Driving Northern Portugal & the Conimbriga Roman Ruins

There was so much to see in Northern Portugal we couldn’t continue to camp for 3 nights at each location and still have time to stop at each place.  So we planned a route with short distances each day and one night stays in small rural hotels. To bridge the gap between Porto and Lisbon, seeing Braga, Averio, Figuera da Foz and Monsanto along the way.  A highlight was a stop at the Conimbriga Roman Ruins.  We hadn’t heard of these ruins previously but they were truly incredible.  Any tour of Northern Portugal should include a stop at this important site.

Feira de Barcelos Market

Pottery at Feira de Barcelos Market

From Porto we took a day trip to Braga, Portugal’s third largest city.  We timed our visit for a Thursday so we could first visit the Feira de Barcelos Market.  One of Europe’s largest weekly markets.  Selling a huge array of fresh fruit and vegetables, meats, cheese, live chickens, kitchenware, linens and clothes.  The market is known for its pottery which was incredibly good value and pretty in a Portuguese way.

It was another rainy day.  Our days in Porto had been mostly ok with a few scattered showers but this day the rain was bucketing down.  We were drenched from head to toe, even our shoes were soaked through.  But this market only happens once a week so we persisted, (like the rain).

Feira de Barcelos Market
Feira de Barcelos Market

It was lots of fun to purchase a few food items, all the stallholders were so friendly and welcoming.  We marveled at the much cheaper prices for fruit and vegetables compared to the supermarkets.  We purchased some apricots and the old lady used a traditional scale to weigh them.  The kids were fascinated.  Later we saw the same type of scales in a Roman museum in France!

Weighing Apricots at Feira de Barcelos

Back at the car we blasted the fans all over us to try and dry off a bit before going to Braga. This was a pointless exercise as it was also bucketing down in Braga.


Braga in the rain (this picture doesn’t do the city justice!)

In European cities, towns and villages, there are so many beautiful pavement cafes, perfectly situated for people watching.  However, they have a major flaw on rainy days, in that they often have very little inside space.  At lunchtime on a rainy day it can be quite hard to get a table at the popular places.

We found the 19th Century, Café a Brasileira, where we made quite a scene arriving with our dripping wet coats into a café packed with locals. Old Portuguese men sharing wine and coffee, ladies out to lunch and businessmen.  Our waiter was completely charming and enjoyed practising his English with us and helping us order.

Crumbed Bacalhau

He convinced me that I must try the special of the day, a crumbed bacalhau, the dried salt cod that the Portuguese seem to consume in huge quantities.  Everyone had a taste and we all enjoyed it.  Our waiter was delighted that we had tried and liked it.  We spoke to him about the differences between the north and south of Portugal and he seemed genuinely delighted that we were spending 3 weeks touring his country.  Our impression is that Portuguese people are very proud of their country and enjoy showing it to visitors.

After leaving Porto we were making our way south towards Lisbon with 3 one-night stops along the way.  We did some great worldschool over these few days, tying together what we had been learning about the cod fishing industry, shipping, salt and the coast.  As well as Romans and the movement of people.


Colourful Canal-side Buildings in Aveiro

Our first stop was Aveiro. Some clever marketers came up with the term ‘the Venice of Portugal’ for Aveiro.  There are some canals and boats giving rides to tourists. But I’m afraid that is where the similarities end!  This doesn’t mean that Aveiro doesn’t have a charm of its own, it does.  We spent a lovely afternoon there and that was enough to see the highlights.  Aveiro also has an interesting history…

Grand Canal Aveiro!

It was a wealthy sea port in the early 16th century, until a huge storm blocked the mouth of the river, closing access to ships.  The population of the town shrank significantly, until the early 1800s when the canal created a new passage back to the ocean and Averio became wealthy again.  The area has many salt pans where historically, salt was harvested and taken to Newfoundland to preserve the cod fished there and bought back as salt cod, bacalhau.


Moliceiros in Aveiro

Another past industry in the town was harvesting seaweed, dredged up from the bottom of the canals. The seaweed was dried and used as fertiliser on local farms.  With the introduction of chemical fertiliser this industry died out.  What remains is the moliceiros, the traditional seaweed harvesting boats. These are now used as tourist boats taking regular trips through the canals and out towards the lagoon.

There are loads of companies offering 1-hour tours, all costing about the same, 10 Euro for adults and 5 for children.  The companies compete hard and we were offered one free child ticket so that is how we chose!  All the boats appear to be the same and follow the same route.

Our guide was fantastic, taking the time to translate into English for us so we understand the history of the town and encouraging us to visit the salt pans to see the traditional salt harvesting.

She also talked to us about modern Aveiro and Portugal.  About how wealthy foreigners are purchasing property in Aveiro and pushing up prices for local people.  How reliant much of the town is on tourism and the long hours they work in the summer season to make up for the quiet winter.  She told us that many young people leave Portugal in search of employment elsewhere and they often go to places that have been Portuguese colonies in the past.

Making Oves Moles in Aveiro

Apart from the canal and boat rides Aveiro is well known for its local sweets Ovos Moles.  These come in different shapes, usually sea shells with a wafer outside made the same as a communion wafer.  Inside is a sweet egg yolk and sugar mix.  The sugar is made into a hot syrup and blended with the egg yolk.  The egg yolk mixture is heated to remove any risk of Salmonella.

Making Oves Moles at Oficina do Doce

Ovos Moles were originally made by the town’s nuns.  The egg yolk and sugar mixture was a nutritious way to feed the poor and sick in the town.  The nuns had an excess of egg yolks as they use egg whites to starch their habits and make them extra stiff!  Later the recipe was passed down to a select few and the original recipes are still used today.

Making Oves Moles at Oficina do Doce

We visited Oficina do Doce where they run tours and workshops for visitors to learn about the history and making of this local treat.  We hadn’t booked, and arrived to find we’d missed the English tour.  They offered us the chance to join a Portuguese tour instead. When we arrived at the designated time, the Portuguese tour group hadn’t turned up, so not only did we get an English tour after all, but also a private tour!  This meant the children had loads of time to practise filling the moulds and cutting out the treats.  We were shown how to fill the sweets but not how to make the filling, that is a secret recipe!

Making Oves Moles
Making Oves Moles







It was good fun but I was the only one that liked the Oves Moles!

Portuguese Sunday Lunch

We were in Aveiro on a Sunday and a bit disorganised with regard to food so we ended up going to a small tavern for lunch.  The menu was a challenge, but by now we were recognising a few common and traditional dishes.

A Balcalhau Dish

Grilled meats are popular so we had a pork Brochetta (like a giant skewer).  We also ordered a cod dish that turned out to be huge and could have fed the whole family.  It was cod mixed with potato, breadcrumbs and herbs, (a bit like a fish cake mixture) the whole warm mix was stuffed inside a round loaf of bread. This is my best guess of what it was since I don’t know for sure what the menu said!  The waiter explained that we should cut it into slices, like a cake.  Finally, we ordered another local speciality, grilled sardines.  We liked them but found it a bit fussy having to deal with all the small bones.

Grilled Sardines a Portuguese Speciality

The menus tend to be written very simply, so a Pork Brochetta says just that, but it turns out to be served with plates of vegetables and salad.  Portion sizes are large in Portugal and often quite cheap.  We had sooo much food!

The next day we only had to travel from Aveiro to Figuera da Foz, which is a short distance.  Since it was raining again there was no point heading to the beach at Figuera da Foz.

We instead went in search of the Conimbriga Roman ruins near Coimbra.

Conimbriga Roman Ruins

Backpacks and Sunhats at Conimbriga Roman Ruins

Granted just a paragraph in our guide book, in our opinion these Roman ruins are worthy of much more attention. They are Portugal’s most extensive Roman ruins and the best preserved on the Iberian Peninsula.  With origins in the 1st Century, the area was developed over subsequent centuries.

Conimbriga Roman Ruins

The area was a Roman town that had been peaceful.  During a time of invasion, the inhabitants hastily built a wall through the town for defence.  Continued invasions led to the destruction of the town which disappeared centuries ago.  What remain is incredibly well-preserved mosaic floors, fountains, bath houses, houses and much more.

Backpacks and Sunhats at the House of Fountains
Mosaic floors at Conimbriga Roman Ruins

We arrived in the rain and thought we could see the museum and have a quick look outside at the ruins. We didn’t expect them to be nearly as extensive.  Luckily some areas were also covered for preservation, so we could see them without getting wet.

The House of Fountains is the most impressive but all the mosaics are beautiful, intricately detailed and so well preserved.

Here is a short video of the fountains at the Conimbriga Roman Ruins.

Mosaics at Conimbriga Roman Ruins

Almost 2 hours later, overawed by all we had seen we headed inside to the small museum.  The little museum still packs a lot in, with some information to bring together what we had seen outside and a number of objects on display that had been discovered during the excavations.


L and S are really starting to get a handle on how archaeology tells us about the lives of people in the past.  It was incredible to see everyday objects that were centuries old, but still recognisable and similar to their modern-day counterparts.  For example, sewing and knitting tools that aren’t so different from what their gran and aunty use today.

Conimbriga Roman Ruins

We’ve also visited Roman sites in many countries now, from the North of England to rural Portugal.  What better way to understand the vastness of the Roman Empire?  Conimbriga Roman Ruins might be a bit of a detour on the average tour of Portugal but in our opinion, they are well worthwhile.

Museum of Salt

For our final stop of the day on the way into Figueira da Foz we visited the salt museum and salt pans at  Nucleo Museologico do Sal in Lavos, a short drive from Figuera.

This is a tiny museum and costs just 1 Euro per adult, but it packs a lot of information in and we left with a much better understanding of the production of salt. The best time to visit is in the summer / late summer as that is when they are producing.  There had been so much rain recently that the salt pans weren’t ready yet.  More proof that we were experiencing unseasonably cold and wet weather in Portugal (should we need any more proof!)

A tour of Northern Portugal isn’t complete without a visit to a salt pan.  It really rounds out the experience of learning about maritime history, cod fishing and the preservation of cod with Portuguese sea salt.

We purchased some delicious flavoured salts and have been adding these to many of our campsite meals since.

Casa Pinha

We were looking forward to arriving at our accommodation that evening, we’d booked a small Casa (local hotel) in a very pretty location.  Casa Pinha is a small hotel with a restaurant and stunning views over the beaches at Figuera da Foz.  The weather meant that using the pool was out of the question.  It also came with a resident donkey and the kids spent ages hanging out at the swings and talking to him.  It was beautiful the next morning to eat breakfast with those views from the restaurant.  However the experience wasn’t as good as Casa Rural and Agriturismo experiences we’ve had elsewhere.  Being a hotel, however small, it was still a bit impersonal.

The next day we took a detour across country to the East of Portugal, very close to the Spanish border, to visit the small village of Monsanto.  In our next post see why this village is so special…


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