Visiting the Centre of Portugal – Experiencing the Aveiro Region – Wonderful Food, Boat Rides and the Home of Vista Alegre

There’s so much to do in the centre of Portugal, I’m still writing about it, you guys! It’s also been a while since I posted anything, so here we go.

After we left Casa da Ínsua and our cheese-making adventure of dreams, we headed west to the Aveiro region to visit the city bearing the same name. Aveiro city is nicknamed the ‘Venice of Portugal’ due to its famous canals, architecture and colourful Moliceiro boats.

But first, lunch! We stopped in the neighbouring city of Ílhavo to experience some of the best seafood in the Aveiro region. Mare Restaurante & Gin Bar is right beside the sea, so you just know it’s gonna be good. It’s bright, inviting, and nicely decorated. Mare offers a hefty selection of gin, serve their own craft beer and just by the door there’s a little shop where you buy olive oil, cans of sardines, dried seaweed, cakes and biscuits to treat yourself. Or, like…other people. That’s not as fun though. 

We sat at a long table by the window and enjoyed a crisp glass of white; Quinta Da Mata Fidalga. Dry and fruity. The perfect accompaniment for devouring sea creatures.
Soon various plates appeared. All sorts of little morsels. Beautiful spongy bread (you know the kind, slightly sweet, spongy texture but not dry!) and tripe. *Vegans look away now* Yes, tripe. Pork guts floured and then fried, so they end up super crispy. I will try almost anything, and while I did try the tripe, the flavour is super intense. A bit much for me.

There we were, discussing who enjoys tripe and who doesn’t, not a care in the world. Suddenly, a couple of (very friendly) servers approach the table with huge steaming pots. Yay! I thought (and probably said aloud) another family style meal! I loved this aspect of the trip.
Off comes the lid and the steam twirls toward the ceiling, releasing the scent of ambrosia. It has arrived. The pièce de résistance; a beautiful fish stew. Not exactly the most handsome dish presentation-wise (or even a runner-up) but it was probably one of, if not my favourite dish of the trip.
Tender chunks of flaky fish and delightfully meaty squid in a light tomato broth, laced with fresh herbs and spices. The odd mouthful would present a chunk of veg or two and small, bite-sized pieces of beautifully cooked potatoes. Potatoes really thrive in a good stew, don’t they? They act like sponges. They reach their full potential as the king of starches when liquid is involved. They are doing the most.

Dessert (which I only had a little of, as I may or may not have had two helpings of fishy-delishy) was leite creme queimado, another take on crème brûlée, one of my top three love-of-my-life desserts. God, I just love crème brûlée, don’t you? It’s the best! Anyway, this was a little thicker and softer but not as thick as the tijelada we had in Piódão.

We left Ílhavo after our hearty lunch and within 15 minutes we were in the pretty city of Aveiro. Before I could say ‘Venice of Portugal’ we were whisked onto a Moliceiro boat, ready for a boat ride along the canal.
These Moliceiro boats I keep mentioning are quite famous. They were originally used for harvesting seaweed in the Aveiro lagoon, which was used as fertiliser on the local sandy soils. This trade died after the introduction of modern fertilisers, so these days they serve as one of the city’s touristic highlights, painted in bold colours and covered in illustrations. The designs on these boats are sometimes religious, often humorous. Don’t be alarmed if you see a boat with a topless woman painted on the side, it’s totally normal you guys. If you see an actual topless woman in the boat, that might be weird. Just go with it either way.

Our boat guide told us all about Aveiro and some of the best landmarks to visit; Mosteiro de Jesus, Museu de Aveiro, the Rossio Area and the old train station. The tour was great and totally cosy…we each had a warm fuzzy blanket, and going under tunnels is always fun. The sun started to set and it was then I realised the SimplyB team were creating magic again. Bottles of espumante (Portuguese champagne/sparkling wine) appeared and we enjoyed sundowners cruising along the canal. I told you in all the posts so far that these guys were good.

Nightfall = hotel time, so we skipped off the boat, happy and giddy from the bubbles, ready for our next stop. Above are a couple of pictures from a cute little shop close to where the SimplyB mobile was parked. Just look at those colourful boxes of tinned sardines, cod and bottles of port. The essence of Portugal in one small space!

We stayed at the Montebelo Vista Alegre Ílhavo Hotel, and let me tell you something, this place was a serious 5-star hotel. The lobby? The rooms? The facilities? All incredible. The place is modern, only a couple of years old, totally chic and absolutely spotless. There are pieces made by Vista Alegre all over the place (including the beautiful espresso cups pictured above in my room) because the factory of these beautiful world-famous porcelain designs is right next door.

Bathed, relaxed and refreshed, we congregated in the lobby among the artfully placed polished dinnerware, ready for the evening’s surprise. We were told we would be dining somewhere truly special. Exciting, no?

The answer to my previously-rhetorical-but-no-longer-so question is yes! It turned out to be very exciting!

We arrived at our destination/surprise; Salpoente. The first impression? I wasn’t sure to be quite honest, it’s not much to look at from the outside. I can only describe it as two Vermillion barnyards side by side (I did later find out Salpoente is a reconstructed salt warehouse). But once you walk inside…BOOM! A breath of fresh air. Vibrant, plush interiors and friendly smiles await you. The walls are adorned with vibrant paintings.
Your coat will be taken with great care, and you’ll enter the lobby and bar (pictured above) with a glass of the finest espumante in hand. You’ll marvel at the fact that the place is hopping, yet the noise level is pleasant, adding to the ambience of the place. Quiet mumurs of conversation, relaxing music. Totally chill.
In Portugal, Cod is God (I should trademark this phrase, no?) and Salpoente’s head chef, Duarte Eira champions this philosophy, perfecting his techniques in preparing salted cod in an array of traditional Portuguese dishes served with a modern twist.

What I loved immediately about Salpoente was the attention to detail. For as we all know, it’s the little things that make up the bigger picture. A warm welcome, pressed tablecloths, beautiful silverware (hello, just look at those long elegant handles!) and of course, first-rate service. And we hadn’t yet eaten a morsel.

Time to discuss the food. The olive oil and butter were heavenly, and there were more types of freshly baked bread than you could shake a salted codfish at. I’ll be honest, when I was asked what kind of bread I would like, I simply replied, “yes please.”

Our first course, Salpoente’s take on a classic Portuguese dish, the humble Açorda. Açorda is made from bread, eggs, olive oil, salt, cilantro and garlic. Warming, filling, simple.
This dinky little bowl featured all of the above with the addition of cod row, prawns, fried onion and olive powder. It was simply lovely and full of flavour. It could give ol’ porridge a run for its money.

Dish two. Grouper with fried cuttlefish mash (yes that gleamingly beautiful glass-like inky puddle) with bacon and pea shoots. Just look at that beautiful foam on top of the fish too. I loved this dish! Grouper is quite mild so it paired well with rich heady mash, a little salt from the bacon and pea shoots to liven it up. Pea shoots go great with everything, don’t you think? I’ve decided I need to grow some. My very own secret stash.

Dish three (side note: all of these courses were served with a mix of red and white Colinas wine) was a simply salt cod confit with baby carrots and bean puree. Lighter than the other dishes and nicely seasoned. I enjoyed this dish, but the cod we had at No Tacho that Vitor made still remains my favourite.

After this course, we were paid a visit by the main man himself, Duarte Eira. It was great to hear his passion about Salpoente’s journey and of his time spent in Norway perfecting his craft. We were also joined by Miguel Ferreira local wine expert who chose our wines for the evening.
The final course; sweet rice ice cream, Ovos Moles (Portugeuse sweet egg yolk, an Aveiro classic) cream cheese, fruit puree, berries and sweet crumble. Light and sweet with plenty of contrasting textures. The colours were revitalising, as was the espresso I had along with it.
A wonderful evening at this impressive and unique Aveiro gem.

The following morning after a hearty breakfast (I would expect no less from the fancy Montebelo) we walked across to the Vista Alegre factory, which has been around since the 19th century. The museum, however, was established in 1964. Something old, something new, everything porcelain and often blue. Amongst other colours of course.

The tour was really enjoyable and well paced. Our guide brought us through several rooms of the museum with plenty of views of the factory along the way. We discovered how the porcelain was originally made, and how manufacturing has progressed over the years, thanks to our wonderful pal technology. We saw many of the very first works and all the various ceramic styles sold around the world over the last few decades. My favourite part was seeing the artists at work, painting beautiful designs on the ceramics with such finesse and concentration. We had to remain silent and no picture-taking was permitted in this area for obvious reasons.
The Vista Alegre Museum and Porcelain Factory in Aveiro is open from Monday to Saturday, 10AM to 7PM, and there’s a little café for your caffeine and sweet treat cravings.

The grounds between the factory and hotel are also worth exploring, I was particularly fond of this church in the image above. The factory (and lunch down the road in Salpoente, perhaps?) would be a perfect way to spend the afternoon and try something new. Just an hour from Porto.

For more information:
Vista Alegre Factory & Museum
SimplyB Free Tours Porto

Next stop Costa Nova, another town in the Aveiro region. Stay tuned – all these places make for great day trips from Lisbon or Porto!

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