Vista Alegre: a Portuguese brand that conquered the world
One of the internationally most renowned Portuguese brands is Vista Alegre. This porcelain manufacturer is famous for its tableware, home decor, giftware, and hotelware, often created in cooperation with celebrated artists and designers. Christian Lacroix, Oscar de La Renta, Álvaro Siza Vieira and Isidro Ferrer are examples of prominent names that were invited to contribute to the Vista Alegre creations. There’s a fascinating story behind this prestigious label, which can be discovered in the Vista Alegre museum in Ílhavo. But not only that, the grounds also show magnificent historical buildings and has a beautiful design hotel to sleep in.
The Vista Alegre Porcelain Factory, near the town of Ílhavo, was the first industrial unit dedicated to producing porcelain in Portugal. The Vista Alegre Museum is situated on the estate where in 1824 businessman José Ferreira Pinto Basto build the Fábrica de Porcelana de Vista Alegre. When you arrive there it feels as if you’re visiting a pretty Portuguese village instead of a factory. White buildings with yellow accents, olive trees, a kindergarten and a pretty square with a beautiful chapel are all part of the estate. That’s no coincidence.
In previous days, the management had the philosophy to connect the life of the workers to the factory in every possible way. Men did the physical hard work in the ovens or carrying wood, while women painted or wrapped the porcelain. They met each other on the factory grounds and often it would result in a marriage. There were houses on the property where they could start their families, there was a cinema, a theatre, a school and playground. The factory had it’s own fire department and soccer team. There even was a special annual holiday: the first of July, when the Portuguese king had granted permission in 1824 to build the factory. Even now the Vista Alegre Festival is celebrated every year in July!
The Vista Alegre Museum tells the story of working and living at the factory beautifully. Besides that, naturally there’s also a lot of attention for the beautiful pieces that have been made in the factory since its opening in 1824. Also fascinating is the process of development of the porcelain. When the factory opened the composition of porcelain clay was still unknown. Centuries ago only the Chinese knew how to make it and although it was very much loved in Europe, it took a long time before any European experiment to reproduce it was successful. José Ferreira Pinto Basto was determined to be the first in Portugal to know how to do it. He sent his son Augusto out to France to acquire the necessary knowledge and contracted international experts to help develop the first Portuguese porcelain. With time the quality got better and better and the Vista Alegre pieces became so popular that in 1880, Vista Alegre ceased its glassware production to focus exclusively on porcelain. In the reception area of the museum two old ovens remember the beginnings of the porcelain production at Vista Alegre Factory.
The best of the museum is saved for last. After going up a narrow staircase you enter a bright room where several artisans paint the new Vista Alegre pieces by hand. It’s incredible how concentrated and precise they have to work on the often small objects. Completely understandable that you can’t speak or take pictures here. It also makes you realise the amount of work that goes into one unique piece (and why I can’t afford it…).
Our Lady of Penha da França Chapel
Next to the museum the Capela da Nossa Senhora da Penha da França is a beautiful 17th century chapel that you don’t want to miss while visiting the Vista Alegre Factory. In 1816, José Ferreira Pinto Basto acquired this chapel in a public auction. It houses one of the most luxurious tombs in the region: the mausoleum of Manuel de Moura Manuel (1632-1699), bishop of Miranda and rector of the University of Coimbra. The estate used to be his recreational farm and he had all of this chapel built, except for the two towers which were added by José Ferreira Pinto Basto.
The chapel is richly decorated with pretty azulejos, a beautifully painted ceiling and three altars. There’s also a little balcony with a wooden door. This doors gives access to a hotel room that you can actually book, but I will get to that in a little bit.
Vista Alegre Shop
Now you know the story behind all the pretty Vista Alegre creations, you might want to take something home with you. The museum ends in the shop, where you will find a great variety in luxurious dinnerware, decorative items and gifts. Not really your price range? On the other side of the square there’s a special outlet, selling older pieces with a huge discount.
The same combination of luxury and patrimony can be found in the neighbouring Montebelo Vista Alegre Hotel. This five star hotel is part of the renovation project regarding the Vista Alegre factory area, comprising the Palácio dos Pintores, which was the home of the Vista Alegre founders, the chapel and the Vista Alegre Museum. It has a very good restaurant overlooking the water, a spa, outdoor pool and stunning rooms. In the new part of the hotel you will find exquisite design, while in the old part the historical value of the Vista Alegre brand is revived. Do you want to book the room that has a private view of the chapel? Choose the founder’s palace suite.
The Vista Alegre Museum and Shop, the Our Lady of Penha de França Chapel and the Montebelo Vista Alegre Hotel are situated just outside of Ílhavo (Centre of Portugal) along the Boco river. The closest big city is Aveiro (8 kms). From Porto Airport it’s about a one hour drive.
While you’re there
The Aveiro area is perfect for anybody who loves patrimony, artisanry, history and culture. Aveiro itself is a city full of azulejos and Art Nouveau. Nearby Estarreja is an unexpected gem for those who love street art. In Ílhavo don’t miss the Maritime Museum.
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