Like Leiria, Viseu is less well-known outside of Portugal. Again, it’s a town in the centre of the country with a fabulous history, pleasant squares, a small park and a wine museum – what’s not to like?
Founded in Roman times, the origin of the name means good view, from the Latin, and that certainly holds true today, both in the surrounding countryside and the town itself. Viseu is located in one of Portugal’s most famous wine regions, the Dão, which produces predominantly red wines (80% of total DOC Dão production) which are medium bodied, often spicy with hints of red berries. The famous Tinta Roriz and Touriga Nacional, longstanding, go to Portuguese grapes are used in this region. The centre of town is the location of the Solar do Vinho do Dão, a museum dedicated to Dão wine.
The town centre, or centro historico has outgrown its original medieval walls, but they remain intact holding the town’s cobbled streets near the main churches together. The Igreja da Misericórdia is the most predominant in the town. Rococo in style, it dates from the 18th century. Across the way is Viseu’s Cathedral. A visit to the Cathedral for the flowers on the altar alone is worth it, but there’s an added attraction. The seminary of the Cathedral doubles as a museum to the town’s most famous son, Renaissance painter, Vasco Fernandes, known as Grão Vasco, whose name will be familiar for his art, as well as the Dão wine which now bears his name. The museum, like most Portuguese state museums is free to visit before 2pm on Sunday.
For a break from the bricks and mortar of the town, head to Aquilino Ribeiro Park which has wide open green spaces, plenty of cafés that are the ideal perch for people watching on sunny day. There’s a fantastic monorail (free to use) that really saves your legs on the way down to the park, and more importantly, on the way back up to the Cathedral. Alternatively, head to the central square, the Praça da República, which has cafés, newsstands and fountains as well as a park with miniature waterways, shaded benches and more people watching opportunities at the far end. The Praça da República is also home to the Almeida Moreira museum, the former home of a local teacher, art critic and the founder of the Museu Grão Vasco.
Rightly, or wrongly, we didn’t check the guidebook or internet before heading to Viseu for places to eat, having adopted our own approach to eating out in Portugal. The approach involves us choosing somewhere that looks as homely as possible. We’ve discovered that, quite often, the more traditional a place looks, the better the welcome and, more importantly, the better the food. Opting for O Hilario, near the Cathedral, this was certainly the case. A handwritten menu is always a good start, and this place run by a couple who were quite obviously grandparents already, had us smitten. After a little chat with the owner, the food of choice was decided upon: Bifinhos com cogumelos, essentially, sirloin steak in a creamy, white wine and pepper sauce with lashings and lashings of mushrooms. The owner presented the dish, prepared by his wife, with extreme pride before we tucked in and he came back to tempt us with handmade cakes, custards and fruit salads, again, the fruit of his wife’s labour. A simply decorated place, tucked away down an unseeming street, this was an excellent discovery.
There’s a food event on this weekend (15th and 16th February) and next (22nd and 23rd February) with fixed priced menus available including starters, mains, dessert, wine and entertainment at many of the local restaurants. The O Hilario is on page 14 of the brochure.
We caught a bus to Viseu and stayed one night. It’s a small town so it’s probably fairly easy to see everything in one day, but if you prefer to take your time and mosey around, then stay over night. Accommodation is reasonably priced in Portugal, and an overnight stay is a great excuse to try an extra local restaurant. We rocked up on the day and stayed at Pensão Rossio, right in the centre of town. Their website has some information on rooms and meals they offer. The rooms were simple, clean and the breakfast was perfect to start the day. The owner and her family were pleasant and I’d definitely stay here again.
Note: I don’t get paid for the links I include, but as we try to stay in family run places as much as possible, I like to include direct links to their businesses in the hope that anyone visiting these towns will also book direct and support smaller places.