Overlooking the calm waters at the mouth of the River Lima, (compared by the Romans to the mythological River Lethe due to its powers of enchantment), Viana do Castelo is one of the most beautiful towns in Portugal. The town grew rich from the many caravels that set out from its harbour, plying the Atlantic routes to bring back sugar, spices and ivory, and its huge shipyards built vessels from pine "cut in January and buried for a year". Viana’s reputation made it a target of greedy French corsairs in 1574, who attempted to storm it with eight ships but were repelled by the inhabitants.
Many of these locals could not resist the call of the sea and set forth in search of fame and riches. Famous Portugese names such as: Gonçalo Velho Cabral, who colonised the Azores; Fernão Martins da Costa, who explored the coast of Africa; João Velho, who departed for the mysterious Congo; and João Álvares Fagundes, who went to the chilly waters of the New World, leading the way to the Portuguese custom of eating cod.
Stroll through the streets of Viana do Castelo, a city of discoverers, and you’ll find it has much beauty to share. From the peculiar charm of the little Praça da República, along the pleasant embankment where the widening river is crossed by a railway bridge designed by Eiffel, to the house of the navigator João Velho next to the igreja matriz (parish church), another interesting architectural relic from the era of the Discoveries.
This attractive, extroverted and cheerful town has been able to conserve the wealth of its traditions. Viana do Castelo is liveliest at the time of the festival of N. S. d’Agonia on 15th August, an event closely associated with the sea and the occasion of one of Portugal’s finest romarias (pilgrimages).