Kayaking in Portugal’s Aveiro Lagoon

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Despite the beautiful sun and the open skies, it was still midwinter. Had the weather been normal, I could have expected a February deluge. Instead, Portugal was drought-stricken: The rice fields were drained, the reservoirs at critical lows. The web of rivers, streams and tributaries that run from the Freita, Ladário, and Chavelha mountains to the Aveiro Lagoon, some joining the great Vouga River and others creating their own passage, were also drying up. At the river dock at Salreu where I put in, the water had sunk low enough to reveal the black, gunked-up bottom of a depth gauge — somewhere around 50 units on a scale that was water-stained at 160.

The water was so torpid that a thick layer of dust had settled onto it, giving it a cheerless brown tinge. As I set off, the kayak cleared this away, cutting through and folding over the dust-skin, the water refreshed as I was. After a mile, I met the receding tide, exposing, as it flowed toward the lagoon, mud flats that shone like aluminum foil in the sun. I let it guide me, following it blindly down channels I hoped would not peter to a dribble in the middle of some muddy expanse. Low in my kayak, I was walled within the river, the banks rising as the tide fell. Only the occasional ripple of a fish nibbling at the surface reminded me I wasn’t alone.

The silence made time flatten out, and when I was tired, I sat back and let the water take me. Moving that way, like driftwood, I could get teasingly close to paddling birds, who lifted off reluctantly when my nearness was finally too much to bear. A few rickety huts were plunked onto the mud, far from the runnels of the dropping tide. Later, a fisherman’s son told me about these palheiros, which were often used for storage, and how his father would eat lunch in the shade cast by their crumbling walls.

From its beginnings as a Roman settlement and into the 10th century, Aveiro was a tiny seaside village of fishing folk. The lagoon didn’t come into existence until about the 16th century, when the rivers feeding into the Atlantic silted, and long sandbanks grew along the coastline. Eventually, more than 27,000 acres became ensnared behind those peninsulas, creating the jumble of waterways and mud. The village was no longer seaside, but the Portuguese are nothing if not industrious, and lucrative salt and fishing industries evolved around the ebb and flow of seawater within the lagoon.

The area is also a haven for birders. I drifted past hundreds of ducks, gulls, grebes and herons. Cormorants balancing on the calcified poles of long-abandoned jetties, looked, as they spread their wings to dry in the sun, like runners breasting a tape.

I met a confluence, several courses meeting and spreading into a wide, shallow river. Across that stretch of still water came the tolling bells of Murtosa. The town — white, blocky houses under uniform ocher roofs — was like a handful of gravel thrown onto the shore. I skirted the coast, intending to follow this river out into the greater lagoon. But the world had other plans. Standing up to his ankles in the mud, a man was mooring his narrow, high-prowed fishing boat to a thin wooden pole. Even in the rising heat, he had a thick wool sweater pulled snug over his drooping belly. His brow vanished in the shadow of his low cap. I hailed him with a wave.

“Where are you going?” he called out in Portuguese.

“Aveiro,” I said. We were not far apart, but something about being on the water made us yell, while the movement of the current gave our conversation a frantic edge.

“A-vay-row?” he called back, his north coast accent flattening the name. Then, cutting the air with his hand, he motioned down a small tributary across the water. “That way.”

The tide was pulling me away, along the river to the open lagoon. “Okay,” I said, waving to lessen the blow of my intention to ignore him, my course of action decided long ago. But as I let myself slip away, he called after me, shouting against the growing distance. “Hey! Where are you going? It’s that way!” He made several more directional karate chops at the little stream. “Then that way, then that way, then A-vay-row!”

Further directions were lost in the air between us as I struggled to maintain my position. I hesitated, but ultimately yielded to them, suspecting that if I did not, he’d jump in his boat and tow me to Aveiro himself. The scenic route carries no truck with countrymen.

Or perhaps he just wanted the show of watching me heave against the current, which I had to until I had gone far enough down the tributary that the water turned and began to take me with it. But among the labyrinthine bends of the canals, the tide, here pulling, there pushing, offered no clue as to the way through to the lagoon. I dipped down channels only to turn around after reaching a dead end. It was tiring, but I had nowhere to be. At any rate, traveling by kayak means always having the option of simply taking to land and portaging everything into a better channel.

That wasn’t necessary. I soon reached the open lagoon, where the air was cooler and carried over the water by a long, low breeze that brought the hollow booms of the harbor yard to my ears. The distant silos and cranes were dull forms in the haze, as was the low skyline of Aveiro, not pretty at a distance, but industrial. Nearer the ocean, on the Praia da Barra, was the worn pencil nub of the Barra lighthouse, the tallest in Portugal.

Because it was winter, the great salt pans were deserted, the fishing was minimal, the traders absent. Only a few mariscadors — shellfishing boats — bobbed in the shallows. The Aveiro area is home to several kinds of purpose-built boat, most of them in the half-moon sloop style. Bateiras are used for fishing, and saleiros to haul salt from the pans. Mercantels carry everything else: fish from Murtosa; sand from Esgueira; roof tiles from Válega; wine from Águeda. Moliceiros are used for collecting moliço, a broad term for water plants, including algae, eelgrass, pondweed and ditch grass. Their low-slung sides, only a few inches above the waterline, are designed for raking in the greens, which are then dried on land and spread on fields for fertilizer.

These boats are wide and colorful, their distinctive prows curved like a rhino’s horn and detailed with vivid, often raunchy scenes. For every one depicting a sailboat or a sunset, there is another of an innuendo that needs little explanation: a man complimenting a woman’s fruit tree, a dairyman praising his cow’s udder while his buxom wife looks on. It was this last image I paddled up to as I approached one of the shellfishing boats. From midship, a man was throwing a cabrita alta, a heavy rake net attached to a long, tapered tree trunk. The trunk was worn from wear, and its fine end wobbled as he hauled the draggings back on board, which his companion then sluiced in a large sieve.

I asked him what he was doing. His reply, “mariscos” (shellfish), was spoken with the same exacting effort it took him to throw the great rake. I paddled on to watch from a distance, then beached on a small island. To ease my legs, I strolled over the patch of wet land, my footprints looking alien in the pristine mud, and settled down with a lunch of tangerines and apple cake to watch, for the first time, a flamboyance of flamingos. Strutting along the muddy shoal, these rangy punks of the bird world were white, with only a hint of pink. They dipped their shoe polish beaks into the water and clacked and honked. When they took flight, their color was released, a stunning flash of black and hot pink of their secondary feathers at the base of their wings.

That discovery made, I turned back to the salt pans, paddling toward shore and the canals of Aveiro. It was a local son, João Afonso, who, in the early 16th century, alerted Portugal to the cod-rich Grand Banks of Newfoundland, and who first brought codfish back to Portugal. For the Portuguese people, who have never been rich, even during the peak of their empire, the seemingly limitless bounty from away was a godsend. It became a national food, and now it’s said there are enough recipes to never repeat a single dish in a year. That fish — Portugal’s fiel amigo, or faithful friend — is still salted and dried here, though it is now pulled from Norwegian waters.

As Aveiro is to Venice, moliceiros are to gondolas. But whereas Venetian gondolas are black and sleek as crows, moliceiros are peacocks, grand and eye-catching. They bully through the narrow canals full of visitors on sightseeing trips. Along the Canal Central, where the city’s pillory and gallows once stood, was the grand Jardim do Rossio, its park torn up by construction. Here the moliceiros were docked, and I clutched one, waiting out the wake of a passing motorboat. On the shore, a gaggle of teenage girls giggling into their shoulders made me feel like the pillory still existed.

I had to pay attention; to fall in would be miserable. Canals are beautiful, but their water never is. Beneath Aveiro’s arching bridges and pretty Art Nouveau facades, the water was slick and wobbly, populated by gray carp that slithered among red and green lettuces. But the smell of cooked egg and the sound of jazz were in the air, and I held great hope for my perfect cafe.

At the end of the Cojo Canal, I pulled my kayak ashore and, after letting it dry in the sun, folded it back into itself: I was compact and mobile, even on land. Before long, I was settled at a cafe, the sun cooking the salt from my back, a chilled beer before me. As with many before it — and the one after — I’d never tasted better.

Av. José Estevão 238, Gafanha da Encarnação, Ílhavo

This hotel boat moored in Costa Nova takes weekly cruises up the Aveiro River to Torreira. An onboard restaurant offers a seasonal seafood menu, and package cruise deals can be booked. Rooms from about $165 per night.

5 Cais dos Mercanteis, Praça do Peixe, Aveiro

A canal-side restaurant serving fresh fish and shellfish from the Aveiro River and Atlantic. Open Wednesday to Monday 12:30 to 5 p.m. and 7 to 10 p.m.; closed Tuesday. Entrees from about $20.

Avenida Dr. Rocha Madahíl, Ílhavo

An entertaining museum with a focus on Portugal’s fishing trade, which includes an interactive fishing boat and an aquarium stocked with codfish. An adjunct arm of the museum, the Santo André, is about five miles away at the Port of Aveiro. (It’s temporarily closed but will reopen.) Open Tuesday to Saturday 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. and 2 to 6 p.m.; closed Monday and Sunday. Tickets about $7 per adult, about $4 per child.

Rua João Mendonça, Pier 8, Aveiro

Tour the Aveiro canals in a traditional moliceiro boat to get the best views of the town’s Art Nouveau architecture, the salt pans and the fish market. Tours last about 45 minutes. Open daily 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tickets about $14 per person over 12, about $11 per person over 65, students about $9, about $7 per child ages 5 to 12, and ages 4 and under free. About $33 for two adults and two children.

Potential travelers should take local and national public health directives regarding the pandemic into consideration before planning any trips. Travel health notice information can be found on the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s interactive map showing travel recommendations by destination and the CDC’s travel health notice webpage.

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