Matosinhos: secret coastal spot in northern Portugal | Travel
If you turn right in Porto where the Douro meets the sea and walk five kilometers north, you will come to Matosinhos, a town where old people hang out on the beach below the walls of the Castelo do Queijo. The castle – which many say was built in the wrong place to protect the mouth of the river or the harbor – saunters slightly awkwardly at the southern end of a mile of urban sand, and some of the rocks that l ‘surround have been modified with concrete to form tables.
That’s why retirees come, sit in groups of four on rocks, boxes or folding chairs and spend hours playing games of sueca. Like all the best card games, it’s silly simple and devilishly difficult: a team game of trumps where the seven is the second highest value card after the ace, and a jack, controversially, beats a queen. From my observations, it’s based largely on telepathy.
But I didn’t come to play cards. I came to eat, because crammed into 12 blocks along two streets leading to the Rio Leca is the greatest concentration of fish restaurants I have ever come across.
A typical fish feast
JACEK SOPOTNICKI/GETTY IMAGES
Matosinhos is to Porto what La Barceloneta was to Barcelona, San Fernando is to Cadiz and Fiumicino to Rome: an industrial backyard left to do the dirty work without spoiling the magic of the storefront.
Here, this industry has always been fishing. The Romans dug salting tanks called cetariae into the rocks at Praia de Angeiras, north of the city, and in the 1960s the installation of technology capable of offloading 72 trawlers at a time made Matosinhos the largest sardine port in the world, with 86% of Portuguese catches landing on its quays.
At its peak, there were 200 sardine boats and 24 canneries here, says Maria Dolores Olhao, who worked on the processing lines with her mother, grandmother and sisters. Two of her sisters joined her at Casa Mota, a restaurant on the quays past which nine out of ten tourists would pass if they were traveling that far from Porto. The ladies have lunch of sardines, sea bream and arroz de polvo with a bottle of alvarinho, for which they will pay around £15 each. “The smell and noise from the factories was so horrible that no one came to Matosinhos by choice,” says Maria Dolores. “Now all but two canneries have closed, and I kind of miss that smell.”
If you’re in Porto for the weekend, there’s no better way to spend a Saturday than to hop on an early metro from Trinidade station for the 25-minute journey through the back gardens to at Mercado de Matosinhos. It’s no place for Instagrammers, but it’s an antidote to the crowds and baroque grandeur of Porto: a bright, white, upturned cowry, flooded with light, into which local women bring fish platters straight from the docks across the river, as well as livestock like rabbits, ducks and chickens. When it sells out, they pack up and leave, so authorities here are looking for ways to make the place more appealing to late-rising tourists.
One of the fish markets in Matosinhos
They’ve seen how the Mercado Bom Sucesso in Porto has transformed from a market into a hipster foodie mall, replicating similar projects across the Iberian Peninsula, but some locals worry that submission to tourists could rob Matosinhos of its authenticity. . Others say it’s time the city started making money from cruise ship passengers disembarking at the whirlwind Leixoes terminal to pile into Porto. But it’s not just the market they’re missing as they rush. It’s the best fish in the world.
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Do you remember the smell that Maria Dolores longed for? Just down Rua Alvaro Casteloes from the mercado is Conservas Pinhais, one of these two remaining canneries. In operation since 1920, the factory produces the Nuri brand, recognized as the best canned sardines in the world. The fish that arrive each morning are all canned at the end of the day; gutted, washed, steamed, sauced, sealed and wrapped in beautiful parchment paper by a team of ladies who produce a product that is as much a work of art as it is a cheap lunch. Everything is handmade, as it has been for 102 years, and if you take the bargain-priced guided tour, they don’t just let you taste what the Italian press has called “the Ferrari of the sea (although if it had been that fast he wouldn’t have been caught) but they also allow you to pack your own boxes (£12; conservaspinhais.com).
There’s a fabulous canteen at the factory – the sardines are particularly good, of course – but try to keep your hunger up until lunchtime. Until then, you’ll have your pick of the wide stretches of sand at Praia de Matosinhos, where there are big waves at the end of the castle, and more sheltered waters at the port; or the fabulous pair of seasonal rock-cut pools at Praia de Leca across the river, where city-born architect Alvaro Siza Vieira carefully included a bar in his 1960s design (4 £; matosinhosport.com).
Noon is not too early to go to lunch. On a ramshackle 600-meter stretch of Rua Herois de Franca and, parallel to it, Avenida Serpa Pinto, there are more than 50 restaurants, mostly family-run, grilling the catch of the day over embers in the street. The smell is tantalizing, the weekend vibe cheerful, and the universal attraction, from old-time couples in suits and dresses to gangs of students on electric scooters, weaving through traffic like shoals of sardines searching a table for 12. You can reserve – especially if you want to dine out – but there is always room somewhere.
What is the best? For ingenues like us, they are all magnificent. Monkfish rice with prawns at Dom Peixe (£30; dompeixe.com); roast sea bass and potatoes in olive oil at Teresa’s at 107 Rua Herois de França (£25; no website); fried John Dory with açorda de ovas — a cod roe soup — at Mariazinha (£21; restaurantemariazinha.pt); octopus rice at the beautifully simple Salta O Muro, where bottles of wine gaze like an audience at diners (£13; saltaomuro.eatbu.com). Charcoal-grilled sardines and cold malvasia fina, from £6 a bottle: everywhere.
Then walk down the beach to the castle. The sueca players will always be around and after a long boozy lunch you might want to try your luck. You have no hope.
Chris Haslam was a guest on Visit Portugal (visitportugal.com). Stay at Hotel Boa-Vista, with a rooftop terrace and pool at the mouth of Foz do Douro (B&B doubles from £87; hotelboavista.com), or The Lodge, a luxury hotel in the Vila Nova de Gaia district with one of the best restaurants in Porto (B&B doubles from £268; thelodgehotel.pt)
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