|Brightly painted houses are just part of the unexpected flair of the fishing town of Aveiro, on Portugal's Atlantic coast.|
On the Atlantic coast halfway between Lisbon and Porto, a wide expanse of salt marshes surrounds Aveiro. They begin at the town's edge, and stretch to the horizon in a geometric array of shallow ponds and grassy dikes. This patchwork, and the occasional ramshackle pump house, are the relics of Aveiro's once famous but now fading saltworks.
The town itself—perfectly quaint like every other city and village in Portugal—straddles a series of canals plied by brightly painted gondolas. In this "Portuguese Venice", a renaissance is clearly underway. The narrow rows of traditional fishermen's homes have given ground to new pedestrian thoroughfares, a flowing shopping center integrated elegantly into the town's center, and even a
sleek steel-and-glass fish market. The various bridges that span the canals all look like winning entries in design competitions.
We didn't notice many other tourists during our visit, but tiny Aveiro's boom is earning it attention far beyond Portugal. Even the New York Times has jumped on board with a write-up of the town's best attractions ("A New Culture Takes Hold in an Old Fishing Town").
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With help from Aveiro's friendly tourist office staff, Jacqueline and I quickly found a parking place and a nice room at the family-run Hospedaria dos Arcos, then set out to explore.
Hungry for an afternoon snack, we decided to find the local specialty—ovos moles (literally "soft eggs")—a small pastry filled with a gelatinous mix of sugar and raw egg yolk. In a nearby café, we tried hard to appreciate the styrofoam-like outside and too sweet, too rich, uncooked inner goo. We failed; these delicacies were clearly an acquired taste.
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In recent years, Aveiro has been experimenting with a free bike-sharing system (Bicicleta de Utilização Gratuita de Aveiro, or "BUGAs"). Jacqueline and I hunted down the kiosk and soon after were pedaling along Aveiro's central canal, hooting in delight. After nine months on foot in Morocco, our first ride since leaving our bike-centered lives in DC was every bit of glorious.
We pedaled in wide, leisurely arcs down the boardwalk, grinning gleefully. Where the planks gave way to gravel road, we continued, winding slowly past empty warehouses and fishers' shacks to the marshland. One branch of the road led far into the marshes, ending at a locked gate to one of the few remaining saltworks. Another branch grew continually narrower, until it eventually petered out between two of the shallow, salt-crusted pools.
We stood up high on our pedals and let the evening's blustery winds push us back to town.
* * *
Our bikes back in their stands, we strolled aimlessly, relaxing in the small town atmosphere after the hustle and bustle of Lisbon. In the storefront of a wine shop, a sign offering free tastings caught Jacqueline's eye, and she swept me inside.
Palatus Divinus, its shelves stacked high with local wines, cheeses, sausages, and other delicacies, was a food lover's paradise. But as we soon discovered, it is nonetheless wholly overshadowed by its vivacious owner, David Rocha, whose fantastic stories, vivid emotions, and uninhibited laughter filled every inch of the space.
Within a half hour, we were several glasses into our generous porto tasting ("This one is amazing! You're not gonna find one like this anywhere else! Here, I'll have some too!"), knew each other's life stories ("Wow! Morocco?! Maannnnn....!"), and had somehow launched an extensive process of restaurant recommendations that would take us from Aveiro all the way to Spain ("Oh, and you gotta try this place! See, I'm writing it now... And the cod tongues, you must try them! The best!").
In truth, David's suggestions were all over Portugal, and hitting them all would have taken weeks. In his excitement, he scrawled down names of entire cities—Sintra, Cascais, Obidos, Monsarraz in the Alentejo, and more. He insisted we take the boat ride up the Douro River from Oporto, overwhelmed us with tales of feasts in remote mountain villages, and also recommended seafood delicacies up and down the nearby coast:
- Praia da Barra - restaurant Mar de Jade;
- Praia Costa Nova - visit the fish market, buy some camarões da costa (coastal shrimp), also Don Carlos Fernando, Restaurant Dori, has great bacalhau (codfish) and caldeirada de enguilas (eel stew);
- Praia Vagueira - Marisqueria Vagueira (owned by my friend Isabel);
- Praia do Areão - relax!
David exploded in laughter, and screamed "PUTAAAAAAAAA!"
Then he turned to us, still cackling. "You remember?! The restaurant near the Praia Costa Nova with the eels?! I wrote it here—this is Don Carlos, the owner!" He seemed to embrace the man with all four limbs, giddily kissing his friend's blushing cheeks and explaining in rapid Portuguese that he had just sent some business his way. Then to us, "You see?! He is my friend, that is why I call him 'puta'!"
A friend like David is rare indeed, and we left his shop, bottles in tow, still dazed from the few exhilarating moments we had spent in his aura.
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At David's suggestion, we visited O Batel ("The Boat") for a magnificent three-course dinner. After splitting a plate of mussels, Jacqueline got a steak, smothered in Iberian ham and Serra da Estrela cheese, and I made a significant dent in a grilled sea bass, then a potato-and-fish pudding topped with cod roe.
Food coma ensued, and the morning after our feast, neither Jacqueline nor I could imagine eating more fish. So, while feeling a little guilty, we took David's just a single one of David's recommendations, and drove south past the first three beaches to the windswept Praia do Areão, a desolate expanse of fine white sand, untouched. I tiptoed into the water, frigid even in July. For a while, we sat beside a dune, shielded from the wind, and watched the frothing of the waves.
We relaxed, and then, too soon, it was time to go.