Porto São Bento, the tiled gateway to the city of Porto

São Bento station

São Bento’s tiled entrance hall

The main railway station in Porto is famous for its tiled walls. Dating back to 1896 (although the official opening was in 1916), the station reminds me of Brighton station every time I arrive there.  It’s full of light, colour and immediately take you back to the times when rail travel was more than just about getting from A to B.

Unlike a standard train station, the platforms aren’t the busiest area. The entrance halls with display boards actually has the largest number of people milling around, and most of them are tourists taking photos of the blue and white azulejo tiles which adorn the walls.  Telling stories of major events in Portuguese history, these were designed to educate even those who could not read at a time when transport and travel became more accessible for all classes.

Photo0246The grand entrance hall has been modernised with LCD screens indicating departure times but overall it still has an old-world feel.  As well as an old clock in the stained glass window, there are original signs which indicate arrivals and departures and the roof in the platform area brings in much needed light on a rainy day.



There are 20,000 tiles on the walls of São Bento train station and every single one is tin-glazed.  Tiles are a famous Portuguese export and much like the pottery and glassware made at Vista Alegre, the Portuguese still maintain their high quality levels and are famed for their production, holding strong against cheaper imports from other countries.

The tiles were painted in 1905 and 1906 by the artist Jorge Colaço, known at the time as the best producer of azulejo tiles in Portugal.  Needless to say, given that this is a must-see place for anyone visiting Porto, his toil was well worth it.

One of the platforms in São Bento

One of the platforms in São Bento

The main cross country and inter-country (trains to Spain and beyond up through France) leave from Porto Campanhã so if you’re just passing through and you have the time, it’s definitely worth catching the train to São Bento (3 minute journey) to see the tiled walls, Victorian ironwork and the sun glinting through the roof windows.

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).

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.


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.