Fish Markets and Flea Markets

IMG_2583I went to the Mercado De Ribiera, Lisbon’s oldest indoor market, around midday on Friday. Some of the stalls were packing up, but the cavernous space was half-empty, anyway. A couple of stalls sold bacalhau (salt cod) alongside products imported from Brazil and West Africa familiar to me from Brixton market stalls. Many of the fresh fish stalls were closed, and the piles of polystyrene crates nearby the open stalls had labels from Norway and the other Scandinavian countries. Markets change, supply changes, demand changes. The oldest reference to a Lisbon Market dates back to the 13th century, and there has been one in this spot since 1771. Once upon a time, fish was unloaded directly from the fishing boats at the dockside to this market.


The first document related to cod-fishing is dated 1353 and refers to a treaty between Portugal and England governing Portuguese fishing in the North sea. The Newfoundland cod fishing routes emerged at the beginning of the 15th century, as Portuguese explorers opened up the territory for fishing, and by the mid 16th century, 60% of all fish eaten in Europe was cod, and would remain so for the next 2 centuries. This diminished after Spain annexed Portugal, and after long wars with the English over control of fishing territories, but Portuguese salt was still seen as essential to the fishing trade and in 1830 the trade revived, with ships setting off with their salt supplies from Aveiro, Figuiera and Lisbon, catching and salting the fish on board, and bringing it back to be dried on open air racks – a complete circle. The white fleetUnder Salazar, the trade was promoted and expanded and the annual departure was an important event, with ‘dozens of ships painted white and bedecked with flags, receiving the blessing of the church’. This rather beautiful and sad Canadian documentary made in 1967 gives an idea of the trade as it was only 50 years ago.

The White Ships (A Frota Branca)

I’ve been reading Rebecca Solnit’s new book, The Faraway Nearby, which starts out: “stories are compasses and architecture; we navigate by them…a place is a story, and stories are geography.” The relationship between stories and places, stories and architecture seems to be reciprocal, in that architecture, and place, contains narratives. The structure, space and layout of the Mercado de Ribeira acts as a relic of times past, of a particular moment of supply-demand-trade not just locally in Lisbon, but globally. So the architecture is a memory, and a narrative, but how legible is it? Can we read from this structure past attitudes to trade and migration? And how does it adapt to the present? Like Brixton Market, it is trying to reinvent itself, the top floor now hosting evening events and a Saturday ‘craft’ market attracting a different crowd.


The next day, I went to to the Feira da Ladra market, which is also centuries old, with stalls and cloths laid out on the ground selling all manner of objects old and new. The hustle bustle here was in marked contrast to the Ribeira market, with locals, tourists, migrants, and dealers dealing and just looking. I find old maps of Salinas in the Rio Tejo area, and a leaflet from Aveiro. The maps, which dated to 1898 and 1902, show lots of Salinas along the Tejo, near to St. Iria and Samouco. There are still Salinas at Samouco, now a nature reserve, but the Santa Iria area seems mostly to be motorways and industrial areas today.


The physical space of the markets, and the physical space of the salinas, seem to be remnants and remains, traces or residues. Like the objects for sale in the Feira da Ladra, many of which are now obsolete reminders of past technologies we no longer use. Remains exist also in language. The origin of Salt, the greek work Alas, was initially Als, meaning sea. The Latin Sal is an anagram changed to ease pronunciation. Words which originate from Alas/Sal include Salary/Salario, from the Latin Salarium; Saldo (Portugeuse, Italian and Spanish) meaning balance, bargain, sales; insalata or salad, sausuage (salami, salciccia, salsicha), sauce (salsa, saltsa); and more. The telephone directory of the Lisbon metropolitan area contains 412 people directly named after salt-making and salinas. As Rebecca Solnit writes, ‘Stories migrate, and meanings migrate.’


Kurlansky, M, (1997) Cod. Vintage: London

Neves, R, Petanidou, T, Rufino, R & Pinto, S (2002) ALAS – All About Salt: Salt and Salinas in the Mediterranean. Tipografia Cruz e Cardoso, Lda.

Solnit, R (2013) The Faraway Nearby. Granta: London

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3 Responses to Fish Markets and Flea Markets

  1. Ross James says:

    I’ve just found your blog, and find it fascinating! Could I please use the black & white image of the White Ships and link/ credit to this page? It fits nicely with a post I am writing about the White Fleet.

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