“The ancient handsome litter of the sea front had possessed its own significance, its vivacity and its charm. A spirited collection of abandoned windlasses, the ribs of forgotten boats, the salt wasted, almost translucent gallows on which the fish had once been dried, the sand polished sculpture of half buried driftwood.” Norman Lewis – ‘Voices of the Old Sea’
Once again the coastal weather didn’t cooperate with our beach plans and we woke to a thick sea mist that seemed to hang around like a wet blanket. The hotel clerk apologised several times as though he was personally responsible for this and reluctantly told us that most likely it would be like this all day.
No beach for us today for sure.
Instead we left the hotel and walked along the north bank of the River Ave until it met the sea and then we turned north towards the city of Póvoa de Varzim about three miles or so away.
On the way we visited the fish market of Vila do Conde and passed the now abandoned timber fish drying trestles where traditionally cod from Newfoundland was salted in preparation to be transformed into bacalau.
The trestles and the drying frames have all gone now and only the rotting skeletal timber supports remain but with a bit of imagination it is possible to see what it must have been like; a beach full of white fish facing south and glinting madly in the sun rather like a modern day solar energy farm.
On the side of a derelict fish preparation warehouse there was a mural, a painting showing just how this place once looked with women workers attending to the precious fish.
Ocean fishing is a hard job. It used to be a whole lot harder.
Three fishers went sailing out into the West,
Out into the West as the sun went down;
Each thought on the woman who lov’d him the best;
And the children stood watching them out of the town;
For men must work, and women must weep,
And there’s little to earn, and many to keep,
Generally when we think of fishing we focus on the brave men that put out to sea, sweating, straining; blistered, burning, bleeding, bruised; grunting, groaning – dropping their nets; heaving, hoisting, and then bringing in their haul and returning worn out, beat and battered back to beaches.
A tough job – I wouldn’t want to do it and I wouldn’t want to do the job of fishermen’s wives either because I imagine that was equally as demanding. They might not have put out to sea or battled with the nets and the ropes, the rough seas and the weather but they had their own arduous tasks to perform just the same.
Before the men set off to work the women had to help them prepare, maybe a bit of patching up here and there, wounds to stitch, bandages to apply and then pack up some food and drink to take with them.
Next the really arduous job. While they were out at sea they had to sit and worry about them returning safely and when they did they were thankful but now there was more work.
While the men hauled the boats away from the surf onto the beach the women dealt with the catch, gutting the sardines, descaling the mackerel, separating the flesh from the bones of the cod and hanging into the sun prior to salting and all the premium fish expertly prepared for market.
And then they had to go to market to do the negotiating and the selling.
When they had finished all of that they had to start mending nets digging the sand for juicy bait and harvesting slimy seaweed and drying it to sell to inland farms as fertilizer.
Oh, and I almost forgot, the housework, preparing food and looking after the children.
I mention this because everywhere in Portugal there is street art which is based on the lives of fishermen and women and for a country which didn’t grant equal rights until 1974 the art celebrates fishing men and women in equal measure and I was pleased to see that. Women so often get overlooked in these matters.
The depiction of women and fishing has changed though. These two contrasting examples are first from the city of Ovar (at the Railway Station) and the second from the city of Póvoa de Varzim.
The first is a tiled wall from about fifty years ago which shows a traditional image of a glamorous, smiling woman who looks rather like Sophia Loren, someone a fisherman would be delighted to return home to after a tough night at sea and the second is a modern sculpture that depicts a group of fishwives that you wouldn’t want to bump into down an alleyway on a dark night. I suspect that the second is probably a more accurate depiction..
Póvoa de Varzim turned out to be a much larger place than I had imagined, it is the seventh-largest urban centre in Portugal and was once home to the country’s largest fishing port. It is still important to the fishing industry but now predominantly for processing and canning. The story of Póvoa de Varzim is rather like that of Grimsby in England, the town where I live.
Eventually we reached an agreed turning around point, found a beach bar for a drink and then as we walked back the mist began to reluctantly clear and the sun made the odd shy appearance.
It didn’t clear completely until we arrived back in Vila do Conde so with the sky now blue and the sun in all of its glory we walked the centre of the old town, the market (gone now for the day) the Cathedral, the Convent and some more of the Aqueduct. I was glad that we had returned to Vila do Conde, I liked it here.
Later the hotel arranged some car hire for us on the following day, it was a lot less fuss than Europcar and quite a lot cheaper as well. The next day we planned to drive to Guimarães and Braga.