Portuguese pursuits – call of the cod

By | Category: Travel destinations

Some colourful molicerios in Aveiro

Despite a long-standing love affair with wine of the fortified kind, aka port, and a recent interest in fado, the Portuguese folk music of choice, few Brits venture off the beaten track in Portugal. This, I immediately thought, needed remedying. Surely there had to be places worth a visit away from the main cities and the Algarve coast in the south?

Landing at Porto airport, for a change I did not head straight for the port. Instead my driver whisked me away from the city altogether and with a wistful sigh I waved goodbye to the Douro River and the port caves lining it before I’d even said hello. This, after all, was why I was here – to explore pastures new (with some hopefully good grazing opportunities) and experience a more unfamiliar side of Portugal.

The relatively little-visited region known as Centro de Portugal spans quite a stretch of territory and is home to a variety of landscapes from beaches and mountains to quiet vineyards and fortified villages dating back to a more belligerent past. It’s located between Lisbon to the south and Porto to the north, running all the way from the Atlantic Ocean shores in the west, to the Spanish border out east. I was aiming to spend a few days getting to know this area and its interesting mix of seafaring history, wine-making skills and culinary traditions.

Less than an hour later I found myself in the Venice of Portugal, to use a handy cliché. Aveiro, near the Atlantic coast, on the fjordlike Ría de Aveiro inlet, proved a picturesque town, complete with gondolas, or so I thought. These colourfully painted and prettily adorned boats were in fact moliceiros, traditional former fishing boats, typical of the area. These days they’re mostly used for taking interested visitors on tours of the ría and the network of canals running through town. Sadly I arrived a little bit late in the day for a boat trip, but Aveiro at dusk had other charms to offer. The canals are perfect for a quiet stroll and despite there being a freshers’ fair taking over town, it remained remarkably sedate. No drunken rowdiness from the students of Aveiro – instead well-presented Hogwarts lookalikes traipsed orderly past, in long black capes, as I wandered along the main canal flanked by grand old buildings.

the art nouveau museum

Aveiro dates back to medieval times, although the medieval core is largely gone these days. Instead, the town has turned into quite a centre for art noveau, with many buildings beautifully tiled. If just ambling the alleys admiring the ornately tiled houses isn’t enough, there’s also an art noveau museum facing the canal, with a cosy café, complete with brightly coloured comfy seating indoors, as well as in the back patio, facing the old fish market, still in operation today. It was near the fish market I came across O Bairro, a plain and simple-looking restaurant, serving up surprisingly delicious food. Mouth-watering tuna carpaccio with citrus scented couscous proved an appetising starter and the three courses that followed weren’t bad either. Stuffed silly and ready for bed, I slowly made my way back to my hotel to turn in.

Fish, as you may have gathered, is quite a theme in this part of Centro and after my evening stroll, pleasant dinner and restful sleep it was time to find out more about all things fishy. The sea has shaped this part of Portugal in more ways than one – the ría and canals of Aveiro are part of the region’s maritime heritage, as are the nearby salt flats where salt is still harvested every summer. Then there are also the stories of all the people, past and present, working in the fishing industry. To get a better idea of the maritime history and culture I decided to pay a visit to the Maritime Museum of Ílhavo, further south along the ría.

Housed inside quite a formidable modern building, the museum is, in essence, a celebration of that humble northern Atlantic fish, the cod. It’s rather bizarre when you consider these fish aren’t naturally available in this part of the Atlantic, but hail from shores thousands of miles away. Not that this stopped a hardy seafaring nation like the Portuguese and this area was dedicated to cod fishing for centuries, right up until the 1960s, with boats sailing as far as Newfoundland for 6-9 months of the year to catch their loot, usually under quite appalling conditions. The huge museum even has a replica of the cod fishing boats that used to ply the routes and speculations were running wild amongst us visitors, as to just how smelly the fishermen would get at sea, surrounded by cod for months on end with limited washing opportunities. Probably best not to speculate!

It seemed a bit rude to head straight from the recently inaugurated cod aquarium to a restaurant where I’d be eating relatives of the fish I’d just been merrily greeting, but life is that cruel sometimes. To cod fish anyway and when in Rome… The local tavern Bela Ría had laid on a cod lunch like there was no tomorrow. I must confess I’m not that keen on cod, but by the end of said meal, I was almost a convert. Starting off with grilled cod cheeks, I didn’t feel entirely convinced – far too much like hard work for a tiny bit of food (even plump cod don’t have that much meat in their cheeks, let’s face it) – but once the “cod patties” (cod pieces in a light batter) turned up, lunch improved no end. The Portuguese often drink red wine with cod and the local red also went very nicely with the bean and chorizo stew that accompanied the main course of breaded bacalhau (salt cod) and sautéed potatoes with olives. It’s safe to say one does not starve in Portugal.

beach houses in Costa Nova

Finally, having been tantalisingly close to the Atlantic coast since arriving the day before, it was time to take a sneak peek at the sea itself. The seaside village of Costa Nova, sitting on a spit of land between the Atlantic and Ría de Aveiro, proved the perfect picturesque place to end the day. Colourfully striped beach houses, in reds, blues and greens lined the main drag facing the ría, while the ocean-side was home to endless beaches, popular with surfers, joggers and all manner of energetic people. A lovely spot to watch others do the exercising for me, while I plotted my next few days’ explorations of Centro with a glass of wine. Read about the countryside in part 2 of my journey.

Getting there:
National airline TAP and lowcost carrier easyJet both have direct flights to Porto, the nearest airport to the places visited, from London Gatwick.

Places to stay:

Hotel Moliceiro, Aveiro, a beautifully designed hotel overlooking the main canal. Interesting and stylish, individually themed rooms, including a Marrakesh room with four-poster 1001-night bed, a Moroccan tea set and slippers. Great attention to detail and exceedingly comfortable.

Hotel Aveiro Palace, Aveiro, imposing four-star hotel by the waterfront, recently refurbished with all the mod cons. Balcony overlooking the canals and original tiles in the breakfast room.

Furadouro Boutique Hotel, Furadouro beach, Ovar, beach hotel and spa a short distance from Aveiro. Modern hotel with a firm focus on spa and relaxation. Offers a variety of spa treatments.

Further information:
For more information about Centro de Portugal, click here.
For more information about Portugal, click here.

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