When we drive south from Lisbon on our way to the Costa Vicentina we usually find ourselves in the city of Setúbal at the the mouth of the Sado river and just across from the Troia Peninsula. It also borders the Arraibida Natural Park. Sétubal used to be the center of the canned sardine industry in Portugal and you can visit a museum that is housed in one of the old canning factories. However, there is nothing better than shopping for fresh seafood at the local market. This vibrant space decorated with beautiful tiles and statues is the largest covered market in all of Portugal.
The seafood in the market is beautiful, especially the black scabbardfish. But, you will find all of the ingredients for the local seafood dishes like cuttlefish, clams, cockles, sea snails, and of course sardines. Fresh vegetables, breads, cured sausages and my favorite local cheese called Azeitão are plentiful and sold by local vendors.
A visit to any market in Portugal is not complete without a light snack. Whether you are at one of the large flea markets or a local fresh food market you always have a great choice of Portuguese dishes to choose from. Grilled chicken with a glass of local wine, sautéed liver with onions (iscas con elas), or a sandwich with fried chicken breast. Our go to market snack is always a bifana, a simple sandwich made from marinated pork cutlets served on a fresh roll with condiment options of mustard and hot sauce. With a mini Sagres beer or a glass of local sparkling wine it’s the perfect “pre-lunch” meal. You can easily have a full meal with the dishes that are offered but when in Setúbal it’s best to save room for some fried cuttlefish served with a fresh salad and roasted green peppers in a nearby restaurant.
The last time we were in Setúbal we decided to take the ferry across to the Troia Peninsula. What is now an area for luxury hotels and beautiful beaches used to be home to one of the largest fish salting and preserving workshops during the Roman Empire. These pastes and sauces, like Garum, were produced here and then exported in Amphorae by sea to the different provinces. You can visit the roman ruins here that include the fish salting area, baths and some dwellings dating that were occupied up until the 6th century.
Sometimes when we are home for too long we start to miss some of the amazing seafood dishes that we have enjoyed so many times in Portugal. After watching a travel show a couple of weeks ago we decided that it was necessary to replicate one of the dishes that had been prepared on the show. We bought some excellent prawns and clams and made this amazing dish with butter and cilantro. After a seafood meal in Portugal the most common dessert is a “prego”, a grilled beef sandwich with lots of garlic. We couldn’t leave out the dessert! With these blazing hot malagueta peppers it was the perfect meal.
The sound of the waves, the salt on my skin, and the smell of grilled sardines in the tropical air. This describes summer for me. Before moving to Southern Spain my only beach memories were blue lip freezing Lake Michigan and 3 for a dollar burritos in Mexico every once in a while. Since living here the beach has become a great part of my life and necessary relaxation. With our van we have traveled along many beautiful coast lines, but the closest to home is the Costa Tropical. Pebbly or rocky beaches with a deep shore that feels like a swimming pool at times. There is no gradual wading into the water here. One second your foot is on the bottom and the next you are swimming in the deep sea. Of course, most people come here for the beach, local fish, tropical fruits and sun but the Costa Tropical is also filled with history.
History here dates long before this but the Phoenicians named the largest town Sexi (now Almuñecar) in about 800 BC. In the city of Almuñecar you can visit the area where certain foods were conserved with salt and they produced garum, the fermented fish sauce that was mainly used by the Romans and Greeks. The coast line is also dotted with watchtowers (atalayas) from different times in history as well as a Roman aqueduct over the Jete Valley. In both Almuñecar and the town of Salobreña you can visit the castles that were rebuilt and used by the Nasrid Dynasty of Granada. From the 10th century the production of sugar was the most important industry along the coast and you can still visit the old sugar factories in some towns. You can trace the gastronomy in this area by following the lines of history. The fertile soil here now allows for the production of many different tropical fruits and fresh fish is the most obvious protein. However you can still find sweets dating back to Arabic and Jewish origins made with sugar, sesame, almonds and honey.
Visiting the castles and old ruins along the coast reminds of the rich history that is recorded here but the sea always calls our name so we sit down at a local “chiringuito” with our feet in the sand to enjoy a glass of local white wine and fresh fish accompanied by a tropical salad. This is the best of Spanish summer for me!
My partner said he wanted me to have some genuine rest and relaxation before beginning the busy Fall season and that he knew just where we should go for a week or so in August. So, we headed west from Madrid, spending one night in the beautiful city of Talavera de la Reina, before setting up camp near some of the most historical towns in the interior of Portugal.
Just crossing over the border from Spain a bit above the Tagus River we arrived in the small town of Monfortinho known for its hot springs. Considering the temperature that day was about 110 degrees we decided to move on to the charming town of Idanha-a-Velha. This town of about 80 inhabitants was founded by the Romans and is rich in history. We arrived fairly late for Portuguese lunch standards but we were bound and determined to find something to eat. Filipe went into the one bar in the town to ask about a restaurant. He came out with the information that the one restaurant in town was closed because they were in the main social hall serving the musicians that were in ldanha for a week long camp. So, feeling positive and quite hungry we went down to the hall to try our luck. The man told us that they had a buffet set up just for the musicians but he consulted with the owner to see what he could do for us. Five minutes later we were seated at a table and presented with quite a feast by smiling and gracious people. At the end of the meal we were even offered some local cheese from friends of the owner. Seven euros for a meal of various grilled meats, local wine, bread, olives and as always in Portugal; salad, potatoes and rice.
Later on that afternoon we strolled through the beautiful streets down to the Roman Bridge and also listened to a practice concert in the Visigoth Cathedral performed by the young people attending the music camp. Right before leaving Ildanha-a-Velha we walked by the community oven as the woman was just opening the door. She told us that they weren’t baking bread that day as it is only baked once a week but we did purchase some very crunchy cookies for our breakfasts. The people in the town were so down to earth and friendly that for me it was the best way to begin our two weeks in the Alentejo region.