Ovos moles are sweets associated with the city of Aveiro and must be tried at least once, although they are an acquired taste. The name ovos moles means ‘soft eggs’ and like many of the sweets and desserts in Portugal the origins can be traced back to the nuns who had to find a use for all the egg yolks left over after they had used the egg whites to starch their habits. The centre of the ovos moles is a very sweet creamy mixture of egg yolk and sugar and it is coated with a soft wafer made of flour and water (reminiscent of communion wafer). Traditionally the sweets bear the shape of fish or barrels, both of which are symbols of Aveiro’s past when the main industries were fishing and the collection of seaweed. There are shops and kiosks all around the centre of Aveiro selling ovos moles in wooden barrel-shaped containers, which are beautifully decorated with paintings of the distinctive barcos moliceiro (seaweed-collecting boats), for which Aveiro is famous.
The warm temperate Mediterranean climate of the Algarve combined with the Moorish legacy has resulted in an abundance of fresh fruit, including the iconic almond, with its beautiful blossom which can be seen everywhere in late winter, and the fig, both of which are used to make traditional sweets, which look as lovely as they taste. Doces finos do Algarve are marzipan sweets beautifully crafted to look like miniature fruit, vegetables or even animals. They have a surprise of shredded candied egg yolk in the middle. Estrelas de figo e amêndoa are star-shaped (or flower-shaped) sweets made from figs and almonds.
They make wonderful presents to take home, but almost look too good to eat.
Lisbon’s newest area is the Parque das Nações (Nations’ Park), which was built along the estuary of the Tejo river in 1998 for the Expo ’98. This was a significant year for Portugal, as it celebrated the 500th anniversary of Vasco da Gama’s discovery of India in 1498 and two of the major structures built at this time were named after the great voyager. The Torre Vasco da Gama (Vasco da Gama Tower) on the Cais das Naus, standing at 145 metres, is Lisbon’s tallest building. Built on the site of a former oil refinery, it is designed to looked like the sail of a caravel (the type of ship sailed by Vasco da Gama). It originally had a public restaurant and observation deck at the top of the tower, but it is now part of the luxury Myriad Hotel and no longer open to the public. The Ponte Vasco da Gama (Vasco da Gama Bridge) which goes across the Tejo river from the suburb of Sacavém on the north bank to the suburbs of Montijo and Alcochete on the south bank, is 17 kilometres in length and is the longest bridge in Europe.
Earlier in the year we went on a boat trip along the section of coast between Carvoeiro and Praia da Marinha, which gave us the opportunity to see the amazing rock formations in this area and to go into the caves and see the secluded coves under the cliffs. We were pleased to discover that it is also possible to walk along the top of the cliffs and that there is a popular and well-signposted walk described in the Guide to Walking Trails in the Algarve, published by the Turismo do Algarve, the ‘Seven Hanging Valleys Trail’ (Percurso dos Sete Vales Suspensos).
We started the walk at the top of the flight of steps to the east of Centianes beach, an impressive 45.5 metres above sea level. Due to the steep undulations of the cliffs, at certain points of the walk there are some challenging sections which involve clambering up or scrambling down the rocks. The part of the walk between Vale de Centianes and the Alfanzina lighthouse at Cabo Carvoeiro has several of these sections. The path flattens out on the approach to the lighthouse and although we could not enter the grounds of the lighthouse, which has been in operation since 1920 and standing at 23 metres can be seen for approximately 50 kilometres, it made an interesting respite.
Start of the walk at Vale de Centianes
Praia do Vale de Centianes
A steep section between Centianes and Alfanzina lighthouse
The section between the lighthouse and Praia de Benagil is a bit more benign. It goes through an area of pine trees and leads to one of the highlights of this section, the Leixão de Ladrão (or Ladrão Stack). The pale rock, with a lace-effect on the surface, spreads into the sea resembling the surface of the moon. In a local legend set in Moorish times the lace-effect on the rock is said to have been created by the tears of a princess mourning the death of the man she loved. Nowadays a viewing platform with seats allows walkers to sit and enjoy the view and hopefully not cry over the rocks. The walk continues by Praia do Carvalho, a small cove beach which can only be accessed by climbing down a steep flight of steps and walking through a tunnel in the cliff. The beach has the English nickname of ‘Smugglers’ Cove’, and together with the Leixão de Ladrão, which translates to mean ‘Thief’s Stack’, suggests the area was rife with nefarious activities in the past. The walk doesn’t go down as far as the beach, but cuts across the car park and continues on to Benagil.
There are seven hanging valleys on this walk. A hanging valley is a geological feature formed by a watercourse flowing from the top of a cliff into the sea which erodes the limestone rock creating a small valley and Benagil beach is in one of these valleys. At Benagil the direction markers aren’t very clear and it’s easy to take a wrong turn, as we found out. When you arrive at the beach, walk up the hill and veer right past O Pescador restaurant until you reach O Algar restaurant. Turn right up some steps by the side of the restaurant and follow the path to the famous Algar de Benagil. The algar (‘sinkhole’) is fenced off for safety and is not as impressive from above as it is from below and to really appreciate its natural beauty you need to enter it from the sea.
Cove between Alfanzina lighthouse and Praia do Carvalho
Praia do Carvalho
Praia de Benagil
Steps at Benagil leading to Algar de Benagil
The walk from Benagil to Praia da Marinha becomes challenging again in a few places. There is a steep crag which leads to a large area of trees that were destroyed by last summer’s forest fires and it was sad to see the blackened remains of what would have been impressive trees. Thankfully this was the only part of the walk that had been affected by the fire and on the rest of the walk we were able to enjoy, if not always recognise and name, plants that have adapted to grow in dry, salty conditions, such as juniper, dwarf palm, beach daisy, ice plant, goosefoot, thyme and rock samphire. We weren’t so lucky at sighting the birds which come to the area to shelter on the side of the cliffs. The information board promised us rock doves, alpine swifts, kestrels and peregrine falcons, but all we saw was a large group of yellow-legged gulls sitting near the edge of the path completely unfazed by the number of people walking by.
As we approached Praia da Marinha the stunning rock formations, arches and stacks came into view. After stopping for some time to take photos of these natural sculptures we reached the end of the walk in Praia da Marinha car park.
Praia da Marinha
End of walk at Praia da Marinha
The walk is 5.7km and can be done from Vale de Centianes to Praia da Marinha or vice versa. It takes approximately 3 hours one way. There is a car park at both beaches, but the walk is not a circular one so you will need to get back to your car either on foot or by taxi. There is no bus between Vale de Centianes and Praia da Marinha. The walk can be broken up into sections: Vale de Centianes to the Alfanzina lighthouse (1 hour); the Alfanzina lighthouse to Benagil (1 hour); Benagil to Praia da Marinha (50 minutes).
The walk is challenging in places. Shoes with a good grip are essential. The entire walk is very clearly marked and the path is well-trodden, so it is hard to get lost. All direction markers have red and yellow lines: a red arrow to the left or right with a yellow line above it indicates a left or right turn; horizontal yellow and red lines indicate straight on; and crossed yellow and red lines indicate no entry. Sometimes the markers are painted on stones or are a bit faded, but they appear at regular intervals. There are several information boards along the walk with information in Portuguese and English about the flora, fauna and geological features.
We were seduced into the stylish Meia Dúzia by the beautifully packaged display of jams, which are a stylistic blend of oil paint tubes and designer cosmetics in appearance. This was our choice for breakfast on our last day in Porto. Having feasted on pastéis de nata, bolos de Berlim and bolos de arroz on other mornings we were tempted by something simpler: toast and jam. However, the jams in Meia Dúzia are anything but simple. They are delightful combinations of Portuguese fruits, herbs and liquors, such as strawberry with port and chilli, pear with vanilla, orange with madeira, blackberry with lavender and cherry with lime, and making a choice wasn’t easy. Eventually I opted for blueberry with port and vanilla and Neil chose fig and orange with port. The jam was squeezed onto a slice of fresh toasted bread, as if it were oil paint squeezed by an artist onto their palette. It tasted as good as the description had promised, with a strong fruity flavour, not too sweet, which blended well with the other flavours. The toast and jam was accompanied by a good strong café com leite; it made a great start to the day. We couldn’t leave the shop without buying some tubes of jam, initially as presents for friends and family, but which ended up being presents for us. What a wonderful and original souvenir to bring back from Porto.
Meia Dúzia, Rua das Flores, Porto. Opening hours: Sunday to Thursday: 10am-8pm; Friday and Saturday: 10am-10pm.
The central character of God’s Comedy (A Comédia de Deus), a film which won the Grand Jury Prize at the Venice Film Festival in 1995, is the eponymous João de Deus (played by the film’s writer and director João César (Max) Monteiro), a tall, thin, middle-aged man with a slow and deliberate way of speaking, often using proverbs and puns to complete his statements. He manages the Paradise ice-cream shop and the association of his name, Deus (God) with paradise does not escape notice. In his paradise he is a maestro of creating wonderful flavours of ice cream and is surrounded by very young female shop assistants who come from the poorer neighbourhoods, who he hand picks and grooms, revealing his obsession with cleanliness. His latest employee is the naïve Rosarinho (Raquel de Ascensão), who is a good student and keen to do well. We get a glimpse of the life she is trying to escape when João visits her neighbourhood and comes across some young boys who offer him photographs of Rosarinho bathing.
As the story develops João’s perversities are slowly revealed. In his lonely flat he pours over his scrapbook of pubic hair specimens; each specimen is neatly stuck into the book with a handwritten epigraph beside it. Things get a little weirder in a scene where Rosarinho dressed in a swimming costume lies on a lilo on a table, behind which João is standing, and mimes swimming motions. As German classical music plays over the scene, João moves his hands over her body and finally touches her. It is a very uncomfortable scene to watch. Making the audience feel uneasy and embarrassed seems to be one of the themes of the film. Later, there is a cringeworthy scene reminiscent of a 1970’s Benny Hill sketch, where all the shop assistants are in a swimming pool with João and as they leave the pool they are each kissed by him while his friend, Tomé (Saraiva Serrano), makes suggestive duck noises and improper comments to each woman. Along with the uncomfortable scenes there is a recurring use of base and crude language, particularly by João and his boss, Judite (Manuela de Freitas), who was possibly a prostitute in the past and, in a revealing moment, mentions having taken him out of the gutter: mirroring what João believes he is doing with the young women in his shop.
After an unlikely romance with Rosarinho, where João possibly rapes her, he is seen making similar flirtatious advances towards another new employee, Virgínia (Anabela Teixeira), and finally towards the 15-year-old daughter of the local butcher (Rui Luís), Joaninha (Cláudia Teixeira). In the final hour of the film, which runs for a long 2 hours 40 minutes, we witness the protracted seduction of Joaninha in his flat late at night. The seduction involves a bath filled with milk, João feeding her with ice cream, which upsets her stomach, and then getting her to sit on a contraption filled with eggs. It is funny and disturbing at the same time.
One of the genuinely funny scenes is a revealing insight into how the Portuguese view themselves as inferior to other nationalities. Judite is planning to go into partnership with a French ice-cream maker (Jean Douchet) and a formal ceremony is held where João has created a new flavour of ice cream, attended by a canon (Carlos Gonçalves) and a local politician, the wonderfully named Dr. Cruel (Mário Barroso), a possible future prime minister. In a scene reminiscent of Fawlty Towers, João makes a long irreverent speech, after which the German national anthem is played instead of the French one and as the Frenchman finally tastes the ice cream, he pronounces it ‘merde’, as João has predicted he would. The possibility that the ice cream may not have been appetising becomes more apparent at the end of the film when we see João pumping the milk Joaninha has bathed in into containers, presumably to be used to make ice cream.
What happens at the end may be anticipated, but nothing else in the film is predictable or expected: it is genre-defying. Despite its title it isn’t a comedy, although there are moments when I laughed through disbelief or embarrassment. Although João is a pervert, this isn’t a psychological thriller. It is a unique piece of cinema, which left me feeling a little unsettled throughout.
With a wonderfully crisp and flaky pastry shell filled with a thick, creamy, sweet custard slightly burnt on the top, the pastel de nata (custard tart) is one of Portugal’s most popular pastries, but its origins can be traced back to one shop, the Pastéis de Belém shop and café in the Belém district of Lisbon. The shop is very near the famous Manueline-style Jeronimos Monastery and in the fifteenth-century the monks created a tart which would use up the large number of egg yolks they had left over after using the egg whites as laundry starch. At this time sugar from the Americas and cinnamon from the East Indies were introduced into Portugal and the pastel de nata was born. In 1837, after a 1820 revolution which suppressed religious order and forced the monastery to close, the recipe was given to the shop next door to the monastery so that the pastel de nata would continue. The recipe has remained secret since then and there is only one genuine pastel de nata recipe, which is called pastel de Belém to distinguish it from all other pastéis de nata. All other recipes are attempts (albeit often very good attempts) to recreate the pastel de Belém recipe.
You can’t miss the shop on Rua de Belém as there is always a queue for the freshly baked pastéis de Belém, which are still made by hand using the original recipe.
You can buy the tarts to take away, along with a sachet of cinnamon and a sachet of icing sugar to sprinkle on according to taste, or better still get a table in the café at the back of the shop and enjoy your pastel de Belém with a cup of coffee, while enjoying the azulejos-decorated surroundings.
Don’t worry if you can’t get to Belém, as every pastelaria (cafés selling pastries and cakes) in every village, town and city in Portugal sells pastéisde nata, which are usually as good as the real thing in my opinion. If you try to make your own I have found that they are not the easiest tart to bake, as it can be a challenge getting the pastry shells the right texture and the custard filling can be a bit fiddly. That’s why I always over-indulge in them when I am in Portugal!
Pastéis de Belém, Rua Belém, Lisbon. Open every day: 1st Oct-30th June 8am-11pm; 1st July-30th Sept 8am-midnight.
Piri-piri chicken (frango assado com piri-piri) is Portugual’s most famous and most popular dish. It can be found on the menu of most Portuguese restaurants, particularly in tourist areas, and is a winning combination of being both tasty and cheap. The spatchcocked chicken is marinated in garlic, lemon juice and salt and barbecued on a charcoal grill. It is then basted with piri-piri sauce before serving. The core ingredient of piri-piri sauce is the bird’s-eye chilli which is cooked with oil, garlic, lemon juice and salt. It is strange to think that this quintessentially Portuguese dish is based on an ingredient that is not native to Portugal. The piri-piri (or bird’s eye) chilli originated in Africa and was discovered by the Portuguese when Vasco da Gama landed in Mozambique in 1498 during the era of the Discoveries; piri-piri means ‘pepper-pepper’ in Swahili. The Portuguese then went on to introduce the chilli to India when Vasco da Gama landed there later that year. Piri-piri chicken is usually served with chips and salad and a small bottle of piri-piri oil, if you like your sauce a bit spicier.
My favourite recipe for piri-piri chicken is from Tessa Kidros’ book Piri Piri Starfish: Portugal Found (Murdoch Books, 2008). She adds paprika and oregano to her marinade and port and whisky to the piri-piri basting sauce.