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Just smile, you are in Maia

Pedro Lopes-dos-Santos and Gustavo Portocarrero

University of Porto & University of Lisboa, PORTUGAL

A warm welcome to Maia, one of the Portugal’s youngest cities!

Statue of the Champion in Maia

Maia’s meeting with history took place for the first in the 10th century AD. It was then that it was formed as the Terra da Maia (Land of Maia). This was the name given to a territory of considerable dimension between the city of Porto and the river Ave. It was a territory formed during the context of the Christian ‘Reconquista’ (re-conquering) against the Muslims. After the latter’s Arabian invasion of Iberian Peninsula in 711 AD, only the region around the Asturias remained fully Christian, with the big area surrounding the Douro river – where Maia presently stands – becoming a sort of no-man’s-land between the antagonist forces. In the 9th and 10th centuries that situation changed and the Douro region fell under full Christian control. A number of new administrative territories called terras were formed and Maia was one of them.

The Terra da Maia was part of a larger administrative entity: the county of Portucale, which encompassed an area roughly equivalent to today’s Northern Portugal. The name Portucale was the name of the city of Porto during the Roman days and the High Middle Ages. When Christians reoccupied this city in the year 868, it was from there that they started the process of reorganization and administration of the northern territories. Later, this land would become a new county of the Christian kingdom of Leon. Given the importance of Portucale, the new county was called after the city name, that is, the Land of Portucale.

Material testimonies of these first days of the Terra da Maia can be seen in the churches of Águas Santas and Salvador da Maia. These churches were part of monasteries that were established in this territory after the Christian Reconquista, though the original buildings no longer remain. At that time, the Christian warriors were always followed by religious orders, which would reorganise the social and economic life of the newly retaken territories, having therefore a fundamental role in the consolidation of the Christian order there.

But it was not only monasteries that were established here; noble families also established themselves in the region, in particular the family of the Mendes da Maia. Two members of this family were actively engaged in important events in the early 12th century that would lead to the separation of the then county of Portucale from the kingdom of Leon and its transformation in a new kingdom. They were Gonçalo Mendes da Maia, called the “Champion”, and his brother Paio Mendes da Maia, who was archbishop of the city of Braga. The former was the most notable Portuguese warrior from that period, having devoted all his life to war and who died, according to the legend, at an old age fighting against an invading army. His memory is still kept in hundreds of wondrous tales transmitted from generation to generation. Today, a statue representing the “Champion” can be seen in front of the Maia City Hall.

In 1384, this territory, which had a clear rural character, fell under the administration of the neighbouring city of Porto, starting a process of building a close relationship between Maia and Porto.

Porto was, by then, the second most important city of Portugal, after Lisbon, both in population and economic importance. The city had a strong commercial character, and its geographical location certainly favoured such activity: it was at the mouth of the (navigable) river Douro and it faced the Atlantic Ocean. It had, in that way, trade links with the Douro hinterland and with ports in the Atlantic Ocean, in particular, those from Britain. One of the products produced in the Douro hinterland and exported from Porto was a wine that would later become famous: Port wine. So, the wine ended up being known not for the place where it was produced but, instead, from the place where it was exported. Nowadays, the warehouses where this wine is kept after being brought from the hinterland are still visible in the southern bank of the Douro, in Vila Nova de Gaia, in front of which one can also find several of the traditional boats – the rebelos – that used to transport the wine from up river.

Images of Porto

Unlike Maia, this was a city ruled by a strong bourgeoisie. Actually, so strong was this bourgeoisie, that for several centuries nobles could not stay more than three days, nor were they allowed to own property inside the city. This strong bourgeois character is also visible in the city’s architecture. Hardly a large noble palace can be found here; instead, what is common are the tall and narrow houses where the bourgeoisie lived. Most of these houses, particularly from the 18th and 19th centuries, still survive in the city’s historical centre and one can have a great sight of them from the southern bank going down the hill towards the river. So impressive is the historical centre that it is today one of UNESCO’s World Heritage sites. Such designation is the result of an ongoing process of re-inventing Porto as a city of culture and science, exemplified by its ex-libris the notable Casa da Música (House of Music) and its major leading force the University of Porto.

Images of Casa da Música, Porto

With such intense human and commercial activity going on in Porto, it is understandable why Maia ended up being part of Porto’s hinterland. Maia was a fertile land with a rich agriculture and supplied the city with many staple products such as food or hemp used to make ropes for the many boats that arrived to and departed from Porto’s harbour.

This relationship of direct dependence of Maia towards Porto would end only in the 1830’s. During 1832–1834, the country suffered a fierce civil war between the Liberals and the Absolutists, with the Terra da Maia being one of the war’s major battlefields. In 1832, a Liberal expeditionary force landed on the coast of Terra da Maia and occupied Porto. A year long siege of city by the Absolutist forces would follow. Moved by their deep democratic traditions, Porto inhabitants offered an epic resistance and the Absolutist troops had to withdraw. Another year would be needed for the war to finish. The Liberals won and one of their first measures was to remake the municipal map of Portugal. As a consequence, the old Terra da Maia would finish, loosing part of its territory and being reduced to its present dimensions. On the other hand, its direct administration from Porto also came to an end.

More recently, Maia has lost much of its rural character and has became the most important industrial area of the region. During these past three decades, Maia had an important population growth and emerged as a modern urban space with a proliferation of sport, cultural, and other leisure facilities. Local policies have been putting a special emphasis on health and quality of life promotion as a way to vindicate the old “maiato” folk saying: Just smile, you’re in Maia.


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