Viana do Castelo is a lovely little Portuguese town just a ninety-minute train ride over the border from Vigo, where the River Lima meets the sea. The Castelo do Nieva, a low fort with a moat, guards over the estuary. The town has a long maritime tradition. Many of the 16th century Portuguese explorers left from here and today it has the only working shipyard in the country.
The centre of town is the pretty Praca da Republica which has a few simple but attractive buildings.
The centre piece is the ancient fountain which has several bizarre faces spouting water from different heights.
There are lots of pretty churches dotted around the town as well.
The nearest coastline is about twenty minutes brisk walk due west from Praca da Republica. It’s a bit disappointing, a narrow band of wind blasted sand, probably artificial, separated from the sea by lots of rocks.
However you can get a good run or walk in along the seafront and the long breakwater. There is a rather bleak modern bar/restaurant complex called Scala where you can sit outside protected from the wind by high glass walls. There are other beaches but I didn’t have time to check them out. You can also get the ferry to Praia di Cabedelo which is supposed to be quite undeveloped spot. There is a municipal swimming pool at the beach end of sea road.
Cozinha das Malheiras (Advanced A), 19 Rua Gago Coutinho, Tel. 258 82 94 34
Described by web reviews as the ‘best’ and most expensive restaurant in town, this is indeed a very good place with great food, friendly service and a nice ambience (stone arches, lace tablecloths, mandolin soundtrack). The food is actually much cheaper than equivalent places in Spain or Italy and not that much more expensive than other places in the same town.
When I asked for a local white wine, the very friendly English-speaking waiter suggested an excellent Vinho Verde from the Ponte de Lima co-operative (A).
To start I was given the Aperitivos Regionals; a slice of Parma style ham (A), more cured lomo ham on dense brown bread (B), a small wedge of cheese (B) and some tasteless black olives (C-).
For the main I had the local speciality of Cabrito à Serra D’Arga; baby suckling goat served with tiny roast new potatoes (B+), turnip leaves sautéed with garlic (B+), boiled carrots (C) and a large tureen of plain white rice (B). The meat was perhaps the best goat I’ve ever tasted (A+). The only complaint was I wanted to dab up all the juices with my bread but wasn’t allowed near the serving dish because everything is put on the plate for you, silver service style.
The waiter (owner?) explained that the semi-wild goats spend the summer in the mountain range (Serra D’Arga) before coming down to the town with their kids for the winter. Besides leaping around the hills, they have to dodge Iberian wolves and wildcats which all probably keeps them quite fit. The area is very famous for its wildlife and I wish I’d had time to go walking in the hills to try and spot some.
To finish Leite Creme Quimado (B+), a local Creme Brulee.
Also a glass of Antiqua, a heady aged aguardente (made like grappa but similar in taste to a cognac) from a town near Lisbon (A).
Total cost a very reasonable €30. There is also a tourist menu for €17.50. Other dishes to try might be the Bacalhau à Cozinha das Malheiras (salt cod in the house style), or Papas com Rojões (a typical local pork dish with potatoes).
Adega do Padrinho (Intermediate B), 152/164 Rua Counho, Tel. 238 826 954
Picturesque little place with stone walls, lots of traditional blue and white ceramics, gypsy scarves on the walls and a soundtrack of traditional guitar songs. You can sit outside but it was a bit windy on the night when I went so I took cover in the warmer interior. All ten tables were full of Dutch tourists so it took quite a while to be served and the kitchen seems only able to dispense meals every five minutes. The last of the table of four next to me got their meal when the first was just finishing and it must have taken 45 minutes for mine to arrive. It was worth the wait though.
With my half litre of house Vinho Verde blanco (B) I was given a big pot of fantastic tiny black olives (A) and a bread basket with four rather unspecial types of bread (C).
My starter was a huge salad of lettuce, grated carrot, tomatoes, pickled red cabbage, more olives and some great sliced white onion (B) that would have been enough for two but would have been overkill for one given what was next.
The star attraction for me was the main of grilled Sardinhas, drizzled with olive oil, which if I knew would have come with new potatoes, a side salad and even more olives, I might have forgone the starter. The tiny fish were fantastic (A+); charred salty oily perfection.
There was no room for dessert (I’d also had a three-course lunch!) but a shot of Tawny Port (Porto Alegre) finished things off nicely (B+). Total cost an amazing €18, with a free lacy place mat as a parting gift.
Maria Perre, 118 Rua de Viana, Tel. 258 822 410.
In an alleyway just behind my hotel, this homey place was recommended by a local teacher. It’s yet another trad-style restaurant with stone walls, ceramics, gypsy scarves and a soundtrack of folk songs accompanied by guitar. It’s a good everyday option; very cheap but with huge portions. It was also a reminder of how bizarre Portuguese food can be to the uninitiated palate.
Things started simply enough with four croquettes (veg, prawn,tuna, codfish, all B) and some lovely creamy cheese similar to Camembert (B+) and dressed olives (B). The bread was good too but I ignored the usual tubs of fish paste and spreadable cheese you seem to get in cheap Portuguese eateries everywhere (C-).
I went for the house mixed salad but regretted my choice when I arrived as it could have fed a small army by itself with eight ingredients on a very large plate: sliced boiled egg, cucumber, beetroot, rolls of boiled ham, grated carrot, pickled cabbage, lettuce, rings of white onion, tinned tuna, sweetcorn, tomato, and a cubes of a cheddar-like cheese. It was nice (B) but was swimming in a pool of water as is the Iberian habit.
The local speciality of Rojoes a moda de Minho completed the rout with a massive overkill of nine kinds of meat and offal along with a dozen boiled potatoes AND a side-dish of boiled rice. This was the one-person option but it would have fed three.
The carbs were fine (B) and I loved the marinated pork and chicken (B+) and the chorizo was good too (B). However, I wasn’t keen on the black skinned sausage (C), the tripe (D) or the liver, which I usually love but this was cooked till rock hard and had a very strange taste (D). There were a couple of other things which neither I nor the waiter could name, including something which I think was made from blood and flour and fried in slices till it was hard and dense (D).
I would have liked to try another local Vinho Verde but ended up with the same bottle as the previous night from the Ponte de Lima co-operative, which thankfully was excellent once again (A). I couldn’t manage the dessert so went for another digestif of aged brown aguardente which put hairs on my chest after raising the ones on my head. It came free and the flagon was left on the table but I felt it was probably best avoided! (C).
Total cost an extremely reasonable €26. This spot is a good everyday option and you will eat well and cheaply here; however I’d defy two people to eat what I had let alone one so order with care. They also have Cabrito à Serra D’Arga on the menu. Friendly non-English speaking service.
The school I was working at very kindly treated me to lunch at the Yacht Club (Iate Clube) restaurant.
It’s located in a very pleasant spot by the river under the road and rail bridge over the river.
I had perhaps the most bizarre dish so far with what was essentially three dishes on one plate: a Bacalao salad (salt-cod and potato forme which was served with salad (carrot, tomato, cucumber, lettuce, chick peas) and several kinds of fruit (water melon, two kinds of plums, grapes and Chinese Lanterns, cherry tomatoes with coconut and a date served on a chicory leaf) so no need to order dessert separately as it was on the same plate. A nice spot but probably best to try and keep things simple if you can, or maybe just come for drinks.
A great cake shop or pasteleria is Notario, just off Praca da Republica.
They are famous for their Bolas de Berlim, a filled doughnut made famous by Kennedy when he said ‘Ich bin ein Berliner’. They are ok (B), but there are lots of other interesting cakes in the display cabinet.
Personally I only want to eat Pastel de Nata, (aka Pasteis de Belem) egg custard tarts which are one of my favourite things in the world, and done very well here (A+). These great little cakes are truly international. I’ve eaten them in London and in several cities in China (they spread from Macau), but none of them are as good as the ones in Portugal.
Residencial Jardim, 68 Largo 5 de Outubro, Tel. 351 258 828 915
A not particularly attractive dingy old place with fairly spacious rooms (€45 for a double) that have only one plug socket and a virtually non-existent Wi-Fi signal. The breakfast is ok (cereals, fruit, yogurts, cheeses and boiled ham) and the front desk staff are friendly.