Oliveira de Azeméis is a manufacturing town half an hour south of Porto and 20 minutes from the coast. This understated place hits the headlines every May for the Mercado à Moda Antiga, a traditional market and fair that takes over the centre for two days.
The local sight you’ll remember long after you’ve gone home is the Parque La Salette. This is a cultured park on a hill, plotted around a chapel built in the 19th century to commemorate the Marian apparition in La Salette, France. The municipality has a few curiosities and places to cross off your list, like a centuries-old watermill and bakery, and a quirky museum stuffed with a jumble of exhibits, both ancient and recent.
Let’s explore the best things to do in Oliveira de Azeméis:
1. Parque La Salette
Oliveira de Azeméis takes pride in this park on a hill to the east of the town.
it was landscaped at the turn of the 20th century around a chapel that we’ll cover next.
This is a very refined spot for a wander, with grand stairways, a gazebo and a balustraded terrace with views of the town.
The park’s elevated position lets you see for miles in every direction, as far as the city of São João da Madeira to the north.
You’ll find yourself returning a few times, as the park has attractions and facilities like an ornamental lake, a restaurant, cafe, a typical glass-blowing workshop, campsite and playgrounds of all descriptions.
2. Capela de Nossa Senhora de la Salette
The park’s chapel dates to 1870. The story goes that the town is was plagued by a long drought, and on July 5 of that year the townsfolk organised a procession carrying an image of Holy Christ to Monte Crasto: When they arrived at this spot it suddenly started raining.
Another curious story is that during the chapel’s construction a thief who had previously stolen a ring from the Marian image at the altar was shot while attempting to steal the statue itself.
He survived the attack, but lost the same finger as the statue that had worn the ring.
Gruesomely this finger is still preserved in alcohol and can be seen inside the chapel!
3. Parque Temático Molinológico
At the confluence of the Antuã and Ul Rivers this mill shows how the currents have been harnessed for hundreds of years to make bread.
The site has been in use for over two millenia as the preserved Roman milestone and tombstone indicate.
More recent is the hydraulic infrastructure of water wheels, dams and channels, all powering a mill to grind flour.
The museum in the mill has kept the grinding device running, and you can still see it in action.
There are also 19th-century tools for milling and bread-making, as well as the original ovens, still fired to bake bread.
4. Casa-Museu Regional de Oliveira de Azeméis
A rich former resident, João Marques de Almeida Carvalho, bequeathed both his house and its contents to the town.
What you get is a crazy miscellany of items linked to the Oliveira de Azeméis area, and all in a historic home with original decor and furniture.
There’s a lapidary exhibit, a newspaper archive, a set of antique farming instruments, taxidermies, butterfly collections, old radios and photographs from the first half of the 20th century.
There are also some enthralling archaeological finds from the two Celtic Castros, Ul and Ossela, as well as black clay pottery and finally glassware from Oliveira de Azeméis’ Centro Vidriero factory.
5. Igreja Matriz de Oliveira de Azeméis
The town’s main church has a late-Mannerist design from the beginning of the 18th century and rests on a terrace above a zigzagging stairway.
The architecture on the facade is reserved but elegant.
with blue patterned tiles and a representation of St Michael vanquishing Satan in the niche above the door.
This is older than the church itself, having been sculpted in Coimbra in the 1400s.
Go in to admire the smooth limestone baptismal font and the retable, which is bookended by twisting Solomonic columns.
6. Pinheiro da Bemposta
The old parish of Pinheiro da Bemposta is inside Oliveira de Azeméis’ municipal limits.
This cute village is posted on high ground with views to the Aveiro Lagoon, the city of Ovar and even the Atlantic.
It’s the oldest settlement around Oliveira de Azeméis, and was once the main town in the municipality, gaining its charter from King Manuel I in 1514. The parish church warrants a peek, and there’s a lovely chapel, which we’ll come to next.
But the most intriguing relic is the 16th-century pillory by the former town hall, once used for public punishment.
It was fashioned in a workshop in Coimbra and carries both King Manuel’s coat of arms and his symbolic armillary sphere.
7. Capela de Nossa Senhora da Ribeira
This chapel rests in a placid green space where the Antuã River and a stream converge.
It boasts the discreet Mannerist style that was in fashion in the second half of the 1500s.
And although it went into decline in the 19th century a local businessman who got rich in Brazil invested in the renovation.
The most eye-catching element is the tabernacle, which has four columns framing niches with Mary (Nossa Senhora da Ribeira) and various saints.
Also from this period are 15 frescos of Marian and bible themes, lost and forgotten until the 1970s.
8. Mercado à Moda Antiga
Now more than two decades old, this annual old-time market was to draw visitors to the town.
It’s been a big success and since 1997 has expanded to more than 38,000 square metres, attracting more than 60,000 visitors to Oliveira de Azeméis.
It all happens in mid-May, and with hundreds of stalls selling regional handicrafts, fruit, vegetables and regional delicacies.
Vendors are dressed in folk costume from the turn of the 20th century, and nuns make typical convent confectionery in their wimples! This all goes hand-in-hand with traditional dances, parades, street theatre and concerts in the evening by well-known Portuguese artists (fado singer Carminho appeared in 2016).
9. Igreja Paroquial de Válega
This church is up there with the prettiest in the country for the brightly coloured tile panels on its facade and nave.
The basic architecture is from the middle of the 18th century, and it was an imposing if unremarkable building until the mid-20th century when an affluent local couple splashed out on a bold makeover.
They lavished it with Technicolor azulejos, new windows and a coffered ceiling hewn from exotic wood.
Those figurative tile panels were manufactured and painted at the Aleluia in Aveiro, while the florid stained glass windows are from Madrid.
Come when the sun is low and illuminates the beautiful panels on the facade.
10. Praia Fluvial Burgães
In Vale de Cambra, the next town over, there’s a dam in the Caima River to create an enticing natural pool and beach for summer bathing.
This water has weaved its way down from the Serra da Freita mountain range, splashing over the Frecha da Mizarela waterfall close to the beach.
The beach is patrolled by lifeguards, and fringed by trees and an expansive grassy patch to recline in the shade.
There’s a playground for young ones, a cafe and sports facilities like a beach volleyball court for restless teenagers.
11. Cascata da Cabreia
Southeast of Oliveira de Azeméis is the Serra da Cabreia, a hill wreathed in deciduous forest and hiding a very romantic beauty spot.
The Cascata da Cabreia is a 25-metre-high waterfall on the course of the River Mau.
It’s an unfrequented place, with a few walking trails to adventure along and a picnic garden nearby with tables and stone barbecues.
The best time to come is after rainfall in autumn, when there’s more of a torrent, although the fresh woodland is just as pretty in midsummer.
12. Casa-Museu Ferreira de Castro
Fans of 20th-century Portuguese culture may be interested to know that the eminent writer José Maria Ferreira de Castrowas born in the town.
His most enduring work was A Selva (The Forest) a 1930 novel about life on a Brazilian rubber plantation.
He was born in an unassuming rural house in a landscape of vineyards.
On the lower floor 19th-century rural life is recorded with antique tools like a wine press.
Upstairs, in the old living quarters, there’s memorabilia from the author’s career, with books, manuscripts and possessions like the bag and gloves he took on the round the world trip for his travel book A Volta ao Mundo in 1939.
13. Praia do Furadouro
The coast is 20 minutes in the car, give or take, and it’s a trip that needs to be made to witness the Atlantic in all its wild majesty.
This beach is three kilometres long and fringed by pines, dunes and a small tourist community.
The water is cold and the waves are unrelenting, so the beach isn’t so much for swimming as basking in the sun on a boundless strip of luxurious sand.
For watersports, the northern shores of the Aveiro Lagoon are in reach, and have warm shallow waters for kayaking and stand-up paddleboarding.
14. São João da Madeira
No conventional tourist destination, São João da Madeira is a busy manufacturing city that is angling for a different kind of visitor.
The many factories here have started organising tours, each like a live version of “How It’s Made”. The first stop is the Torre da Oliva building, a spectacular converted factory, where you can work out what you’d like to see.
If there’s one must-see factory it’s probably Viarco, the high-end pencil manufacturer, producing drawing tools for professional artists and architects.
The Torre da Oliva contains a footwear museum for the many manufacturers in the city, while there’s also a likeable museum for hat-making in another converted factory.
Those watermills in Oliveira de Azeméis gave the town its own type of bread, pão de Ul, which is still a staple here.
A normal winter meal will be lamb or veal roasted in a wood oven, baked salted cod or rojoada, a bean casserole with potatoes and cold cuts on the side.
Also keep an eye out for Arroz de suã, a rice preparation simmered with pork and red wine.
At the end of September the St Michael’s day celebrations have their own speciality: This is Papas de São Miguel, a thick broth of white beans and pork that has been marinated in garlic and red wine for two days.