Joanna, princess of Portugal – the one who wouldn’t be queen

Few countries have a history as rich as Portugal’s, or such unique cultural traditions. A superpower in the 15th and 16th centuries, thanks to the wealth brought by its colonies around the world, Portugal erected some of the most magnificent palaces, churches and monasteries of Europe. The Portuguese have the oldest nation-state in Europe, the same borders for over 800 years, and speak the same language throughout the country.
Portugal was the birthplace of the first navigators, the brave sailors who first explored the African coast and crossed the Atlantic to discover the new world. Portugal dominated the lucrative spice and slave trades for centuries. That era is long gone, but its legacy and riches will forever be part of its heritage.

As is Catholicism. In Portugal, churches are full of people praying, not only taking pictures. In the 16th-century, the Catholic Church was as powerful as the monarchy, and together they created one of the country’s most beautiful stories, one of a royal princess named Joanna, daughter of King Afonso V and heir to the throne until her brother was born.

Against her father’s wishes, and with vehement protest from the royal court, Joanna decided she wanted to be a Carmelite nun. It was a scandal in the court, and everybody was against it. The princess was said to be very beautiful, ‘tall and straight,’ with a shapely mouth – something not common in the thin-lipped royal houses of Europe. By the age of 17, Joanna had already refused to marry two princes heirs to their thrones – of France and of England, no less. Her ambitious brother wanted her to be a queen, but his efforts failed each time: Joanna’s religious vocation had been clear since she was a child. Pious and devoted, she was usually found praying in her room, not in the elegant balls of the court.

Joanna’s tomb

The sincerity of Joanna’s pledges finally won over her father’s wishes, and he agreed to let her follow her heart. Joanna chose then to live in Aveiro, a small fishermen’s town, where over the years her presence would bring the economic and cultural development the town so needed.

The story of Joanna had always interested me, I was curious about her life, and in 2016, driving down from the city of Porto to Lisbon, I decided to make a stop in Aveiro to learn more about it.

The town has many claims to fame, among them its unique Ria do Aveiro, the 28-mile hydralike delta of the Vouga River, a combination of fresh and salt water, narrow waterways and tiny islands. Bordered by salt marshes and pine forests on one side, and sand ocean beaches on the other, the Ria is a very distinct eco system and can be visited by boat from June to September. I was there in February and had to explored it by car.

Aveiro is also known for its ovos moles, or soft eggs, a rich confection of sweetened egg yolk and candied casings shaped like fish or barrels. The original recipe of this local specialty is credited to nuns; today, it’s sold by weight or in barrels in the pastelarias in town. Delicious, but not for people on a diet.

I checked-in at Hotel Aveiro Palace, a comfortable hotel housed in a historic building overlooking the Canal Central, one of the three water canals in town, where colorful Moliceiro boats typical of Aveiro carried people up and down. The canal was crossed by several attractive bridges, and the neat whitewashed houses of Aveiro’s fishermen were not far from it.

The next morning, the focus of activity was the Fishermen’s Market, where fish from the night’s catch is auctioned daily. The central Aveiro district is punctuated by beautiful and well-preserved Art Nouveau houses; near it, gleaming white salt pans are a souvenir of the prosperous 10th-century local salt industry aimed at preserving fish.

But my main interest was visiting the Convento de Jesus, now the Museum of Aveiro, a place full of mementos of Saint Joana’s life. She retreated to the convent in 1472 and lived there until her death, at the early age of 38, in 1490 – the needle-point work room where she died is open to visitors. The last 18 years of her life were devoted to charity and to helping the poor, like the other nuns in the convent. Many miracles were attributed to her, specially – oddly enough – of infertile women becoming pregnant after seeing her. After she was beatified by the pope, in 1693, Joana became the patron saint of Aveiro. 

Joana’s multi-colored inlaid-marble sarcophagus, in the lower choir, is a fine work of art,  completed 20 years after her death. The museum also houses a 18th-century church considered a masterpiece of Baroque art, with elaborate gilded-wood carvings and ceilings said to be among Portugal’s finest. Also worth visiting is the nuns’ former refectory, with walls covered by Coimbra tiles, among the best in Portugal. The Convent of Jesus was closed in 1874, when the last nun died.

Portrait of Saint Joana, born a princess of Portugal

But as full of history and art and as it is, the main attraction of Museum of Aveiro is a particularly fine full-face 16th-century portrait of Joana in court dress. By refusing to be queen, this royal princess of exquisite beauty became one of the most beloved figures of her country’s history.

Practical info:

Aveiro is a city of Northern Portugal, 135 miles from the capital Lisbon by car or 2h15min by train.

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