In Portuguese, much like in Old English, objects have gender. A road, petite and curvaceous, is a “she”. A tree trunk, burly and straight, is a “he”. Here and there, from a kid’s homework to a piece of literature, the lack of a gender-neutral “it” infuses things with the hint of a character. Perhaps nowhere else are these personifications more seductive than at Aveiro. A resolute but imperceptive ‘Rio Vouga’ outflows in the ‘Ria de Aveiro’, a voluptuous yet serpentine lagoon. For centuries, this fatherly river and this motherly lagoon have shared a name (‘Ria’ is the female of ‘Rio’) and the duty of providing for an entire city.
We brushed on Aveiro before, on a rather early start to one of our wintertime Portuguese travels:
Saturday morning, 7:05. The alarm had gone off five minutes earlier, but I was still drafting all my resolution in order to get out of bed and go for a run. The sky was clear blue, but the condensation that covered the window hinted that the t-shirt and shorts I had managed to cram onto my suitcase were not the proper attire. One step out of the hotel confirmed that. Too late to back out now, as I would lose face with the sleepy but mocking receptionist. A brisk pace would have to make up for the missing jacket. Bad planning aside, I love exploring a new city in the early hours of a sleepy weekend morning. I ran along the deserted river bank, passing the many colourful moored ‘moliceiros’ (boats traditionally used in the Aveiro lagoon to collect ‘moliço’, or seagrass) and slowly drifting outside of town. Salt warehouses, piles of fishnets and small boat docks replaced the city centre’s tidy three-story buildings. I stopped and looked around. The still waters and the silence of those early hours created a beautifully serene scenery.
The life of Aveiro has indeed always revolved around water. But, perhaps like any old marriage, the bond between the river and the lagoon has known troubled times.
Thousands of years ago, the region around Aveiro was a great plain. When the oceans rose, the plain become a navigable vastness of water that brought prosperity to the region. Charmed by the maritime trade and the booming salt industry, the inhabitants of Aveiro payed no heed to the dangers lurking beneath the waters.
Year after year, the river’s rapidly flowing stream sent vast amounts of sediment racing through the lagoon, but the ocean’s strong currents prevented it from getting out, creating a growing sandbank between the lagoon and the ocean.
By the 10th century, parts of that sandbank were already visible above the waters. But still Aveiro’s inhabitants were happy, as the sandbank sheltered ships from the rigours of the Atlantic Ocean and increased the production of salt. Slowly and steadily, the sandbank continued to creep up.
By the 15th century the sandbank had grown so prominent that larger ships could no longer pass. The stagnating lagoon waters, no longer freely flowing into the ocean, also brought disease and floods. Aveiro spiralled into a recession, driving many of its inhabitants to seek fortune elsewhere.
A courageous few remained but, in a sombre day in 1757, the lagoon became fully landlocked. Those courageous few, already incapable of making a living from the sea, now faced drowning under the incessant flow of water that kept gushing out of the river.
Europe’s best engineers were brought in to solve the issue, but man-made efforts paled in comparison with the might of the imperceptive river, the serpentine lagoon and the unforgiving ocean. Only in 1808, after many attempts, was it possible to build a long-lasting strait between the lagoon and the ocean.
Slowly and hesitantly, prosperity came back to Aveiro. The once nefarious sandbank became a long stretch of beach, to be enjoyed by fishermen and holidaymakers alike.
Yet, beneath those seemingly calm lagoon waters, the same ancient forces continue to clash. For how long will Aveiro be able to placate them?