What’s inside The Barrel?

Restaurante O Barril, traditional Portuguese food

The Barrel’s logo.  Does what it says on the tin

So, I’ve already mentioned a fantastic little place for food in Leiria, and now it’s Aveiro‘s turn. We have a local, and it’s a true local’s place. It’s a little bit away from the town’s main dining areas, but locals do know about it, and frequent it, almost as much as us – with the amazing food here, I simply have to go to the gym to prevent myself growing to the size of a house! The Barrel, as it’s affectionately known by myself and English speaking friends here, is a classic case of don’t judge a book by its cover.

From the outside it looks a little untoward, there’s not a single whiff of haute cuisine or la-di-dah food snobbishness here. What the Barrel contains is a homely atmosphere where real food and friendly service are standard. I’m originally a Yorkshire girl, and we like real food on our plates with a smile to accompany it. I don’t do white plates with a drizzle of sauce, I do real meals with vegetables, fish, meat and good company.

Bife na Pedra in all its glory.

Bife na Pedra in all its glory.

Tucked away down a small street near the theatre in Aveiro, Restaurante O Barril has been on the Aveirense restaurant scene for over fifty years. Its current owners are a family who bought it ten years ago and carried on the tradition of serving home-cooked, freshly made food in epic portions using locally sourced ingredients. As is the norm here, the menu changes daily and includes a wide selection of dishes from fish to meat. There’s always a dish that’s guaranteed to tickle the taste buds, but of all the dishes on the menu, there are two which stand out and that are always available – tiled salmon and steak on a stone.

Salmõ na telha

Prepping the salmon on the tile

Salmão na telha, tiled salmon, consists of salmon, potatoes and onions in olive oil, cooked in a roof tile. The traditional rounded roof tiles of Portugal double up as cooking pots, it seems, and this is one dish that has to be tried. It takes around thirty-five minutes for this fish to gently cook in the oven, just enough time to enjoy fine local cheeses and pâtés. Like the cakes in the bakeries, Portuguese cheeses give the French a run for their money.

Samâ na telha

Ready to eat!

Sizzling steak

Hard to resist, the sizzling steak is hot to trot

As for the steak, well, it’s all about audience participation. Set to sizzle on the stone, the role of the chef reverses and it’s the turn of the diner to do some work! The bife na pedra, or steak on the stone, arrives at the table as a baking hot stone, heated up to around 200°C, straight out of the oven. The steak is served seasoned with local salt, pepper and garlic, but the it’s raw, and like a sizzling platter, you cook it yourself, turning it until it’s oozing with juices, your mouth is watering, and it’s as raw, or as well done as you like it. The wine list is good too, with both a standard and specials list – great for trying something new.

Wines are available by the bottle as well as by the carafe. Even Vinho Verde is available by the carafe here, quite an anomaly in Aveiro.

*As I said in a previous post, I don’t get paid for anything on my blog, but I believe in credit where credit is due. As I’m referring to a local business that someone might miss if they’re in the area, there’s a link in this post to The Barrel’s Facebook page (where these photos came from).

Visions of Vista Alegre

SAM_4228Vista Alegre is a small town which is located  approximately 5miles/8km from Aveiro, in the district of Ilhavo.  The town name means beautiful view and as you can see from the photos, with the river running through it and the masses of grassland along the Aveiro estuary, it’s a particularly apt name

SAM_4231The town itself is probably most famous for the Vista Alegre porcelain factory. The company was established in 1815 by Pinto Basto who saw the success of glass manufacturing in Marinha Grande, a town in the Leiria district, and decided to establish his own firm in Ilhavo.

SAM_4237The original grounds of the Vista Alegre quinta remain today alongside the factory where Vista Alegre’ s high end product are hand crafted from initial mixing off the clay to the varnish that protects the final product. Pinto Bastos purchased Quinta da Ermida, a mansion along the estuary where clay, sands, fuel and pebbles were readily available, to which, at a later date he added the 100 acre estate that is the present day Vista Alegre factory. Granted the title of Royal Factory in 1832 , the company enjoyed a golden era of glass and porcelain production. Fast forward to the present day, and following various restructures, it is still one of Portugal, and indeed, the world’s most well respected porcelain companies.

SAM_4242Today the grounds at Vista Alegre include the original quinta, a family church and the factory itself. The factory’s grounds have a small garden in them which is reminiscent of that often found in an English country house. There’s a museum (currently closed for refurbishment but the displays can be seen elsewhere in the town) which charts the history of the factory, the families involved over time and includes pieces from its finest collection. These collections are a true reflection of how our approach to fine dining, homewares and decoration has changed over time, with each artistic era since 1815 brilliantly represented in porcelain, china and glass. Royal families and presidents of several countries are amongst the lucky ones to have Vista Alegre on their dinner tables.

SAM_4238Nowadays the factory produces the high end pieces for the likes of Christian Lacroix and Eduardo Nery whilst their partner company, Atlantic, is the crystal and glasswear producer.  Tours of the factory are available for anyone who wants to learn more about the production process and marvel at the steady hands of the artists working there. When they say handmade, they really mean it here.  An extensive range of Vista Alegre Atlantis’ products are on sale at the two shops at the Vista Alegre factory, both of which are an absolute dream of a place to visit.  You’ll come away wishing you had ten kitchens and dinings rooms  and that you could entertain every night of the week, just to have an excuse to buy the tea sets, coffee pots and crystal glasses.  My personal favourites are the Vila Verde range, based on a tradition related to handkerchiefs that’s resurged here in Portugal which I’ll write about at a later date.

SAM_4246 In the last week of July of each year, the town pays homage to the local saint, Our Lady of Peñafrancia (Nossa Senhora da Penha de França), and of course, this is an excellent excuse for a party or two.  In the grounds of the factory, a stage is erected alongside several stalls with local food, toys and daily entertainment.  Anyone visiting Porto and especially Aveiro at that time of year should add a visit here to their plans. SAM_4234There’s also a Vista Alegre factory shop sale which is immensly popular and additional (free) tours of the factory take place- bring your car if you want to stock up!  For us, though, one of the highlights of the celebrations was a Fado night organised by the Vista Alegre Sporting Club, a local community organisation on a par with a rugby or cricket club in the UK.  With local wines, food served on Vista Alegre pottery (what else?!) and local Fado singers, the community came out in force to celebrate.  It was a simple affair, but often, it’s best to take it back to basics to enjoy great company, a friendly atmosphere and a local tradition that few foreigners get to see.

São Gonçalinho – the art of chucking bread off the church roof

São Gonçalinho festival in Aveiro

Fishing nets ahoy in Aveiro

A month ago, the centre of Aveiro was host to one of its biggest festivals, which celebrates São Gonçalo. Aveiro is broken up into geographical districts, there’s Alboi, Glória, Vera Cruz, Barrocas and each one has its own celebrations, traditions and of course, church or chapel. For the São Gonçalinho festivities, the action takes place in Vera Cruz, right in the centre of town.

São Gonçalo, or São Gonçalinho as he is more commonly known here (inho is diminuitive in Portuguese), was reputed to cure illnesses of the bone and sort out marital problems, but today people pay homage for a variety of reasons personal to them. At the chapel dedicated to him, just next to Praça do Peixe, where the main fish market is, the locals gather with umbrellas, fishing nets and sackloads of a special bread, called cavacas. Cavacas are an oval shaped flat bread that is dusted with icing sugar. They are hard on the outside but soft on the inside, which when it comes hurtling towards you from a church roof, you’d find hard to believe! They’re shaped a little bit like a boat, very apt for this region of Portugal.

São Gonçalinho festival in Aveiro

São Gonçalinho poster for the 2013 festival

São Gonçalinho poster

São Gonçalinho poster for 2014 festival

Local tradition dictates that in throwing the bread from the dome of the church, a prayer will be granted for the year. They call the wishes promessas here, but this sounds strange to the English ear, and so, having had the concept explained to me, I think wish or answered prayer, is a more appropriate translation. Day and night, people file into the chapel with their cavacas, heading up to the dome to stand and throw them at the crowds gathered below. The unique way in which the crowds catch the wishes, though, is what makes this such a fun festival. People are armed for cavacas battle with long fishing nets, metres high, upturned umbrellas, their bare hands and sacks to take them home in… and they’re trained, really trained, for action. It’s normal to see ten fishing nets waving about in the air as people catch the cavacas, with cheers from the crowds, clapping and the necessary dodging of these sweet flying saucers by debutantes like myself.

São Gonçalinho festival in Aveiro

São Gonçalinho festival in Aveiro

It’s not just about the art of throwing the bread, though, this is a festival for everyone. The festival takes place every year in January, on the Sunday which falls nearest to the 10th January, with fireworks every night in the five days running up to the Sunday, concerts and cavacas bread stalls – it’s perfect for anyone with a sweet tooth. They even do selection bags so you can test the waters, as it were, then go back for more.

Waxing lyrical about Leiria

A day trip to Leiria a few months ago started out with us just planning to see the castle as it was the only attraction we could find details .  Information on what to see and do in some of the smaller Portuguese cities is scarce, to say the least, and we often happen upon things to do when we actually get there.  Leiria was definitely one of these cases.

SAM_3585Leiria is located in the central part of Portugal, about one hour by car from Porto, or it has easy access from Aveiro and Lisbon by coach (Rede Expresso coaches).  It’s a fairly small city and the main attractions can be seen in one day.  There are three main attractions in the town – a castle, a working paper mill and a museum dedicated to film and photography.

Pharmacia Paiva

Pharmacia Paiva in the Largo da Sé, just outside the cathedral.

The town’s cathedral, a 16th century construction which is normally the first place people pop into when they arrive in Leiria as tourists. If that’s the case, make sure you take a quick look across the road from the cathedral to the Pharmácia Paiva, a three storey tiled building which was the inspiration for the boticary in The Crime of Padre Amaro, written by Eça de Queiroz, a world famous Portuguese author and native of Leiria.

Once you’ve seen the cathedral head up to the castle and opt for an unguided visit – it’s small enough to see it on your own.  Tickets are available as a multi-site ticket which includes a ticket for the castle, the papermill, the film museum and a farming museum.  Valid for one visit to each site within a twelve month period, it’s well worth the price.

Leiria stadium

The brightly covered stadium in Leiria

The castle sits atop the main hill in town, and for obvious reasons it’s the most prominent building in the town. It has a small exhibition, but it’s the ruins themselves which offer the best of the site.  It’s tumble down and overgrown in parts but the views over the city make up for it  with the rainbow coloured local football stadium taking centre stage alongside the town square and river. Some basic information on the castle is available here.

Leiria castle ruins

Part of the ruins of the castle in Leiria

A couple of streets from the castle is the Museum of Moving Imagery.  There are scientific explanations of how the eye sees and interprets colour as well as a fascinating collection of old cameras and film making paraphenalia and old film posters.  Head to the cafe in here for the views over the town. A quick overview of the museum can be found here.

The River Lis powering the paper mill

The paper mill in Leira is powered by the River Lis.

 

Back down in the town centre, near the River Lis, is the paper mill. Now restored as a working museum, the mill actively recycles paper and produces flour.  Quite a combination!  A small tour of the paper mill explains the paper recycling process and it’s a touch and feel experience, from the mulch to the finished paper – complete with a watermark and the history of watermarks.  The flour mill experience is equally as touchy-feely.  Sample the flour and test the different textures between your fingers, and if baking a cake is one of your past times, you can buy it by the bag.

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Porto, big on romance and sweeping views

With Valentine’s Day on the horizon, a lot of folk will be pondering where to head to for a weekend of romance and love. Paris, Barcelona, London?  The obvious choices spring to mind, but what about Porto, Portugal’s second biggest city, and a stonkingly romantic one at that!

Porto from above

The city of Porto viewed from above.

Porto is a city of sweeping views, whether you’re coming in to land at their brand new airport or sailing down the River Douro aboard a rabelo boat.  It’s a city of impressive bridges, tumbledown houses, an exquisitely tiled railway station and a river front that screams, “pick a table, any table, order a glass of Port, and enjoy the company of your loved one, because this, my friend, is happiness in the sunshine”.

The Douro Valley in summertime

The Douro Valley (Peso de Regua)

Porto is divided in two by the River Douro, which flows down from Spain (where it’s known as the Duero) through the Douro Valley here in Portugal and out to the powerful Atlantic Ocean which lies along the western coast of Portugal.  The two ‘divisions’ are actually two towns which for tourism purposes, are considered one.  There’s Porto proper, the town on the right bank of the river if you look out to sea, and Vila Nova de Gaia, on the left bank.

The no 22 tram in Porto

Parked and ready for off, the no 22 tram is an old-fashioned way to see Porto.

Porto itself is home to the Ribeira district, a Unesco World Heritage Site.  It’s a maze of tiny cobbled streets, tiled shopfronts, bakeries, restaurants and, by the river side, bars and small markets.  Whether you arrive by train or not, make sure you head to São Bento railway station in the centre of town for an intricately tiled entrance hall depicting the history of Portugal in traditional azulejos.  Getting around is simple thanks to a state of the art metro system that runs both under and over ground, but the fun way to see the town, is by tram, and old fashioned trams at that.  The no 22 picks up in Carmo and heads to Batalha.  Sit back and enjoy the view. Or, catch the no.1 tram down by the river near the Palacio da Bolsa for a twenty minute journey to the Atlantic coast town of Foz do Douro – there’s always impressive waves in Foz so stay well back!

Fonseca Port lodge

Fonseca Port lodge from a rabelo boat

Rabelo boats at Vila Nova de Gaia

Rabelo boats at Vila Nova de Gaia

Vila Nova de Gaia is the land of Port.  Cross over the Dom Luis bridge (designed by a partner of Gustave Eiffel, so there’s no escaping Paris, after all) and you’ll find yourself on a quayside that looks upwards to a plethora of Port lodges, most of which you’ll spot have unusually non Portuguese names – they’re mainly British, and downwards to the River Douro and the rabelo boats – once used for bringing wine from the valleys, now used for boat trips.  In the Napoleonic era when the British and French were at war, the British needed their wine fix in a society that was growing increasingly accustomed to a tipple, and, as there was an embargo on the Bordeaux Claret that was à la mode at the time, the Brits found an alternative liquid refuge with their oldest allies- the Portuguese in the liquid joy that is Port.  They’re still the biggest market for it today… how time stands still.  Take a trip around the Port lodges for a history of the wine, the winemaking process and some samples to whet your whistle before investing in a vintage bottle to crack open next Valentine’s Day.

Brazil, beans and Braga

Braga is located in the north of Portugal in the Minho region.  The Minho is inland and it’s where the famous Vinho Verde wine that Portugal produces hails from.  It’s considered to be the oldest city in Portugal and one of the most religious, so why is it worth a visit?

Bom Jesus, Braga

Bom Jesus and the Twelve Stations of the Cross

The town’s cathedral, or Sé, was begun in 1070 and completed in 1093 – well, in its first incarnation. Since then there’s been various additions and subtractions to its stature, look and build.  It houses an interesting museum nowadays, but a peep in the main building itself is well worth it.

Braga is a small town but it’s easily accessible by rail and road. There’s a modern train station around 10 minutes walk from the city centre, along a series of cobbled streets with small local shops selling everything from Port to cheese and handbags.

The main square itself, the Praça da República, has the requisite cafés and tea rooms all great Portuguese towns and cities have. One of the prettiest buildings is Café A Brasileira (https://www.facebook.com/CafeABrasileiraBrg) which is covered in Azulejos tiles, as you might expect here.  It’s on the corner as you come into the square from the station, and it’s named after the coffee beans that were imported from Brazil as far back as 1907.  The original owner, Adolpho de Azevedo started the loyalty concept early in Braga, offering a free cup of coffee to anyone who bought half a kilo of coffee beans.  It obviously worked as the café is a city landmark today!

Bom Jesus, Braga

The Bom Jesus Sanctuary

Further afield, the Bom Jesus do Monte Sanctuary makes for some breathtaking views of the valley.  A twenty-minute bus journey (about 6km) from the centre of Braga, this There’s two choices when it comes to getting to the top – you can either walk the 170 MASSIVE stairs, or, like me, take the funicular.  It’s no ordinary funicular, though!  No, the funicular at Bom Jesus a) looks like an old-fashioned tram, and b) is water powered – you can even the see the water trickling down the wall once you reach the top, as it’s recycled again and again. It’s the oldest working water powered funicular in the world, so a true piece of engineering history.

Bom Jesus, Braga

A Hobbit like cave and mini waterfall at Bom Jesus

Once you’re at the top, the Sanctuary itself is worth a look inside, but the best things up here are the gardens and the view.  Have a wander around the gardens on both sides of the sanctuary, as there’s two look out points to take in the sights from, and check out the cave and mini waterfall that’s in the pictures.  It’s like something from The Hobbit or Lord of the Rings!

Costa Nova – a candy striped Portuguese beach resort

Aveiro, Costa Nova, candy stripe

Costa Nova’s candy stripes

Located just fifteen minutes from Aveiro by car, and about 30 minutes if you take the local bus that goes everyyyywhere, is the candy striped town beach town of Costa Nova.  Costa Nova is truly one of the hidden gems of all of the Portuguese beach resorts and it’s a favourite with people who bring their motorhomes, particularly from the Netherlands, Germany and France, year on year.  For me, Costa Nova is a chance to experience a seaside town that’s unspoilt by high rise apartment blocks and trashy shops. It’s charming, has an air of the 1950s about it, and is ever so pretty for a wander, even on a day when the sun hasn’t quite made it out.

candy stripe, Costa Nova, Aveiro

A tiny candy striped painted house

Candy striped wooden buildings of all shapes and sizes line the main avenue through the town, standing out against the traditional tiled buildings that you see across towns and cities in Portugal. The cutest are the tiny ones which look like they’ve been crammed in where there was a tiny patch of land going spare.

There’s cafés and icecream parlours along the main avenue which are always busy.  In summertime, there’s barely room on their terraces to grab a table and even in autumn and winter when the winds and rain pick up here, you’ll find people braving the elements to head to Costa Nova for a wander along the avenue and down to the beach to see the sand dunes and the waves crashing on the shore.

Costa Nova, sunset, Aveiro

Costa Nova, at sunset

Costa Nova has a fantastic little market which sells incredibly fresh fish (you’re metres away from the sea in this place) and bread, fruit, vegetables,hams and cheeses that you can pick up as you arrive then head to the beach for a picnic.

Costa Nova, candy stripes

Cute shutters in Costa Nova

Or, if you want someone else to do the hard work, check out their fish restaurants – they’ve got a great reputation in the area. Fish is normally sold by the kilo so you can choose exactly what you eat. Served with delicious boiled potatoes and a local vegetable mix called migas (cabbage, carrots, beans and tiny chunks of bread), fish here is top of the list for any meal.