiring the churches and buildings, many of which were built during Portugal’s heyday as a world leader in the 15th and 16th centuries.  In addition to the crowded narrow streets typical of most old city centers in Europe, the area also has wide, tree-lined boulevards that were added in the 19th century.

Pictured is the Praça da Republica, the main square.  From left to right is the 16th-century Igreja da Misericórdia (Misericórdia Church); the Chafariz, an impressive Renaissance fountain built in the 1550’s; and the Antigos Paços do Concelho (old town hall) built in the early 16th century.
The exquisite interior of the Misericórdia Church
The oldest neighborhood in Viana do Castelo, dating to medieval times
Capela das Malheiras, Viana do Castelo. The chapel was built in the 18th century and is an excellent example of Portuguese baroque architecture.

Paulo took us to a few of Viana do Castelo’s beautiful beaches.  Portugal attracts surfers from all over the world because of its surf–it has some of the biggest waves in the world.  In 2011, American surfer Garrett McNamara set a Guinness world record off the coast of Nazare, Portugal, that still stands, for the largest wave ever surfed–78 feet.  He unofficially broke his own record in 2013 when he surfed a wave estimated at 100 feet, again at Nazare, but that record has yet to be certified by Guinness.

One of Viana do Castelo’s beaches. It may look calm here, but Portugal has some of the biggest waves in the world
Eiffel Bridge
Eiffel Bridge

The Eiffel Bridge, a striking green bridge that crosses the Lima River, was designed by Gustave Eiffel and opened as a railroad bridge in 1878.  It is 562 meters (1844 feet) long and includes two levels, one for rail and one for cars.

The Lima river teeming with fish, as seen from the Eiffel Bridge
Santuário de Santa Luzia
Santuário de Santa Luzia

The Santuário de Santa Luzia is a massive church built in the twentieth century and reportedly modeled after the Sacré Coeur Basilica in Paris.   Work began in 1904, and the church opened to the public in the 1920’s, but construction was not fully complete until 1959.

The soaring ceiling of the Santuário de Santa Luzia
The stained-glass rose windows of the Santuário de Santa Luzia are the biggest of any church on the Iberian Peninsula (which encompasses Portugal and Spain)

Perched on top of the Santa Luzia hill, the church offers expansive views of Viana do Castelo, the Lima River, the Eiffel Bridge, and the mountains beyond.  The climb up the hill to the church is an intense one, but you can also reach it by car (as we did) or take the Funicular de Santa Luzia to the top.

Viana do Castelo and the Lima River as viewed from Santa Luzia hill
Colorful costumes–the traje vianesa

The region is famous for its crafts, most notably hand-made filigree jewelry and traditional costumes.  Paulo told us more about the traje vianesa, (also called Minho costume), clothing traditionally worn in the rural villages around Viana do Castelo.  The costumes were once worn by women while doing everyday tasks such as farming and fishing, and they also had special costumes for the local festivals.

That’s my man… Dale looks sublime in the traditional Vianesa Costume

The costumes are celebrated today for their vibrant colors and exquisite designs, with ornate embroidery and beadwork.  The traje vianesa is one of the most famous cultural costumes in Europe and is often considered representative of Portuguese traditional dress in general. It’s such an important part of the region’s identity that the Museu do Traje, a museum in Viana do Castelo, is dedicated to sharing the history, cultural roots, and beauty of this unique costume.

One of the best times to see the costumes is in August, during the Festas de Nossa Senhora de Agonia, a colorful and lively religious festival, where the women parade their colorful costumes and golden jewelry as part of the festivities.

Tower of Roqueta and Fort Santiago da Barra
Fort Santiago da Barra

During its most prosperous years, Viana do Castelo was a frequent target for pirates, who made off with valuable goods moving through the port.  The Torre da Roqueta (Tower of Roqueta) was built at the mouth of the Lima River in the early 16th century to protect the city.  Ultimately, the tower offered inadequate protection against these pesky marauders, and Fort Santiago da Barra was later built.

This statue, called Menina de Viana (“Girl from Viana”), behind the Fort of Santiago da Barra, welcomed the fishermen back to land after their long journeys.  She is facing the docks and holding a flower and a caravel (traditional Portuguese boat and symbol of Viana do Castelo).

There was once a castle at this site as well, and I wondered if the name of the town was somehow related.  Was Viana a woman?  Did she live in the castle?  The internet was not helpful, so I emailed the Viana do Castelo tourist office, and they gave me a wonderful explanation.

According to legend, a beautiful princess named Ana lived in the castle.  She was very shy and rarely seen, and the locals believed that any time someone laid eyes on her, it brought good luck to the city.  So along came a knight. (Of course there’s always a knight in these stories, right?)  He inevitably fell in love with the beautiful Ana and spent each night outside of the castle, looking at her window, waiting for her to appear.  One night, she did, and the knight was so excited that he ran through the streets yelling, “Vi a Ana, Vi a Ana no Castelo,” which translates to “I saw Ana, I saw Ana in the Castle,” hence the name Viana do Castelo.

Except that’s not the real story.  The truth is less romantic.  In 1848, Queen Dona Maria II changed the name of the city from Viana da foz do Lima to Viana do Castelo.  End of story!


We enjoyed exploring Paulo’s hometown, but Viano do Castelo was only one part of our visit.  In the next post, we’ll talk about some of the other places we saw, including the oldest village in Portugal, a Roman bridge, an ancient monastery, and more beautiful coastline.