You probably don’t know very much about Sao Joao da Madeira.

It is the smallest city in Portugal, with a population of about 22,000. But for such a small city it has a lot going on : a hat museum, a shoe museum, the only public collection of “outsider art” in Southern Europe, and a pencil factory that you could visit.

It is not all that easy to get there. You could take a train two hours from Lisbon and then another train for about an hour or from Porto take a train or a bus for about an hour and a half or a taxi for half an hour.

Let’s start our visit with the pencil factory.

The sign says “Pencils so strong they can’t be broken by the hand of God our Father”

I hadn’t thought about how a pencil is made and I learned a lot. But I am not going to make my own. You need big machines.

Here it is mostly two production rooms each with about half a dozen workers. They mix graphite, mud and water with colors and jam them together under high pressure before expelling them into thin tubes that get glued into sandwiches of cedar, cut into pencils and painted. It doesn’t take a lot of people to make a lot of pencils.

Viarco ( has been making pencils since 1907 and before that the factory made hats. They make great pencils. Viarco pencils make me draw. When we went there, we were met by the owner, Jose Vieira, who began his welcome by telling us that the factory is “nonsense”.

Jose told us that the idea is to employ people and to fund his projects. There is the artists in residence program, with lodging and a huge studio where artists play with pencils and materials and Viarco is able to learn from them.

A sculptor came up with this :

They also make pencils with universal symbols for the color blind, a set with “6 Skin Tones”, pencils like connected chopsticks, and a rainbow colored pencil with “Love is Love” on the side.

Viarco encourages the art of mental patients with supplies and teachers and when we were there Jose had to rush off to a gallery for a show of their work.

If you want to visit Viarco, you book with They also bring you the Shoe Museum and the Hat Museum. We only saw the Shoe Museum.

Left and right shoes date from the 12th Century.

The Oliva factory, where they used to make sewing machines, has been turned into the Oliva Creative Factory, a place for both artists and start ups. Plus there is the Treger/Saint Silvestre Art Brut Collection, the only public collection of Outsider Art in Southern Europe. I adore Art Brut, and Here Antonio Saint Sylvestre explains what’s so great about it. And the collection and the spaces are great too. Here are some photos :

This artist, Daniel Green, works at San Francisco’s Creativity Explored.

But I never learned why this collection is in Sao Joao da Madeira.

Sao Joao da Madeira has a House of Creativity and a Palace of Culture for concerts. And for the past 20 years they have had a Poetry Month. We were dining in a pizza place when we heard shouting and it was a “Poetry Moment”, an invasion of poets. After a while, diners were getting annoyed : too much poetry.

I was happy to see the support for the people of Ukraine in little Sao Joao da Madeira. The city sent a bus with three volunteer drivers to Poland to bring refugees to town where they ’ll be housed with families and in the artists residences. And a couple will be hired in the best restaurant in town, a really terrific one : Tudo Aos Mulhos: It gets great reviews .

The architecture in Sao Joao da Madeira is a mixed bag. Lots of it is bad and it could be in Mexico City. It reminded me a lot of Latin America.

Here is City Hall. Why such a huge building for a city of 22,000 people ?

And what is that big ball in the park next to it ?

There were other puzzling things.

Why did our hotel let us know that they are open from January 1 to December 31 ?

And how many people are looking for the crematorium?

And who were all those people we saw ?

They didn’t seem like factory workers.

Start up people ?

Arts people ?

Commuters to Porto ?

I don’t know, but they seemed happy to be there. And so were we.