The Atlantic Ocean washes Centro Portugal’s soft, silver beaches. In the east of the region are mountains, castles and Spain, to its north a river renowned for its port and wine, the Douro, and to the south Lisbon and the Tagus. It’s a pretty region with rivers flowing through deep valleys, quaint villages, historic towns and cities, vineyards, orchards, forests, ruined abbeys, museums and fabulous food. Stop a while and explore for there are many things to see and do.
On the edge of a lagoon, linked to the ocean by a watery web of canals cutting through marshland and sandbanks is Aveiro. The town is famous its ovos moles, salt, art nouveau buildings and the bright, rather gaudily painted moliceiro. Moliceiro are the gondola-like boats once used to dredge for the seaweed used to fertilise the fields, or to transport salt from the local salt pans. Today they are more likely to carry visitors wanting to see Aveiro from the water.
Salt production was once a flourishing business but it is also highly labour intensive and of the original 350+ rectangular shaped salt pans only a handful exist today. However, the Flor de Sal that is produced is noted for its fine flavour and is highly prized.
Talking of flavour, Aveiro is also famous for its ovos moles. These soft, sweet, eggy little fish or shell-shaped treats are so special they have been awarded PDO certification ‘Protected Designation of Origin’, showing that they are the genuine product.
Our meal that night at the O Bairro was certainly full of flavour. It’s an informal, smart-casual restaurant where the chef gives traditional dishes a delicious modern make-over, and the service is not only helpful and efficient, but friendly too. https://en-gb.facebook.com/obairrorestaurante
We spent the night at the elegant and welcoming Hotel Moliceiro (www.hotelmoliceiro.com). The hotel has 49 comfortable, well-equipped rooms, 15 of which are imaginatively themed. We had arrived late so there was little daylight left to explore Aveiro, but next morning we set out to wander round the attractive town taking in the little fishermen’s houses, the moliceiro and the numerous art nouveau buildings. A few doors from the Hotel Moliceiro is the Art Nouveau museum, its ground floor a popular tea room.
In the fish market, we lingered long enough to take pictures of the trays of the morning’s catch of fresh, bright-eyed fish and still slithering eels, before leaving for Ílhavo – and keeping up the fish theme – the Maritime Museum.
Salt Cod and Ílhavo
Salt cod (bacalhau) is part of the psyche of the Portuguese. They love it and have developed recipe upon recipe to utilise every inch of their beloved fish. It is said there is a recipe for every day of the year.
For several centuries the Portuguese fishermen have set sail for the waters off Newfoundland and Greenland to catch the cod.
The men of the ‘White Fleet’ would be away for six to nine months at a time, working and living in appalling conditions catching, preparing and salting the fish. They would sleep four or five to a bed in their clothes, and with no toilet facilities, up until as recently as 1960s.
Their fascinating story is told in Ílhavo’s excellent modern Maritime Museum – complete with its replica of one of the boats. It also houses an aquarium – home to about 40 cod, and an astonishing collection of some 4,500 sea shells from around the world. The museum also carries out marine research programmes. www.museumaritimo.cm-ilhavo.pt
At the tiny taverna Bela Ria, not far from Aveiro and the Maritime Museum, Jorge Pinhão, President of the Salt Cod Guild, serves up snacks, or, if you phone in advance, dishes like cod’s roe, fried cod cheek or cod in a fritter-like batter. https://pt-pt.facebook.com/RestauranteBelaRia
For a breath of sea air we headed for Costa Nova. Once a fishermen’s village it is now a smart seaside resort with houses painted in stripes of white, green, red, black and blue. Its vast, sand-duned beach seems to stretch for miles.
Also close to Ílhavo and Aveiro is the Vista Alegre factory where exquisite porcelain has been made since 1824.
The company’s founder José Ferreira Pinto Basto having recognised that the local clay and sand was ideal for the manufacture of glass and pottery, and later for porcelain, purchased the Quinta da Ermida estate. Here he established not only the factory but also created a village complex for his workers.
The museum, housed in one of the workshops, features showcase after show case of exquisite examples of how Portuguese porcelain has evolved over the last two hundred years to the present day.
Fascinating as the museum, is even more interesting is one of the factory workshop guided tours. From an initial slab of clay, through moulding, firing, painting and gilding the 45 minute tour allows visitors to see every part of the production process.
Individual tickets for the museum and factory are available but best value is the combined guided tour ticket of the factory, museum and the 17th century chapel. The shop is well-worth a visit too. www.myvistaalegre.com
Coimbra – A Capital City
From the coast we moved inland to the region’s capital, Coimbra. Coimbra might not be quite as ‘old as time’ but it is very, very old.
The university is one of the oldest in the world, and today one of Coimbra’s biggest attractions. It sits perched high on a hill top looking out over the two cathedrals, churches, steep narrow cobbled streets and down to the river Mondego flowing lazily below.
Black cloaked students flit round the university buildings, which were once part of a medieval royal palace, like the pupils from a Harry Potter book, or the bats that emerge at night in the magnificent baroque Joanine Library. The library dates back to the 18thcentury and in the rooms of this ornate and gilded temple to learning are shelves lined with some 250,000 books. The bats are encouraged as they eat the insects that could damage the books. In the lower floor are less important books plus temporary exhibitions and the library prison. The university had its own law court and the prison was where convicted scholars were incarcerated.
The ticket allowing entrance to the library also allows access to other sections of the old palace including the splendid Grand Hall (originally the Throne Room) where university ceremonies take place, and the examination room half tiled in blue and white tiles.
A few steps away is the Machado de Castro Museum, which apart from housing an impressive collection of art and sculpture, also has good value restaurant with an outside deck and tables with a view o
ut over the roof tops of Coimbra.
We found another good value restaurant in the exhibition centre of the ruined Gothic convent of Santa Clara-a-Velha. The convent, founded in 1286, was unfortunately built too close to the river and over a couple or so centuries was periodically destroyed by floods. However the site is currently being excavated and the lovely atmospheric ruins are well worth a visit, as is the centre with its display of archaeological finds.
We stayed the night at the Hotel Quinta das Lágrimas not far from the ruined convent and within walking distance of the town. The hotel’s fine dining restaurant Arcadas offers superb cuisine served impeccably and with charm. www.quintadaslagrimas.pt
The Quinta is also set in wonderfully romantic grounds, part woodland, part botanical garden where one of Portugal’s most famous legends played out; the love affair of Ines and Pedro. It was an affair which was to result in her murder – a brutal and macabre tale.
Maybe their story of unrequited love was centuries later to have some influence on Portugal’s most famous musical form – fado.
Fado certainly throbs with the emotion of unrequited love, longing, death and sorrow.
Music was coming from the open doorway of the Fado ao Centro on Rua Quebra Costas, and we popped in to listen better. We were in a little theatre and exhibition room, its walls lined with photos, telling the story of Coimbra fado.
Coimbra fado we were told is slightly different to Lisbon fado. In Coimbra it is only the men who sing, and the guitar has a different tone and head shape. Our visit was perfectly timed. We sat entranced as Hugo, a university student, picked up his guitar and played for us the hauntingly romantic – April in Coimbra. Daily performances of fado take place at 6pm. www.fadoaocentro.com
Apples and Cheese
Our last stop was in the more rugged landscape of the Beira region noted for its wine, cheese and apples.
They make apple jam at the delightful Casa da Ínsua. The Casa was built in the 18th century on the site of an earlier building from money made in Brazil and today is a glorious 5* hotel ornately and magnificently furnished and decorated with antiques and Brazilian artefacts. It also has extensive grounds which include the apple orchard, sheep pastures, a winery and lovely ornamental gardens.
Guests are invited to participate in harvesting events such as apple or grape picking and also to learn more about wine tasting, how to make the preserves and even the delicious Serra da Estrela cheese from the sheep’s milk . We helped peel apples and make jam, and also helped to make the cheese. The cheese making was fun, and my hands have never been so soft. I loved the taste of the soft, young cheese but there again the more mature, firmer cheese was delicious too. www.casadainsua.pt
It was hard to drag ourselves away from lovely Casa da Insua and its sun-soaked terrace with views out over the gardens and beyond but we wanted to learn more about some of the other excellent wines from the region.
Dao Wine Region
Paço dos Cunhas do Santar forms part of Global Wine/Dão sul, an organisation which purchased a 17th century estate with two manor farm houses. In 2008 one of the houses was given over to promote wine tourism offering facilities for wine and olive oil tastings, a super and reasonably priced restaurant (highly recommended), cookery workshops and various events like grape harvest parties. www.daosul.com/pt
It is set in the charming historic wine village of Santar in the famous Dão wine region. The estate is in the Beira Alta province, some 25km from the sea between two mountain ranges. The grapes respond well to the granite soil and the high summer temperatures and cold winters, and the wine is delicious. Before leaving we wandered down the winding narrow street to the vineyard. The grapes had been harvested and the vines, their leaves beginning to take on their autumn colours, basked as we did, in the warm afternoon sun.