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WINDSURFING CITY: VIANA DO CASTELO

25/03/2022
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WINDSURFING CITY: VIANA DO CASTELO

María Andrés and Tom Soltysiak give us a guide to Portugal’s windsurfing city – Viana do Castelo – a place offering culture, sports and windsurfing for all levels. 

Words – María Andrés // Photos – Photos Tom Soltysiak / windylines.com 


Between Porto and the Spanish border with Galicia, at the Rio Lima river mouth, sits Viana do Castelo, offering an exciting mix of history and modernism. It’s an interesting city with beaches that are blessed with an afternoon breeze. With a temperate summer climate, conditions are perfect for all watersports, with a range of accommodation options and two international airports within a stone’s throw (Vigo and Porto), Viana has converted itself into an attractive action sports destination for families. 

ENCHANTING 

Viana do Castelo is probably one of northern Portugal’s most enchanting cities. It’s role as a port city during the Portuguese explorations in the X and XVI centuries, as well as being a major cod-fishing port in the XX century, are prime examples of the city’s maritime connection. 

Viana is the perfect size to explore by bicycle or on foot. It is possible to connect to the city from the windsurfing beaches by crossing the Rio Lima river – a 500-metre boat journey or walking over the Eiffel Bridge. The charming and historic city centre offers a great atmosphere, and its architecture and terraces keep you well separated from the city’s industrial side. 

The city is centred on the Praça da República, a pedestrian area full of terraces and charming shops, surrounded by historic buildings and with a renaissance fountain in its centre, from which you can enjoy the city’s vigour. Once in the city centre, the dish to order is cod, obviously! Strolling Viana’s streets, you can’t help but notice the care taken to preserve the city’s aesthetics – no fluorescent signs here! If you’re into architecture, there is Manueline, Baroque, and Modernist inspiration, as well as the ever-present Portuguese tile work. 

The star attraction is undoubtedly the Santuario de Santa Luzia, the iconic mountain top church overlooking the main windsurfing beaches. As a curiosity, you can also visit the Gil Eannes hospital ship museum, which served as a high seas hospital in the 1960s for cod fishermen off the coasts of Newfoundland and Greenland. You can find it permanently moored in the fishing harbour, not far from the ferryboat ride to take you back to the windsurfing beaches of Cabedelo and Rodanho. 


THE SANTA LUZIA SANCTUARY 

Ever present from every corner of the city and in every windsurf session, the Santa Luzia Sanctuary’s temple is a part of the landscape. Ascending 659 steps, to a height of 228 metres, the view from the temple is stunning – Atlantic swell lines, the coast’s endless white sand beaches, golden dunes separating the beaches from the forest, and the city built along the river mouth, make for a panorama that National Geographic recognizes as the third most beautiful view in the world. If the idea of climbing 70 storeys puts you off, not to worry, you can also access it by car or by bus, with the winding route also offering spectacular vistas. Or take the picturesque funicular, the longest in Portugal, offering a 7 minute, 650 metre long ride up the mountainside. 

Works on the Sanctuary ended in 1959, and today it is the city’s main tourist attraction. Its design was inspired by the Sacre-Coeur in Paris, and its beautiful rose windows are the second largest in Europe. But before this marvellous enclave was built, it was previously inhabited as well. While excavating for the construction of the sanctuary, they unearthed a fortified city that was inhabited from the Iron Age until Roman times, La Citania de Santa Luzia. It wasn’t only for its spectacular views that it was built here, but the location was also chosen as a strategic position to control the ocean, the estuary and river mouth of the Rio Lima. 

THE EIFFEL BRIDGE 

Another of the charms of the city is the bridge designed by the Gustave Eiffel School, spanning the Rio Lima to connect the city of Viana with Darque. In 1878 it allowed for the arrival of the railroad to the city. Today, it is travelled by train, cars, and pilgrims following the coastal route to Santiago de Compostela. From here, you can appreciate two contemporary architectural marvels, located in front of, and contrasting with, the historical city centre. In the Plaza de la Libertad, on the banks of the Rio Lima, sit both the Cultural Centre and the Municipal Library, both of which have been awarded the Pritzker prize, the Nobel of architecture.  


OTHER ACTIVITIES 

In addition to all of the windsurfing, kitesurfing, surfing, SUP’ing and foiling that your heart may desire, plenty of other adventures await in the area as well. I highly recommend bringing your bike, as there are plenty of MTB and cycling routes, both along the coast and up the river, and it is the perfect vehicle to explore the city and its surrounding towns. The Lima River is also perfect for jet skis, sailing, paddling, SUP, and kayaking.

WEATHER 

Rainy and temperate most of the year, the climate is a mix between Mediterranean and oceanic, with a high annual rainfall (153 rainy days a year), but a relatively dry and warm summer, with temperatures reaching an average of 24° in the summer months, and cooling off to 16° at night. The ocean, however, never really warms up that much, with the water a refreshing 18° in the summer. In the summer I alternate between using a 5/4 and 4/3 wetsuit, depending on the day, although you will also see the odd Viking out in a shorty!  

The windy season runs from May through September, with the best months being June, July, and August. Blowing from the North / Northwest, the thermal wind gradually builds throughout the day, reaching about 25 knots most afternoons. Expect to get on the water about 20+ days a month during peak season, and even more if you bring your foil. Not bad at all! 

VERSATILE SPOT 

Two things caught my attention in Viana. First, there are windsurfers of every level, from beginner to professional, and of all ages, all able to enjoy the same spot, making it a very accessible destination for families and windsurfers of all levels. Second is the number of families spending their summer months here, returning year after year. They tend to park and camp in the same spots every year, and some have been coming back for more than 10 years. And it’s not surprising, considering the reliable wind conditions on offer. Wind sports in the summer are pretty much guaranteed every day, with the afternoon breeze picking up throughout the day. This makes it easy to set up camp and assure yourself time on the water, with no need to be searching up and down the coast for conditions. The Galicians, many of whom live within an hour’s drive in Vigo, can day trip to Viana, which explains their high level of wave sailing; when not on their own wild coasts, you’ll find them in Portugal! They’re really well positioned!

CAMPSITES  

Viana, as well as the other coastal towns, have beautiful campsites, beachfront at the best surf and windsurf spots in the area. Set among the dunes, wooden boardwalks lead you to endless kilometres of sandy beach, the perfect setting for a family windsurf vacation. 

As you would expect from such a wonderful and reliable spot, and being an easy and affordable option for travelling families from across Europe, July and August can get crowded. The paid campgrounds are full, and the free camping areas more so every year. Campervans and caravans are accepted and embraced, with plenty of designated parking and facilities, with fresh water and dumping stations. Believe me when I say there are thousands of campers in the area, which is a strong economic boost to the city. The local businesses have adapted, situating themselves close to the campgrounds with convenient supermarkets, laundries, terraces and restaurants, surf schools, coffee shops with Wi-Fi… you won’t be missing anything. It feels that even the wind can be ordered à la Carte.  

The inevitable question is, “until what point can this go on?” How many campervans and RVs can fit here? With the exponential growth of ‘van life’ and the ‘surf lifestyle’, the future of these camper-friendly areas is at risk from a lack of infrastructure to accommodate growing numbers or of campers being given the cold-shoulder by locals if they show a lack of respect for the area when setting up camp, as seen in other spots across Europe. Until now, Viana has managed the situation with grace, converting itself into a European windsurfing paradise, and by all accounts it seems well on course, continuing to be a great summer family windsurfing destination. For the good of all, every one of us needs to be on our best behaviour to keep it that way! 


SPOT GUIDE 

The windsurfing beaches are located just south of the city of Viana, on the southern side of the Lima River. Depending on the size and direction of the swell, there are areas more or less exposed to the waves thanks to the breakwater protecting the port. In the summer, as a general rule of thumb, head further north, closer to the breakwater, for flatter water and smaller waves, and further south when searching for waves. The wind is side-shore from the right, about 20-25 knots, a real gift!  

Cabedelo 

Cabedelo is the name given to the northernmost part of the beach, directly below the breakwater separating it from the river. In the summertime, protected from the wind swell and the wind slightly more offshore, this flat water spot is perfect for beginners. Here you will find every possible wind sport, for all levels and ages, in a great friendly and familiar atmosphere. 

To my surprise, watersports are not limited to a designated area of the beach – it’s the swimming area that is a designated zone – allowing you freedom to enjoy the different peaks depending on the tides. It’s quite understandable really, as the water temperatures are not the most inviting for a leisurely swim, so you’re unlikely to cross paths with many swimmers.  

In this area you’ll find the surf schools, windsurf rentals, and campgrounds, tucked into the pine forests behind the dunes. The perfect family-friendly windsurf location! 

In the wintertime however, when the northwestern swells descend upon this beach, the scene transforms into a spectacular surf and wave sailing spot, with large peeling waves marching down from the breakwater to the beach. So much so that Cabedelo is home to Portugal’s high-performance surf training centre.  

For us, having been here only in the summer, we have never scored one of those epic NW swells yet, we’ve only had the chance to taste the spot’s potential when the odd summer north swells found their way around the breakwaters and offered up clean, fun walls for some pure wave riding!  

Rodanho 

If searching for summertime waves, your best hopes lie further south in Rodanho, where the beach curves to be slightly more exposed to the swells unaffected by the breakwater Located downwind from Cabedelo, where the creek feeds into the ocean beside the rocks, you’ll find fun ramps for jumping, and even with the smallest of swell forecasts, you’ll find a fun right-breaking wave. Due to the curvature of the beach, the wind here is slightly more onshore than up at Cabedelo, making for a different, yet equally fun session! Here you will find more jumps and in the summertime it is generally a higher level on the water than up at Cabedelo. Although sometimes crowded, it is a very fun break. As the wind slowly builds throughout the day, you can time your session to your liking – surf in the morning, foil at midday, jump in the afternoon, and wave ride at sunset when the wind turns slightly offshore. 

To get to Rodanho from Cabedelo, simply sail downwind about 500 meters, or choose to park in the Rodanho parking lot tucked into the pine forest, and walk or sail upwind about 200 metres. It’s a little bit of a hassle to get to, but well worth it. A beautiful boardwalk running through the forest connects both beach parking areas, passing alongside the campgrounds, and paths lead up and over the dunes to access the beaches. You can walk down with your rig packed into your boom and board under your arm, and rig up behind the dunes when you arrive at the beach. 

GOOD VIBES 

Our experiences of Viana have always been very positive – friendly people, good food, and a great atmosphere on the water. It also has nicer weather than in surrounding areas, and fun and reliable conditions! What’s there not to love about it? If you’ve never been, I hope this gives you an idea of what to expect, and you get a chance to visit. If you do, we’ll probably see each other there!


FAQ’s

Can I come with friends or family that don’t windsurf? In Viana there is plenty to enjoy, whether simply visiting the city, enjoying it’s delicious restaurants, exploring on bikes, spending the day on the beach, or learning to surf… absolutely, it’s a great trip for everyone. 

What level do I need to enjoy the spot? Viana is one of those few spots that everybody can enjoy, whether a complete beginner or a seasoned pro. As the wind builds throughout the day, you can choose whether you prefer lighter or stronger wind, and moving up or down along the beach you choose your wave size. 

What disciplines? All of them. There are flat areas for slalom and freestyle, ramps for jumping, and waves for riding. Light winds in the morning for foiling, and strong wind in the afternoon for fully powered windsurf action. 

For wave sailing, what size gear do I need? As a reference when packing, at 62 and 70 kg, we usually use 75 litre boards with sails between 3.7 and 4.8. It starts off light in the morning and tends to pick up to about 25 knots in the afternoon.  

Is it a good spot to learn? It’s the perfect spot to improve, whether just starting out, or to improve your jumping and wave riding. 

What should I not forget to pack? Your long wetsuit, the water is colder than you imagine! 

What else should I bring? Pack your bike; you’ll use it to check the conditions, go shopping, or simply to go for a ride. 

What should I eat? Be sure to taste the cod, and also the Portuguese “Nata”, a custard-filled pastry that pairs perfectly with your coffee. 

 

 

 

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