June 24, 2007
NEXT STOP | AVEIRO, PORTUGAL
A New Culture Takes Hold in an Old Fishing Town
By SARAH WILDMAN
IT is midday in Aveiro, a surprisingly cosmopolitan fishing town on northern Portugal's Rota da Luz, the Route of Light. The spring afternoon is sunny and warm, and the canals are filled with bobbing moliceiros, their bright prows upturned like jester's shoes. Tied up to docks for lunch, they are empty of fishermen and tourists; nearby, shopkeepers are itching to close up for siesta. Lining the canals, gorgeous Art Nouveau homes are sleepy in the sun, their half-closed shutters indicating lunch is on the table.
Gabriel Vieira, 37, has kept his specialty food shop, Doce Pimenta (Sweet Pepper), open a half-hour longer than normal as shoppers browse his collection of spices and foods from Brazil, Italy, France and, yes, Portugal. Just a few years ago, the idea of a specialty food shop in this village would have been laughable. But then Aveiro isn't the provincial town it once was.
“I studied here 10 years ago,” said Mr. Vieira, who was born an hour north, in Oporto. “The university has drawn in a lot of people. Ten years ago if you walked around Aveiro on a Sunday, you wouldn't see a single person — everyone was in church! Now that's no longer true.”
Aveiro's sizable university (about 12,000 students) was founded in 1973. It took a generation, but the students have started to stick around. Others have returned after meandering abroad. And, slowly but steadily, they have changed the town.
“I came back after five years,” said Joana Lima, 32, a clothing designer who takes antique fabrics and Portuguese folk designs and turns them into wallet-friendly designer fare, which she sells in her own boutique. “I had lived in Barcelona, but I wanted a smaller place where I could really relate to people in a profound way.”
There is a young and vibrant energy in the streets and on the canals. Clutches of giggling and flirting university students rush past smartly dressed 30-somethings. Elderly women perch on terraces, leaning against 18th-century ironwork, bemusedly looking on.
“I live in the city center,” Mr. Vieira said, pointing on a map to a street in the old city's pedestrian quarter. “I can walk everywhere. And just outside of Aveiro, there are great places to ride a bicycle. There you can see herons and seagulls and wildlife. You just give them an ID and you can ride a bike for free.”
Mr. Vieira was referring to the Bicicleta de Utilização Gratuita de Aveiro, a five-year-old town hall project. Just beyond the old quarter, bicycles are parked waiting to be borrowed. The idea has been ridiculously successful, with white and green bikes everywhere.
Manning the desk at the bicycle office one afternoon was Pedro Sena, a 26-year-old student from Cape Verde studying for a degree in physics and engineering. A steady stream of bicyclists — locals, tourists, kids, adults — popped in, handed over an identification card and peddled out along the bike paths that line the canals.
Aveiro is a great place to study and live, said Mr. Sena, who like many others heads down to the fish market — the Mercado do Peixe — at night. There, crowds fill the bars that line the market square and the streets that surround it. Some go to low-key but trendy places like Clandestino for chill-out music. Restaurants like O Telheiro and O Batel offer upscale seafood.
But the Mercado do Peixe is just as interesting first thing in the morning, when fishermen and women arrive and spread out their wares. The mercado first opened in 1904; six years ago, its original building was torn down and a lighter, airier and, frankly, cleaner, replacement opened.
One fishmonger, Carla Mondairo, was unimpressed as she stood in front with her day's catch: salmon, grouper, sardines. “The old building had ancient stone tubs for the fish,” she said, with some wistfulness.
But there is still plenty of tradition in Aveiro — the Museo de Aveiro, for example, housed in a former Dominican convent and currently under renovation. Visitors can peak at the glorious Church of Jesus with its Baroque gold gilded carvings and the rose marble tomb of St. Joan, the princess who became a nun. The path that led to her beatification is painted along the walls.
Back at the Mercado do Peixe, which is made of glass so you can see through it to the tiled houses that line the canals, fish are sold from stainless steel tanks. Every day, midday, it is hosed down. And the restaurants around it come to life.
Around the corner, the restaurant O Batel peddles the new Aveiro aesthetic. With only eight tables and a galley-narrow dining hall, there is often a wait. Hardwood floors, ceilings and chairs cushioned in bright white give the tiny space a yachtlike atmosphere. Light streams in from skylights above.
Diners are encouraged to get up from their seats and peer into a refrigerated glass case at their meals. Fish is served simply — grilled, lightly, with lemon — alongside small boiled potatoes perfectly dressed in olive oil and garlic, and a spinach mix with beans and croutons.
If half the town hangs out at the restaurants and bars around the Mercado do Peixe, the other half is above the Canal Central, one flight up from a ground-floor tool shop, at Mercado Negro. Nothing speaks of new Aveiro more than this year-old cultural center that fills the entire second floor of a large 19th-century attached house. Mercado Negro is an entire neighborhood in and of itself, filled with smart boutiques, a bar, a coffee shop and several great rooms just for chilling out.
There are film festivals there, and live music on weekends. The décor is kitschy and hip — the wallpaper is intricate, patterned, and varied: the 1970s meets the 1890s. Floor-to-ceiling French doors open onto the canal, and 19th-century chandeliers hang above mismatched Danish Modern furniture and a rubber rec-room floor. On Saturday afternoons, it feels like everyone is there, from calculator-bearing high school students doing homework to young couples nuzzling on couches.
Joana Lima's boutique, PoçDeTot, holds down a corner toward the back, full of well-priced Portuguese designs. Down the hall is WahWah, a brand new music shop, and Miyabi, a design boutique owned and run by 32-year-old Nuno Vale, an Aveiro native.
“Miyabi means elegant in Japanese,” he said earnestly. “I try to refuse anything that is common.”
The shop is filled with hard-to-find light-fixtures, bags and home goods from a slew of international designers. It's also a meeting point. Philipp Scherler, a student in German literature from Hamburg, pops in almost every weekend, bringing friends, or just to see Mr. Vale.
“Once you know a few people here,” Mr. Scherer said, “you see them again and again.”
HOW TO GET THERE
Aveiro is an hour south of Oporto and two and a half hours north of Lisbon by car or train. A Web search in mid-June found flights in mid-July from Newark to Lisbon from $988. CP, the state railway (www.cp.pt/cp), charges 24 to 35 euros each way, $33 to $47 at $1.36 to the euro, between Lisbon and Aveiro.
WHERE TO STAY
While the pensions in Aveiro haven't been updated in a few years, there is something refreshing about the lack of boutique hotels and minimalist design.
Hotel Arcada (Rua de Viana do Costelo, 4; 351-234-423-001, www.hotelarcada.com), has 49 clean large rooms and is on the bank of the Canal Central. Doubles start at 55 euros.
Slightly more upscale is the Hotel Moliceiro (Rua Barbosa de Magalhães, 15/17; 351-234-377-400; www.hotelmoliceiro.com), named for the traditional boats of Aveiro. Tucked in the curve of the canal in the old town, the hotel has 49 rooms with sleek lines and antique accents. Doubles start at 95 euros.
WHERE TO EAT:
O Batel's tiny yachtlike space (Travessa Tenente Resende, 21; 351-234-345-019) means reservations are essential for the fresh fish and homemade pastries. Dinner for two with wine, 40 euros.
Pizzico Pizzaria (Largo da Praça do Peixe, 24-25; 351-234-424-509) serves Italy-worthy thin-crust pizza and pasta on the edge of the Mercado do Peixe. Pizzas are 5.85 to 10 euros.
WHAT TO DO
Association Cultural Mercado Negro (Rua João Mendonça, 17/2a), a cultural center and boutiques mall rolled into one, is on the second floor of a building on the main canal. There you'll find shops like Miyabi, for trendy design (351-9380-520-193, www.miyabidesign.blogspot.com); and WahWah, for music (351-966-528-775, www.wahwahrecords.com); as well as the Mercado Negro bar-coffee shop. Doce Pimenta (Rua Jos Estvo, 97; 351-234-481-273) sells gourmet goodies and local sea salt.
Borrow a free bike at Bicicleta de Utilização Gratuita de Aveiro, known locally as BUGA, (Linha Buga; 967-050-441; www.moveaveiro.pt/; in Portugese; click on Mobilidade).