At the seaside town of Peniche in Centro de Portugal, fishing boats own the seas and seagulls own the skies. As the fishing trawler, ‘Princesa de Sesimbra’ returns to port, elderly men, with faces stained by the sea, stand on the quayside in tight knots talking with much mirth. In the skies above them flocks of white and grey birds circle, squabble and whirl, screaming like beggars calling insults to the men below.
The trawler returns, lines are thrown to those on the dock, and suddenly the previously quiet quay comes alive with colour and activity. Men in vibrantly coloured waterproof suits, wearing faces as tough as the skin of an angler fish, begin to unload their valuable haul of fish. The boat’s crane swings box after box, the numbers on the quayside grow steadily.
Peniche in Centro de Portugal
Onboard the ‘Princesa de Sesimbra’ as the catch is unloaded, the work of the next voyage has already begun. Two men sit on a small mountain of yellow-buoyed nets already assessing the damage and making ready for repairs.
A previously idle forklift buzzes between the quay and the warehouse loaded down with the fruits of the sea, as an old man wearing a green tracksuit carries a handful of sardines, placing them in a bag hanging from the handlebars of his bicycle. The bag is already brimming with the small silver fish. A tribute? An act of kindness? A duty? Who knows. Leaning on a stack of electric blue boxes, a man in a business shirt shouts into a mobile phone.
On the deck of the trawler, every man is engaged in a task; the vessel is nudged forward by the skipper until the lines are tight and secure and the ‘Princesa’ can finally take a well-deserved rest. With the trawler fully unloaded, on land, there is still work to be done. The boxes are opened revealing the bodies of a mass of shining silver fish, soon to appear on the menus of restaurants, bars and beachside stalls. On the ground, beside the boxes, the dagger-like body of a solitary garfish lies dead, the seagulls scream louder overhead.
At the centre of the boxes, the man in the business shirt is busy plying his trade. A fisherman claps his hands and shouts the bravest of gulls from the quayside and back into the air among his screaming comrades. The man in the business shirt raises his voice to another, just like in the air above there is now squabbling on the land; a security guard steps in. Calm is restored and as the security guard walks away he leans to the man in the business shirt, “Those guys never leave the land,” he says with a grimace, “they don’t know what they’re talking about.” The ‘Princesa’ is at rest now and an air of quiet resumes; the last box is unloaded and carried away on the forklift truck to the distant warehouse.
Peniche and the business of fish
Inside the warehouse of the sales room, things are different. Buyers sit in tiered stands, like spectators at a sporting event. Boxes of fish; pollack, sardine, ray, bream, flounder, grouper, bass, and other mysterious looking creatures wearing spines and shells, claws and tentacles, are paraded on conveyor belts before them. Through a microphone, the auctioneers identify each lot on offer; a digital display board reveals the item number, the species, its weight and the name of the vessel from where it has come – the ‘Nelson Borges’, the ‘Luar de Agosto’, the ‘Tudo Por Deus’.
This is an auction in reverse. On the digital screen, a clock counts backwards – in Euro – until a buyer decides a price is fair and within his margin of profit, pushes a button on his hand-held remote and the item is sold. A docket drops into a box; a single conger, a brace of turbot or a brimming catch of horse mackerel, by evening the buyer’s purchase will be packed in ice on display for diners to make their choice in the restaurants of Peniche and far beyond.
Net menders of Peniche in Centro de Portugal
Close to the sales room of the Peniche fish market, among the rows of fish processing factories, boat repair yards, engine sales rooms and other similar grey buildings and warehouses associated with the huge fishing industry of Peniche, there is a small patch of land where the real business behind the work of the fishermen is performed. Amongst a sea of nets, the colours of a coral reef; greys and burgundies, browns and ochres, the scattered nets mirror the colours of a tropical aquarium, a group of women and men sit on the ground between the nets, under the improvised shade of umbrellas advertising beer brands and ice cream, chocolate and coffee. Their job, to deftly repair the nets by hand, using skills handed from generation to generation.
The women are dressed for comfort and the environment around them, not style. But, as if by osmosis the colours they’ve chosen have been borrowed from the palette of nets strewn about their feet. They wear no shoes, thick socks protecting their feet, and the precious nets. Even their skin has taken on the weathered texture of their charges. From the position in which they sit, one arm and one leg bears a darker sun-bronzed tan than the other. One lady explains that the young people no longer want to follow in their footsteps, and who can blame them? The youngest of the women is fifty years old, there is no new blood who want to carry on this difficult and skilful job.
Not far away from the women who tend the nets and the men who brave the elements at sea, there is another side to Peniche in Centro de Portugal. Long sandy beaches where sun worshippers lounge without care, surfers ride the massive tube-like waves famed throughout Europe as one of the best surfing locations on the continent, families stroll the promenade eating ice-creams, and diners gorge on the sea’s bountiful harvest.
Amongst the pastel coloured, quaint houses of the fishermen which jut out onto a rocky headland sightseers wander the ‘village’s’ narrow streets. Peniche in Centro de Portugal, is many things to many people, but the one common aspect which unites all others is the constant, rolling presence of the sea and the people whose lives revolve around it.
This Peniche in Centro de Portugal post is a part of a series of 11 posts I wrote based on my journey to the Oeste Region in July 2016. Please find the links o the other articles bellow:
This Peniche in Centro de Portugal post was written by my inspiring friend Brendan Harding as part of my ongoing collaboration with the Centro de Portugal Tourism Board. All opinions are my own. Photo credits to Emanuele Siracusa.