Saturday, September 30, 2006

Missing You...

Viana do Castelo is the most important city on the coastline of the province of Minho, in Northern Portugal, and a good spot for discovering more about the region, as well as being well worth a detailed visit itself. Built on an almost perfect rectangular plan, the small town was founded by Afonso III and granted a charter and privileges for settlers, in 1258. The original centre has remained much the same with its two main streets that were set within an oval-shaped wall. A church, gothic in line, was built in the central part of the walls, though the façade, marked by two towers, has the look of a medieval fort so confirming its Romanesque origins. High up on the towers there is an intriguing ensemble of stone corbels decorated with figures playing musical instruments, or grotesques keeping an eye on what is happening below. By 1500, Viana had already extended beyond its walls, which gradually became obsolete and were largely demolished, so little remains other than the gentle curve in the main square, Praça da República. This square that formed the entrance to the main gateway of the walled town was the natural site for a number of major building projects that included the crenellated Town Hall, again looking rather like a mediaeval tower, with its windows decorated with heraldic elements that include the famous sailing vessel – the caravela, which was to become the symbol of the city. Also depicted is the coat of arms of Portugal and a royal device, an armillary sphere. A monumental fountain was erected facing the building. The charitable institution and hospital, the Santa Casa da Misericórdia, was also erected here in 1580 and remains one of the most enigmatic edifices to be found in Portuguese architecture. It shows is a miscellany of influences, some from Italy and others from Northern Europe, which have resulted in a fascinating, quite unique building with an arcade supporting two verandas, which are set on 12 sculpted caryatids, columns in the shape of human torsos that culminate in a classical front. Viana had an important part to play in the era of the Portuguese Maritime Discoveries. Ships were built there and it also provided many experienced navigators who set sail to discover new lands and peoples. In the 17th and 18th centuries, the city developed thriving trade relations with Brazil, largely based on the import of sugar. This was a time of considerable economic wealth, as it is reflected in the lovely town houses and churches. These included the houses of the powerful Távora, the Alpuim, and Malheiro Reimão families. The chapel of the last named is set like a stage at the top of a small street; equally dramatic are the churches of N. S. da Agonia and the Misericórdia. The strong links with the sea accounts for the water spout built in the second half of the 18th century where Viana is represented symbolically as a woman, holding a caravela in her right hand and an armillary sphere in her left. She is surrounded by four figures representing the four corners of the world. The Viana Museum houses a collection of decorative arts that recall the meeting of cultures brought about by the history of the port and the feats of navigation of its mariners. One example is the Indo-Portuguese furniture that was made in India to European taste, combining something of each culture. There are also examples of furniture made from Brazil wood. In the Room of the Four Continents, the walls are covered with 18th century azulejos – glazed tiles painted with allegories representing Africa, America, Europe and Asia. The 19th century also saw the bustling port taking city status and changing its name to Viana do Castelo, in celebration of heroic feats that took place in the castle during the liberal struggles. Two other signs of change are the modern, metallic bridge designed by Gustave Eiffel, which brought the railway to the city, and also the elegant Italian style theatre. Today, the city is undergoing further renovation and is reinventing its heritage with buildings designed by the best architects of the present day, perhaps the best example being the library, the work of the internationally recognised Álvaro Siza Vieira. A final suggestion for full appreciation of Viana do Castelo is a climb up Monte de Santa Luzia, from which there is a superb view over the small city, the port, river and coastline.


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