Surrounded by vineyards, orchards and pine-forests, the charming city of Viseu has been a major crossroads since the time of the Romans who chose its site for a military camp, one of the largest in the Iberian Peninsula. Traditionally, it’s also the birthplace of Viriatus the Lusitanian who died in 146 BC after defying the Roman legions for five years before Decimus Junius Brutus established a camp there in 138 BC.
Viseu was subsequently made the seat of a bishopric in the mid-6th century after which the Suevi destroyed the Roman walls.
Today, it is the centre of the Dão wine-growing region, where crispy white wines and some of Portugal’s most popular full-bodied reds are produced.
One of the show towns of central Portugal, Viseu is the capital of the beautiful Beira Alta, a region notable for its varied landscape and splendidly rustic towns and villages with plenty of sightseeing opportunities within quick and easy reach of the city.
Its heart and soul is the 13th-century Sé Cathedral located at the highest point in town. Behind its imposing twin-towered façade lies an elegantly simple Gothic interior featuring a two-storey cloister and fine azulejo tiles in the north chapel. The sacristy boasts one of the finest ceilings in Portugal.
The cathedral chapels were formerly decorated by the canvases of Vasco Fernandes (1475-1540), more affectionately known as Grão Vasco. His famous depiction of St Peter, enthroned and wearing the papal core and tiara, is the star exhibit at the museum that bears his name adjacent to the cathedral, along with works by many of the other Portuguese masters and several first-class sculptures.
In Viseu’s northern outskirts lies what’s left of the enormous octagonal entrenchment known locally as the Cava de Viriato. It was dug for imperial Roman legions during a campaign against the Galicians in 138 BC. A bronze monument to the shepherd-warrior Viriatus who led the Lusitanians against Portugal’s Roman invaders also stands there.
19 km east of the city, the pretty town of Mangualde is notable for the small Baroque palace of the Counts of Anadia, built in 1740 and full of family portraits, while São Pedro do Sul 22 km north-west of Viseu has been one of Portugal’s most popular spa resorts since Roman times.