Gil Eannes was one of the Portuguese navigators who, with the support of Henry the Navigator, expanded the known world and turned Portugal into the premier world power of the 15th century.
In the early 15th century, Cape Bojador, on the western coast of the Kingdom of Morocco, was considered impassible. Upon reaching this western-most point of Africa, sailing ships found themselves pushed away from the coast by strong northeastern winds. Navigational tools and charts were either non-existent or very primitive. Early navigators sailed mostly by sight, using the coast as a guide. The wind, which pushed them away from the coast into open waters, was terrifying to the men attempting to round the cape and most of them turned around rather than risk losing sight of land.
Finally, in 1434, Eannes and his crew became the first Europeans to cross this barrier. This was a major achievement and opened the way for the Portuguese to explore and to colonialize Africa and eventually led to Vasco da Gama’s journey to India.
Portugal is rightfully proud of their role during the Age of Discovery. Henry the Navigator and his navigators da Gama, Magellan, Eannes and others are national heroes. Eannes is pictured on several Portuguese postage stamps like this one from 1945.
The Portugal Navy named a medical ship after Eannes in 1955. After decommissioning, the ship became a museum located in Viana do Castelo. According to Trip Advisor, the Gil Eannes museum is the second most popular thing to do in Viana do Castelo.
Portugal has a long history with the Catholic Church and there are beautiful churches and cathedrals everywhere. While the undisputed star of the show in Viana do Castelo is the Basilica of Santa Luzia, situated on the mountain overlooking the city, the 15th century cathedral is quite beautiful as well.
The cathedral, with its twin towers topped with battlements, was built to be a fortress as well as a church. Built during a time when Viana do Castelo was made wealthy by Portuguese ships returning from their many colonies around the world, the exterior belies the ornate interior, with gold gilt and renaissance art.
One aspect of the interior is unique. The cathedral is probably the only church in Portugal that has a model of a Portuguese caravel, the sailing ship that was used by Vasco da Gama, Christopher Columbus and other explorers in their discoveries of the world. If you look in the photo below, you’ll see the ship in the case on the right. The white sail with the red cross was inspired by the Knights Templar, known in Portugal as the Order of Christ, who wore a white surcoat with a red cross on the chest. Henry the Navigator, the Portuguese prince famous for initiating the Age of Discovery, was the Order’s first Grand Master.
It’s easy to overlook the tiny model among all the ornamentation inside the cathedral, but it’s something that pays tribute to the importance of the sailing ships of Portugal, some of which left from Viana do Castelo to begin their exploration of the world.
A blanket of fog lay over Viana do Castelo when we arrived, blotting out any chance of seeing the city’s most famous landmark, the beautiful Basílica de Santa Luzia. Even so, we lost no time in falling in love with the city. After the hustle and bustle of Porto, the relaxed, easy-going atmosphere of Viana do Castelo was a welcome change.
We stayed at Hotel Jardim. The building began life as a 19th century townhouse before its conversion to a hotel. Our room was large and had wonderful floor-to-ceiling French windows that, when opened, gave us wonderful views down several of the narrow lanes of the old city.
While we only spent a day in Viana do Castelo it quickly became one of our favorite cities. Viana has been called the Jewel of the Costa Verde, with good reason. There’s been a settlement here since the times of the Celtiberians, as witnessed by the ruins on the mountain, just behind the Basilica. It’s been an important seaport since the 13th century, when it’s primary industry was fishing. In the 16th and 17th centuries, the city became Portugal’s largest seaport, when sugar and gold from Brazil began making its way to Portugal. Its importance as a seaport may have faded since then, but its former glory is evident in the manors and mansions that line Viana do Castelo’s main streets.
It’s a walker-friendly city, with lots of narrow little lanes to explore. We spent a lot of time wandering the streets, making stops along the way, depending on what interested us. Our first stop was the Sé, or Cathedral, of Viana do Castelo. It’s a beautiful 15th century Romanesque structure. The twin crenellated towers, the portal depicting six of the apostles, and the rosette make for a beautiful exterior. The interior is quite pretty well. Viana do Castelo was an important seaport, and its citizens wanted the church to reflect that importance. One of the treasures inside the cathedral is a model of a sailing ship, which harkens back to Viana do Castelo’s days of glory. It’s not every cathedral that has a ship.
Just a short walk from the Sé takes you to Praça da República, the heart of Viana’s historic center. Besides the cafés and shops that line the square, there are three interesting 16th century structures. The old Council Chamber is an imposing fortress-like structure with a crenellated roof. The front is opened by three arches topped with three windows, all of which are topped by the city’s coats of arms.
The Casa da Misericórdia, or almshouse, was designed by João Lopes the Younger. The renaissance façade has caryatids, six on each floor, supporting the floor above. It’s quite beautiful.
The renaissance fountain in the center of the square was designed by João Lopes the Older. It’s an elegant structure topped with a cross of the Order of Christ. For several centuries the fountain was a primary source of water for the town’s citizens.
Wandering the streets can have unexpected benefits. Just a three-minute walk from our hotel we came upon Ribeira Brewers. Hmmm. A brewer… We stepped inside for a drink and found it to be a wonderful little pub, with a nice selection of craft beer. The owner was very helpful and I had my first Portuguese craft brew, Letra F. It was good and I was happy. If we lived in Viana do Castelo Ribeira Brewers would be a great hangout.
The day was winding down and it was time to find a place to eat. I had done some research and had selected Zefa Carqueja as our dinner spot. This restaurant was supposed to have the best barbeque chicken and ribs in the north of Portugal. It probably does, but we’ll never know. When we got to the restaurant, there was about fifty people lined up at the counter waiting to place an order, and the only orders taken at that time were take out. Well crap. Time for the backup plan. Just a few feet down the street was another highly rated restaurant, Taberna do Valentim. This was what we were looking for. We had a nice quiet dinner of grilled fish and vegetables and split half a bottle of wine. It was another one of those unplanned moments that worked out for the best, and a beautiful end to the day.
Viana do Castelo was one of our favorite places in Portugal. We were there for only one day and we only touched the surface of the town. There’s so much to do- museums, historical places, two Blue Star beaches just minutes away, and plenty of great food to be had- that we didn’t get to do. But we had achieved our goal of getting a feel of what it would be like to live in Viana do Castelo. We found Viana to be a beautiful city with a relaxed atmosphere and we look forward to our next visit.