One of the best aspects of living in another country is getting to know the locals.  Spending three months living in Porto afforded us days upon days of just aimlessly wandering the city. They were days of pure bliss. We used to laugh that we could find our way to anywhere in the city but couldn’t name more than one or two streets.  And, we could always find our way to the Bolhao Market.

In our daily explorations, we often returned to our favorite places and we made friends among the locals. We’ll soon be publishing a series of interviews with a few of our favorite people, our Porto friends. In the meantime, I’ll tell you about the Bolhao Market and the olive lady.

The Bolhao Market

In Porto, there is a classic, albeit somewhat shoddy, market – The Bolhao Market – where you can shop for flowers, bread, fruit, vegetables, candy, spices, dried meats, cheese and fish.  Oh! So much fish can be bought.  The pungent odor of the fish could be over powering, but if you’re in Portugal, it’s all about the fish. Nestled in between the rows of vendors are several little cafes where one can sit outside and eat fried fish, or sit and sip a glass of port with a plate of cheese.  Life in the market is just that… life.  And, it is one of our favorite places.

Balhao Market

The Balhao Market – a classic destination in Porto – dating back to 1850.

A Plethora of Souvenirs

While in the market one can also browse through a plethora of souvenirs. Every thing from cork-made bags, table cloths, napkins and aprons can be found. There’s also a wide selection of hand-painted brightly colored ceramic dishes signed by the artisans. Buying souvenirs at the market is always a better deal than down by the river where the tourists shop and pay top dollar.

In the very back corner, or actually in the front corner depending on which street entrance one enters the market, we found the olive lady.  She worked two booths, one for olives and one for dried beans.  What we loved about her was her smile and her constant chatter.  We never knew what she was talking about but she would just chatter on as if the three of us were the best of friends and we never even knew her name.  We just always referred to her as the olive lady and she could not have been any sweeter.

The Olive Lady

In the three months we lived in Porto I would guesstimate we visited our friend the olive lady at least every 10 days or so.  Sometimes we bought a small bag of dried beans we would use in making soup, but mainly we bought olives.  We love olives, although for some reason I’m not a fan of Kalamata Olives.  Unlike some of the other vendors in the market she always encouraged us to taste the olives.  And by the way, we could buy a bag of olives for $2 – 2.50 per pound.  Compare that to an average price of $9 – 10 per pound at most olive bars in the US.  We ate our weight in olives while living in Porto.

Balhao market

A wonderful selection of fruit and vegetables at the Bolhao Market.

Don’t Touch

I lost count of how many times I was scolded by market vendors for touching their fruit and/or veggies while we were traveling in Europe.  Although I understand the don’t touch premise, how can I choose a good nectarine or avocado if I can’t pick it up?  But, I digress.

On our last visit to Bolhao Market to buy olives, we asked our friend if we could take her picture.  She smiled her charmingly sweet smile and motioned for me to join her inside the booth all the while chattering away.  Although we knew she was petite, we never realized that while inside her booth she was standing on a six-inch platform.  When I stepped behind her row of olives to join her for the picture, Abi and I both burst out laughing because I towered over her!  As she looked up at me she too joined in the laughter.

Balhao Market

Our sweet friend, the olive lady.

As much as we wished we could have conversed with her, our memories of our friend the olive lady are perfect as they are.  We didn’t need to know what she was saying because we knew her words always came from her heart.

The Future of the Balhao Market

While shopping in a nearby store, and speaking with the owner, we learned the Bolhao Market is slated for closure.  Half of it is already shut down and under scaffolding.  We don’t know what’s going to happen to the olive lady, and the other vendors, once the market closes and undergoes a complete transformation.  We couldn’t ask her, but we look forward to returning to Porto (many times) and at some point in the future we look forward to exploring the new and improved market and hopefully, buy a few olives.

  • UPDATE 2023:  The Bolhao Market was closed for two years.  It is now sleek, clean, modern and attracts visitors by the thousands.  It is a remarkable transformation.  Truth be told, we miss the old market.


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