In Portugal, I found the land of sun and salt, a Canadian connection and sandy beaches offering rare quiet
Separate Portugal from time and space, get it on its own and stand it upright, and you’ll find it looks something like a quick sketch of a moai, one of those blocky heads from Easter Island. The lifted brow of the northern coast, the sloping nose of the Lisbon peninsula, the square jaw of the Algarve: the country is a western-facing profile.
It’s a coincidence, but history seems to have imitated this geographical peculiarity. Five hundred years ago, during its so-called Age of Discovery, Portugal was one of the world’s most outward-looking nations, turned away from Europe, its ships sailing from the Atlantic to the Indian and Pacific oceans on a quest for more, more, more.
Canada was one of those places, and it wasn’t long after the Portuguese arrived in the 1490s that they were laying claim to the East Coast and the fish that filled the sea around it. Settlements were raised in Nova Scotia, Newfoundland and Labrador (after the Portuguese marinheiro João Fernandes Lavrador), and codfish became a staple of the Portuguese diet.
I learned all of this over a morning at the Ílhavo Maritime Museum, which focuses as much on Canada as Portugal. The Grand Banks of Newfoundland, in particular, are given a near-Eden status, a place of bounty that fed the nation for centuries.
Those days are gone. Portugal’s cod now comes from Norway and not the exhausted Grand Banks, though the large white kites of splayed and salt-cured fish are still found in every grocery store, and on every holiday banquet table.
It’s often said within Portugal that “the north works and the south plays.” (Well, it’s said in the north at least.) Yet there is play to be found above the midway line, which is drawn somewhere above Lisbon. Though in their guilty workman’s way, any recommended travel route through the Região do Norte incorporates a healthy dose of labour relations.
Take, for example, the Codfish Route, a small circuit in the Aveiro region (the moai’s nose bridge). Besides the Ílhavo Maritime Museum, it recommends taking in the town’s harbour, the salt pans of Aveiro and a good long look at the shellfish harvesters in Costa Nova. It’s attitude that separates work from fun, but also luck. My partner and I were the lucky sort, with this free weekend, happy to benefit from the work of these Portuguese fisherfolk.
It was winter but unseasonably warm and dry, a January more like June. The salt pans were unattended, their pastel-coloured quadrants like a watercolour paint box. Refrigeration, international competition and mechanization have reduced the industry to only a few active pans (a mere six in 2021), but the mineral is still a cultural lodestone of the area. Both the crusty “flower salt” and the chunky rock salt are ubiquitous in the Aveiro region; bags of the stuff, flavoured with garlic, thyme and hot pepper, are found everywhere.
Across the Ria de Aveiro lagoon, that industrial atmosphere is gone, and the Costa Nova peninsula is calmer. Jutting northward, between the ocean and the lagoon, the Costa Nova area was once the seasonal home of fishermen. Today, it has given itself over to sightseers and day trippers, its sandy Atlantic-side beaches a late touristic discovery in Portugal, where quiet, still shores are a luxury.
We drove down the coastal road, stopping on a beach whose sand was like fine brown sugar. The oceanic breeze brushed away the sand fleas and blasted the long, charming line of sea-facing palheiros, traditional fishing houses with colourful pinstripe façades. Beginning in the 19th century, as Costa Nova became an increasing popular summer destination, these houses were gradually transformed into permanent accommodations. Looking at their candy stripes put flavours of peppermint, strawberry and lemon on my tongue.
We were not staying there, but aboard the Costa do Sal, a new hotel/ship docked in the Ria de Aveiro. The boat is a new refurbishment and the only cruiser in these waters, making weekly four-hour sailings upstream to Torreira and back, passing fishing villages and thousands of flamingos.
We settled into our cabin with a bottle of Setúbal wine, as the opening chords of George Harrison’s “My Sweet Lord” came over the sound system. Outside our cabin window was the peninsula’s eastern (lagoon) side, and we watched shellfishers dig in the exposed mud of low tide for razor clams and tend oyster beds on complexes of wooden frames, the wood petrified to a hard black by the salt water.
Celebrating that other working town, Liverpool, was a theme of the night: over supper we ate algae bread and chora do bacalhau — cod cheeks in a thick, yolky sauce — to “Eleanor Rigby,” and sea bass on a bed of lemoned seaweed to “Don’t Let Me Down.” Dessert — goat’s cheese and maple Biscoff loaf (another Canadianism) — and the last of an Alentejo white disappeared, perfectly, over “Fixing a Hole.”
After supper, we strolled on the upper deck. The light had fallen, and all the colours of Costa Nova had reduced to bands of grey and white. Across the lagoon, the lights of Ílhavo were spare, the working town being neither large nor luxurious. Every four seconds, the beam from Barra Lighthouse, the largest such tower in Portugal, swung in our direction, its golden flash drawing any late fishermen back to safe port.
Below deck, the Beatles were still playing. Lying in bed, we guessed at the faint snatches of music that filtered into our room. Occasionally, the rising melodies and ringing notes gave form and order to the confusion of sounds. “Michelle.” “I’ll Follow the Sun.” “And Your Bird Can Sing.” Each moment of chordal recognition was like a bite on a fishing line, the tease of a sweet push and pull, until the dragline of memory finally spooled out into sleep.
We woke at sunrise, the light warming the room and casting a dancing refraction of water onto our ceiling. The oyster farm had disappeared, only the hard pole-tops showing above the waterline. The lagoon was busy with outgoing fishing vessels; the area is famous as much for its local fish as it is for imports.
Soon the Costa do Sal undocked and began its upriver tour, coasting past honking flocks of flamingos. The wind was saline and warm. Fishermen threw weighted nets into the water. Everywhere, always, work continued. The scent of the buffet — roasted cod, of course, but also local bream and sea bass — rose and met me on the upper deck, and I thought how lucky — how very, very lucky — one can be.