The princess who wouldn’t be queen

Few countries have a history as rich as Portugal’s, even fewer are home to such unique cultural traditions. A superpower in the 15th and 16th centuries – thanks to the wealth brought by colonies around the world – Portugal erected some of the most magnificent palaces, churches and monasteries of Europe. The Portuguese people have the oldest nation-state in Europe – with the same borders for over 800 years – and speak the same language throughout the country.
Birthplace of the first navigators, 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 the country’s heritage.
Convent of Jesus
Convent of Jesus, a Baroque masterpiece in Portugal

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: that of a royal princess named Joana. She was the 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, Joana decided she wanted to be a Carmelite nun. It was a scandal – everybody was against it!
The princess was said to be very beautiful, ‘tall and straight’, according to tales of the time, with a shapely mouth, something not common in the thin-lipped royal houses of Europe. By the age of 17 she 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 by all costs, but his efforts failed each time. Joana’s religious vocation had been clear since she was a child: pious and devoted, she was usually found praying in her room, rather than in the elegant balls of the court.


The sincerity of Joana’s pledges finally won over her father’s wishes, and he agreed to let her follow her heart. Joana then chose to live in humble Aveiro, a small fishermen’s town, in the Convent of Jesus. Her presence would bring the economic and cultural development Aveiro so needed.
She lived there for the last 18 years of her life, until she died, at the age of 38. Dedicated to charity and to the poor, just just like all the other nuns, many miracles were attributed to her. Specially – oddly enought – of infertile women becoming pregnant after contacting her. In 1693, the Vatican beatified her as Saint Joana, and she is the patron saint of Aveiro.

Joana’s dear Convent of Jesus was closed in 1874, when the last nun died. It is now the Museum of Aveiro, which houses an 18th-century church considered a masterpiece of Baroque art: its elaborate gilded-wood carvings and ceilings are among Portugal’s finest. Joana’s multi-colored inlaid-marble sarcophagus, in the lower choir, is also a piece of beauty not to be missed. Same for the nuns’ former refectory, with walls lined with magnificent camellia-motif tiles, is one of the most impressive in the country.

But the main attraction of this rich museum is a particularly fine 16th-century portrait of Joana, a royal princess of exquisite beauty that by refusing to be a queen, became one of the most beloved figures in her country’s history.

Click here to see my Top Picks in Aveiro

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