The town of São João da Madeira in the Aveiro District often polls as one of Portugal’s most liveable places. There’s isn’t a lot of history here and this working town isn’t loaded with sights. But what São João da Madeira does have is volumes of industrial heritage, as the source of Portugal’s hats, footwear and pencils.
In the last five years the factories manufacturing these products have opened their doors, granting rare peeks into facilities you’d normally only see on TV. This all comes from an industrial tourism initiative that has changed São João’s image overnight.
Let’s explore the best things to do in São João da Madeira:
1.Viarco Factory Visit
You’ll have a renewed appreciation for the humble pencil after going behind the scenes at the last pencil factory on the Iberian Peninsula.
Viarco is a prestige brand, producing tools for professional draughtsmen and women, artists and anyone else who needs a precision drawing instrument.
What will hit you is how much of this work is still done by hand, as you find out how cedar wood, ceramics, graphite and many man-hours go into each Viarco pencil.
After seeing how they’re made it will be impossible to resist buying a set.
2. Torre da Oliva
This former headquarters of the OLIVA metallurgy company is a spectacular monument to Portuguese industry.
It’s an enormous modernist complex constructed in the 1930s, identified by its concrete tower.
This behemoth was left empty after the brand went out of business, but was soon acquired by the municipality and is slowly being turned into an industrial tourism and cultural venue.
São João’s welcome centre is here, as is an exhibition about the defunct OLIVA brand, while the Núcleo de Arte is a gallery for contemporary art in former warehouses.
There’s also a brand new footwear museum, which we’ll cover next.
3. Museu do Calçado
The newest industrial museum in São João da Madeira only opened in November 2016, and is in the Torre da Oliva.
This attraction is dedicated entirely to footwear and draws on local shoemaking knowhow, explaining how the industry transformed the town in the 20th century.
Millions of Euros have been invested in the collection, which has around 8,600 items made in São João and across the world.
Whether its shoes, boots, sneakers or sandals, there’s a dedicated space at this museum.
You’ll track the evolution of footwear, beginning in prehistory, working through the ages and wonder what the future might hold for shoes.
4. Evereste Fabrica de Calçado
There’s a multilingual 45-minute tour available at this shoe factory from Monday to Thursday.
Evereste has been in the business since 1942, and its facility crafts shoes for this brand, as well as other Portuguese marks like PERKS, Cohibas and Miguel Vieira.
It’s an enlightening “How Do They Do It” kind of experience, watching raw materials and fabrics turned slowly and fastidiously into upmarket shoes and boots.
The factory blends high-tech equipment with three generations of old-school shoemaking and needlework knowhow.
Another brand that has long been part of the landscape in São João da Madeira is FEPSA, which has been manufacturing high-quality felt to make hats since 1969. You can get a privileged glimpse of how a world leader in its field operates on a 40-minute site visit.
Unlike the other factories in the town FEPSA does require you to book in advance.
There are 200 employees here, making some 600.000 hats a year that are sold on five continents.
First you’ll learn how natural fibres like wool are processed to make felt, and then how this fabric is shaped with no little skill into both classic and fashionable headwear.
6. Museu da Chapelaria
If FEPSA gets you curious about the local hat-making craft, then you can’t pass on this first-rate museum.
It’s set in the Empresa Industrial de Chapelaria, a giant hat factory founded in 1914 and the beating heart of Portugal’s millinery industry until 1995. A decade after the factory shut down it was reopened as a museum that makes full use of the machines left behind.
Every machine and tool used in production is here, and there are firsthand accounts from workers.
photographs and footage of the factory in its glory days when nobody would leave home without a hat.
Round the trip off at the shop or restaurant, and check out the monument to the factory workers in the courtyard.
The last factory experience on our list is this high-tech textile brand, which has been operating in São João for over 50 years.
More than 100 people work at this facility, but in contrast to the other factories on this list much of the strain is taken by robots.
If you’ve ever wondered where the elastic, transfers and labels on your clothes come from, it’s a facility exactly like this.
On your tour you’ll see just how many household international marks rely on Heliotextil for these materials.
Visits are in English, French, Spanish or Portuguese and last 45 minutes.
8. Mercado Municipal
With three floors of fresh ingredients, clothing and homewares in a spacious hall, São João’s municipal market is much more than just a local amenity.
If you’re just here to browse, the bit you have to see is the lower floor where live animals are sold, and the farmers’ stalls, butchers and fishmongers are piled with weird and wonderful produce (eels are a local speciality). Above there are fruit and vegetable stalls, a small supermarket, a snack bar and bakery, and on the top floor are stalls for clothing and fabrics.
9. Castelo de Santa Maria da Feira
In the neighbouring municipality ten minutes to the west is a classic medieval castle, and one of Portugal’s most treasured military monuments.
This magnificent structure dates from 868, and was built by Alfonso III of Asturias at the cusp of the Moorish occupation.
In the 11th century it was sacked twice by the Moors before becoming an advanced base of power for the Reconquest in the 12th century.
It was in use up to the 1500s when artillery rendered these high walls obsolete.
You’re able to patrol its outer parapet and on the tour inside there are spiral stairways leading to the roof for all-encompassing vistas of Santa Maria da Feira.
10. Castro de Romariz
Many hilltops in Northern Portugal have enchanting ruins of fortified towns that took shape long before the Romans arrived in the region.
This Iron Age settlement, around 15 minutes from São João was inhabited by the Turduli tribe and is 2,600 years old.
The site is a mysterious complex of drystone walls in square and circular plans.
These are the non-perishable remains of huts that would have had thatched roofs.
They were first excavated in the mid-19th century at the same time as a hoard of coins, known as the Treasure of Romariz.
11. Museu de Santa Maria de Lamas
This museum opened in the 1950s and owes its existence to a private collector, Henrique Alves de Amorim.
He was an art lover above all, but had lots of side interests and amassed all kinds of bits and pieces.
There are exhibits for natural sciences, ethnology, tiles, tapestries, medals, paper money, as well as a trove of religious art.
Henrique Alves de Amorim made his fortune in the cork business, and there’s a potted history of the cork trade around Santa Maria de Lamas.
You’ll peruse artefacts like processing tools from the early 1700s, but the showpieces are the bizarre cork sculptures of a caravel boat from the Age of Discovery or Lisbon’s Belém Tower.
12. Zoo de Lourosa
Portugal’s only ornithological park is a simple drive north of São João in the town of Lourosa.
The zoo is dedicated solely to birdlife, and keeps its inhabitants in 80 humane and specially designed aviaries and open spaces.
There are 500 species of bird in all here, from 150 species and representing five different continents.
Just by way of summary you can view birds of prey like owls and vultures, rainforest species like macaws, parrots and cacatuas, and abundant waterfowl such as geese, ducks and swans.
You can participate in the daily feeding sessions for the park’s flamingos, picking up neat insights about their behaviour and social structure.
13. Viagem Medieval em Terra de Santa Maria
For 12 days in August Santa Maria da Feira puts on the largest medieval fair on the Iberian Peninsula, and one of the largest in Europe.
The first edition was in 1996, and it’s snowballed into a vast event with an army of volunteers and something for everyone to sink their teeth into.
There are mock battles with amazing production values, siege machines, plays, dances, a lively medieval fair in tents, equestrian and falconry demonstrations, archery lessons, and that’s only a quick summary of the programme.
The stage is Santa Maria’s castle, and the period in focus is the Reconquista, so the re-enactments are between Portuguese knights and Moors.
14. Praia do Furadouro
The Atlantic is hardly more than 10 minutes by road and there’s an unbroken line of beaches up and down the shore.
Most of these are lovely in their own ways, but none are quite as beautiful as the Praia do Furadoiuro near the resort of Ovar.
It is hemmed by sand dunes that you can cross via a boardwalk, and has fine white sand that is almost too bright on sunny days.
The beach is washed by rolling Atlantic surf, which will set surfers’ pulses racing.
For swimmers it might be a little chilly, though you can paddle in the shallows in comfort.
And with the resort on hand for inexpensive meals and drinks there’s not much more you could wish for.
15. Regional Food
Being on the coast, the Aveiro District has a lot of fish and seafood recipes that are unique to this part of Portugal.
One is eel stew (caldeirada de enguinas), made with potatoes and stale bread.
Also unusual are mussel kebabs (espetadas de mexilhão), fried and with nothing more complicated than lemon juice and seasoning.
Also, you wouldn’t be in Portugal if there weren’t hundreds of ways of preparing cod.
The typical method is to roast it and serve it on a bed of “crushed” potatoes laced with garlic and olive oil.
Lastly, away from the ocean there’s some succulent meat dishes like lamb roasted in a clay pot (carneiro à lampantana) and roast veal (vitela asada).