August 09, 2005

Aveiro's salt mountains

We reached Aveiro on Portugal’s Silver Coast in a mild state of family disharmony. Mike, who has an obsession for clean (that he stays married to me and living in this house – there are too many things to do with life to spend it on housework – is a testament to him), had emptied the car of garbage at a rest area outside Aveiro and had pitched our autoroute toll ticket in the process. A lost ticket means you pay about $30 at the toll booth, and the collector cut us no slack. Nao, nao, nao. He seemed pleased to punish us.

The world was righted when a charming gentleman in a suit showed us to Room 205 in the Hotel Arcada, an old grande dame with comfortable, worn charm. That we’d scored a two-room suite with 12-foot ceilings and a view over Aveiro’s central canal for under a hundred bucks for four took the sting out of the $30 toll ticket blunder. We stood at our tall windows and looked across a courtyard into the second floor of the Clube Galito, the Club of the Little Rooster, where old men in gray t-shirts play cards. They played all day. And all night.

Our room also overlooked the little dock where, for about ten dollars, you can take a 2 ½-hour boat trip up the central canal, through the Aveiro locks and into Aveiro’s lagoon. There are two remarkable things about this trip: the boat and what you see when you enter the lagoon.

We rode in a traditional moliceiro, a long, narrow, brightly painted craft reminiscent of a Venetian gondola that was used by Aveiro’s fishermen to collect seaweed and eels. The skipper took a little break and invited Adam and Dana to steer the moliceiro past the huge, rusting hulks of ships at rest in the industrial docks near the village of Sao Jacinto.

In the lagoon, we looked on a rare sight. Small white mountains towered and glistened up out of the lagoon floor. They looked like snowcaps sitting on the sea. Huge, bright pyramidal cones popping from the water. These were Aveiro’s salt pans. Beds, or fields, are built in the lagoon and the sea water held within the fields is evaporated, leaving the precious white grains. Salt workers rake the granules into monumental piles that sit near rickety wooden lagoon-side docks. Salt boats come and haul the commodity away to market.

Back in Aveiro, a morning trip to the Mercado do Peixe, the fish auction where last night’s catch is quickly snapped up by city residents and restaurant owners, we examined some of the delicacies we’d try later that evening at dinner.

Fishwives stood behind marble slabs that hosted sparkling, eyeballs-still-popping seafood from the lagoon and sea around Aveiro. Inches-thick masses of live eels writhed in tubs, and occasionally one or two would slither up the tub’s side and try to escape. The marble slabs held octopus, squid, gleaming, flashing fish of all sizes and types. Red just-cut salmon steaks. Fishmongers wielding mallets and knives, pounding then slicing fresh fish flesh into various cuts, chunks and filets. The sound of pounding and slicing permeated the wrought iron structure that housed the market.

That night, we feasted on Aveiro fare at the Mercantel Restaurant, located on the second floor of an old building on one of the town’s most picturesque small canals. Locals packed the place, and we ate and ate, appreciating the magnificent freshness of our turbot and the special bite of the salt we sprinkled on our boiled potatoes. All around us, Portuguese families laughed and drank and dined, surrounded by beautiful blue tile scenes of Aveiro life – moliceiros bobbing at the dock, fishermen catching baskets of lamprey eels, and magical mountains of sea salt.