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Monday, June 30

coastal Portugal

After Porto & Lisbon, we were ready for the coastal towns. Driving towards Obidos we had our first sight of the Atlantic in the town of Ericeria. We stopped to enjoy the view and buy Pao com Chorizo (ciabatta filled with Chorizo) from a food cart. The lady doesn’t speak English so pointing and ordering was best. The best way to describe it is Portuguese hot pocket, freshly made and warm out of the oven.

We proceeded to the convent in Obidos. The host had planned a wonderful surprise with bubbly wine. The convent is located in the old town, inside the walls and has many rooms. Our bedroom was spacious with a sitting area and two full baths, this room is ideal for small families.
Obidos is a walled in village with beautiful homes and shops. One of the neat shops was a market that sells vegetables and fruits and books. There are also many souvenir shops.

Our host recommended 1st December (yes that’s the name) for a meal. Minutes away from the convent, we arrived promptly at 8. Upon the server’s suggestion the husband ordered homemade sausage with rice and I ordered the legume soup. The soup was made of dried green peas, cooked in onions, carrots and other flavorings, blended and served with pasta. Although it had potential to be mouth-watering, it wasn’t. The homemade sausage was of ground chicken in a casing, deep fried and scrumptious. The batter attributed to the crispy exterior and the meat was cooked nicely. The rice was simply seasoned with salt and a good pairing for the sausage.

We were traveling to nearby monasteries and church for the days. Alcobaça is a monastery and church in one and draws the tourists for its exemplified gothic design. The structure was built in the 12th century. The main room in the church is simple with tall columns and is serenely spacious. There’s a love story of Dom Pedro and the woman he married in secret, who was murdered by Dom Pedro’s father, King Alfonso IV. There isn’t an English audio guide granting us time to walk at our own pace. During our visit there were many rooms under renovation. The monastery allowed monks to live here permanently. The large rooms are dedicated to spirituality, cooking and sleeping. Due to the large rooms, the monks cooked together and slept in the same room. There is even a room dedicated to silence.

Lunch after touring the monastery was at Calderira in Obidos. Due to cloudy weather I got pig knuckle with rice & beans as well as cabbage, a very German meal but it had Portuguese flavors with garlic, olive oil and mild peppers. The pork was good and a large portion to share; rice and beans were terrific. The husband had goat chops with pan fried potatoes and spinach. The chops were swimming in olive oil and garlic, a good sign. The vegetables were cooked nicely but under seasoned. I see a pattern: meat is cooked and salted adequately while the veggies are under seasoned.

What is it with countries on the coast that under season with salt? Salt from the sea is in abundance people! I am judging based on my own preferences but culinary school taught me to adequately season with salt because it enhances the flavors of foods.
Heading north we ended up in Nazaré. Hotel Mar Bravo is modern and attempting to be chic. The main draw is its location and proximity to the shore; our room’s balcony faced the beach. The staff was helpful, the rooms were adequate especially the shower that’s equipped with shower and soaking tub. Surfers flock to Nazaré because of the waves and due to the rain and high tide we saw some tall waves.

During nice weather, it’s a beautiful stroll on the beach that’s equipped with a sidewalk.

For dinner we went to A Tasquinha. We ordered shrimp salad to share: fried shrimp on top of salad greens and mixed vegetables and mayonnaise dressing. Although mayonnaise sounds odd with shrimp salad, it worked. For main the server suggested sea bass, freshly caught. The fish was butterflied, grilled and briefly broiled for char. The fish came with house sauce (olive oil, shallots, cilantro & salt). The sauce enhanced the fish perfectly and made the meal memorable. The sides were green salad, braised cabbage and boiled potatoes. The sides were sufficient for two and fine. The bottle of vinho verde was selected by the server, slightly pricier than house wine but paired properly with the meal. The dessert was almond pudding; eggs, cream and sugar cooked with chopped almonds, typical to the region. The service was spot on and both the server & owner were generous. It’s a small restaurant so we recommend making reservations for a weekend evening.

Here we saw many ladies in traditional garments going about their day. The cool thing was they were all older ladies, dressed in the same type of outfit, skirt, sweater, long socks. It seemed fitting for winter days.

We’d learned of the Mira de Avia caves inland and the perfect activity to be away from the rain. Driving inland, the region is mountainous. The entrance to the caves is shabby with every trinket/souvenir available in Portugal. We were the only visitors that morning and with concern we asked the ticket office if they offer English tours and they affirmed. We waited 20 minutes before a guide arrived, disconcerting. He said he only spoke Portuguese or French. Perplexed we asked the ticket office for an English tour guide and moments later an English speaking “guide” turned up. Quotes because her English was average at best but we were thankful to have someone clarify the basics. Also the caves cannot be visited without a guide. The caves are millions of years old and 700 steps below ground. The guide took many breaks to permit us to take photos and explain the history. After touring the caves we were glad we visited this out of the way sight. Make sure to get an English guide before buying the ticket. The caves are so extensive that there’s even a room created in the formation that is reserved for special events, i.e. weddings, dinners, private parties. Cool.

The tour was 45 minutes and it was 2pm, hungry for lunch we were on a look out for local places. As we were driving back to the coast, I spotted Restaurante Tasquinha D´ Maria on Rua Principal, Porto de Mós, on the windy road. There were few parked cars so we took that as a sign for the locals’ place in the area. When we entered, an older woman pulled the husband’s hand and pointed to a table, gesturing come in and sit. We smiled because we knew we’d entered a place that would feel like the grandma’s home. Once inside we walked through part of a kitchen that had a large charcoal grill built next to the stove. The chef was grilling meats on the entire rectangular grill implying they were busy for lunch. I went back to the grill to ask the older woman what everyone was getting. The older woman handed me the menu and pointed to the meat, in Portuguese, then a younger woman walked over and handed me an English menu. The older woman tugged at my jeans and pointed me to my seat. The gesture felt warm and like my grandma was telling me to take my place at the table. We asked other diners for their recommendations and they suggested beef liver and beef innards. We ordered one of each. The younger woman, also our server, suggested we get fresh cheese and tomato salad. The fresh cheese was amazing, so good we ordered another plate. The cheese had a Greek yogurt consistency and tasted like fresh cheese, perfectly salted. The tomato salad was fine though we were sad the tomatoes weren’t vine-ripe. The mains were accompanied with roasted potatoes for me and french fries for him. I’d never tried beef liver before and I was surprisingly impressed, it was cooked nicely. The husband’s dish was flavorful but overdone, sadly. The roasted potatoes were with olive oil and vinegar, a good accompaniment to the fatty meat. The fries were freshly fried. Later the server asked if we wanted dessert and we declined but having seen other diners order it we opted for one to share. It was rice pudding (or Indian kheer) with cinnamon flavors. Decent finish to the meal. Our total bill was 18 euros for all that food and wine. We loved the atmosphere and the genuine effort the three women and a man put towards their guests. The food here will never compare to a Michelin restaurant but the experience will make this one of the most memorable for us in Portugal. This is a gem and worth seeking out.

We then drove to Batalha for a tour. There are lots of monasteries in Portugal! This one built in the 14th century. There are large, spacious rooms that allowed monks to live in silence. We learned there are designated rooms (kitchen, living, sleeping) because monks must practice a vow of silence at all times. Unlike Alcobaça church, the church here is simple and undistinguished.

With rain prompting our departure we drove to our almost last stop of the trip, Figuera de Foz. Our bed & breakfast, Casa dos Suecos, is in a residential neighborhood and in an unassuming home. Once inside there is a grand dining room for guests, few rooms on the first floor and few more on the second floor. Our room on the second floor was large with a sitting area, a bathroom with a tub and a balcony with a view of the ocean. Although the sea is some distance from the home, it is nice to have a balcony with a view.

We reserved for dinner that evening because the dining room converts to restaurant at night. That night was a special night with a fixed menu due to a certain holiday of love that’s celebrated in America and the tradition has caught on in European countries. (This shows how long I’ve procrastinated on writing this trip report.) The restaurant was completely booked for the dinner.

For appetizers we had filo filled with salmon and spinach, toast with melted brie and balsamic glaze and a sausage bruschetta. All lovely and a great start to the meal with bubbly wine. Second course was layered mozzarella, tomato and eggplant with basil oil, also good. I did think it felt out of season to have eggplant and tomato before Spring but I don’t fault the chef for this. This is an acceptable choice for a large crowd. The main was veal filet mignon with potato au gratin and green bean bundle. The potatoes were great while we think the chef forgot to season the green beans. Our veal was drizzled with garlic oil, and cooked to well done. Another table also received a well done filet so they returned theirs which prompted us to send ours back as well. We felt bad for doing so but it was filet mignon and that can’t be eaten well done! When we got the meat again it was rare and medium rare, like the way it should be. Sadly this second round of meat wasn’t as flavorful as the first one and under seasoned with salt. The dessert was waffle cone with filled with strawberries and drizzled with chocolate. The best part was the salt in the chocolate to play on the sweet and salty. Due to the prix-fixe menu, there was unlimited bubbly wine to start and enjoy with appetizers as well as red or white wine for dinner. Due to the large volume of cooking, there were some missteps however food presentation, flavors and service were impeccable. I think the restaurant was trying hard to serve the best food they could with a full house. The restaurant & bed & breakfast were newly opened when we visited and both have potential to become very popular amongst the locals and tourists.

Our flight home the next day was late so we drove to Aveiro, seaside town by Porto and wandered the town. Not only was Aveiro booming with salt factory export in its heyday, it is buzzing with students because of the university in the town. There are still some salt beds near the canals; speaking of canals, Aveiro calls itself the Venice of Portugal. The boat tour on the canals is nice but it is no Venice. The boat operator said fishermen still use the canals to get to sea for fishing.

The fish market is bustling in the morning until 12- 1pm. It’s not for the queasy mind because the vendors sell the fish and seafood whole.

We ate lunch at O Telheiro near the fish market in the town. Walking inside the restaurant we were directed to the back of the restaurant, where most of the locals sat. We ordered sardines, fish soup, caldo verde and grilled mackerel. The fish soup was flavorful from the fish bone broth, caldo verde (cabbage and potato soup) was hearty, the sardines and mackerel were fresh and cooked to the proper doneness, the side of braised cabbaged with black eyed peas was straightforward and won me over. This entire meal was exactly how we anticipated our last lunch to be fresh foods simply enhanced with lots of olive oil.

A revelation for both of us was the coffee in Portugal. We didn’t think the Portuguese would allow bad coffee but they do, Nescafe, at that! The entire time we were disappointed in the lackluster coffee we drank. Don’t expect much more than watered down, bad coffee here. Another revelation was the love affair with potatoes, like the Spanish. We love potatoes but by the end of our stay we were ready for a break.

Food tip- don’t eat the olives and other starters brought out by the server that aren’t ordered, they aren’t free.

Someone said this was the wettest winter in hundred years. I don’t know how much of that is true or an exaggeration but it rained cats and dogs for most of the time we were visiting. I wish I could warn of a particular rainy season to avoid however this was unusual, even for the locals! Some days were worse than others and it was depressing but the food and sights more than made up for it.

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