Loitering in Coimbra

Arco de Almedina in Coimbra

We fell in love with the beautiful medieval town of Coimbra. We could have left after seeing the old university and the old cathedral, but the three days we spent walking around the old town brought us to the same places repeatedly, each time from a different route. Each new view revealed charms and beauty we had not noticed before. Walking around Coimbra, exploring its lovely nooks and crannies, one sees how European history is reconstructed. The Roman settlement of Coimbra is showcased in the impressive Cryptoporticus on display below the wonderful Machado de Castro museum. The completely different Arco de Almedina (photo on the left) and the Moorish town which grew behind it for three and a half centuries, starting in the 8th century onwards has no plaques and guides to help you. The Portuguese capital which was established in the mid 12th century is the core of the tourist area. Our relaxed pace also allowed us to explore the other aspects of life here: the food, the music, the cafes and the wine of the Dao region.

Igreja de Santa Cruz in Coimbra

Two of the churches are worth mentioning. One is the romanesque Santa Tiago, dominating the market place in the baixa. Stone pillars hold up wooden roof beams. When you look at the roof from outside, you see that it is made with the ancient imbrex and tegula tiles. The external pillars are beautifully carved, almost baroque. Inside, the church is bare except for a beautiful altarpiece. However, the star of the Baixa is Igreja de Santa Cruz (photo above). Built in 1131 CE, the tombs of the first two kings of Portugal, Afonso Henrique and Sancho I, lie on two sides of the altar. The azulejo-lined interior was remodelled in the 16th century, when Portugal was flush with spice funds. It is possible to loiter around the cafes, restaurants and shops which line the charming square on which this church stands.

Velha convento de Santa Clara in Coimbra

On a lovely sunny day we walked across the bridge over the Mondego river. The wonderful view of the old town was not the main reason for the walk. We wanted to see the convent of Santa Clara. Before the levees were built, the river would regularly flood the convent which was founded in 1330 CE by queen Isabel, who remains the patron saint of Coimbra. Eventually, the convent was silted over and the new convent was built over it in 1677 CE. The queen’s grave was moved to the new convent. The old convent has now been excavated, and one can visit the convents (photo above, with the old town in the background). It is interesting to see the two levels together for the first time in history.

Roman cryptoporticus in Coimbra

We almost skipped the Machado de Castro museum. It was a good thing we eventually went there, because this could be one of the most remarkable collections we saw. Below the museum is the Roman cryptoporticus. Apparently, when the Romans arrived in the first century CE, they decided to build a forum on the slopes of the hill. The incredible feat of engineering required them to extend a table over the slope, on immense pillars. The table was the forum, and the levels below it contained cells with multiple uses. This lies below the courtyard of the museum. The museum contains a wonderful collection of religious sculptures (the featured photo is an example), terra-cotta, furniture, jewellery, ceramics, paintings and textiles. We lost ourselves here for an entire long morning, before walking down to the square in front of Igreja Santa Cruz for lunch.

We loved the people: the wonderfully kind old waiter at the cafe Santa Cruz, the people at Fado ao Centro, and the lovely bar across from it, the helpful students, the people at Ze Manel. Among the things we did not visit are the very highly rated Museum of the Sciences in the old university and the botanical gardens. One has to leave something for when we come back.

Heart on my sleeve

Dense graffiti in the Restauradores metro station in Lisbon

We’d noticed spectacular graffiti in Lisbon. Portugal has been through a painful period of economic contraction for about 5 years, and has just started recovering in the last year or so. The unemployment rate was about 16% in 2013, and is even now unable to drop to 10%. Could the profusion of street art in Lisbon be related to this?

Graffiti in Praca San Tiago in Coimbracoimbra-sa4

Could this also be the explanation of the street art we saw in Coimbra? The Family and I talked about this as we walked around the little town. We were entranced by the two lovely pieces of graffiti you can see in the photos above. They were on two walls of a single building in Pra├ža San Tiago in the baixa. These shared many characteristics with the street art of Lisbon. The clean lines and the comic-book colouring make these lovely works leap out at you. At the same time, they bear a clear relationship to the work we saw in the metro in Lisbon.

As we climbed up from the baixa, the density of street art did not change, but its style seemed to transform. The example in the featured image is quite different in style. The lines and the colour scheme are not something that you will come across in a street underpass or near train lines. They are altogether more cerebral.


Then, as we walked around the university, the difference was stark. The style was hurried, and the subject matter was too academic. We had a laugh at the sheep which you can see alongside. I can easily imagine this on the cover of any of the classic rock albums of the late sixties. But the one which was clearly the work of an university student is this. Fado could be one medium which the students of Coimbra use, but this kind of graffiti binds them more clearly to students across the world. This kind of graffiti is no longer a work of visual art, but a very short essay. I can identify with this when I recall my days as a student, but I love the work of the baixa more.

Fado of Coimbra

Before leaving for Portugal I’d read that you can hear Fado on the road. Maybe you have to have some familiarity with the music in order to hear it this way. In Lisbon we sat through an expensive but very enjoyable Fado dinner, and then walked into a couple of Fado performances at bars and restaurants in Alfama and around the Rua da Misericorda. We’d heard of the open air concert in front of Coimbra’s old cathedral in May when the university year ends. We’d missed this. So, as soon as we got connected in Coimbra, I checked out reviews. Fado ao Centro was generally described as touristy but good. We were tourists, so I booked two seats at the regular evening performance.

2016-05-28 19.24.00It definitely was touristy, but in a good sense. A little film before the show started told us about the 19th century origins of Coimbra Fado in the life of students at the university, and a little about the twelve-stringed Portuguese guitar. After this there were songs, usually one vocalist with two guitarists, but some purely instrumental pieces, and a small number of songs with two vocalists. Each song was introduced. We liked the setup, and enjoyed the show. There is an opportunity after the show to have a glass of Port with the performers, talk to them, and buy CDs if you want.

2016-05-28 22.40.06A place which surprised us very pleasantly later the same evening was the cafe Santa Cruz, right next to the Santa Cruz church (photo on top). We walked in for an after-dinner drink, and a portion of the wonderful cake called the cruzeiro. Soon the place started filling up with locals, and soon a Fado concert started. The performance was even more enjoyable for us when we realized that people around us knew the songs. The general feeling of saudade which is supposed to be linked to the songs is what an Indian would think of as the emotional content of Devdas and ghazals. When I said this to The Family she asked me why I was listening to Fado when I don’t listen to Ghazals!

My weak answer to that was that it was because I was a tourist. We did not have time to catch a performance in a highly praised venue called A Capella. Maybe that worked out well, otherwise this argument would have been hard to avoid. There is at least one more bar in Coimbra where there is a Fado performance more or less every night.

A wedding in the cathedral

The old cathedral, Se Velha, was built soon after Coimbra became the capital of Portugal in 1143 CE. Since the Portuguese state of that time saw itself in terms of a militant Christianity fighting the Moors, we’d expected the cathedral to be grand.

The gargoyles in Coimbra cathedral need cleaningIn Coimbra the cathedral does not seem to be a very important structure. The gargoyles had not been cleaned for a long time; there were weeds growing out of them (see photo alongside). When we passed the cathedral in the morning its doors were still locked. People around did not seem to know whether there is an open door one can enter. We left and went up to the university, which was already bustling with faculty, students, and tourists. Of course, you might expect this in an university town. Maybe even the bishop teaches now and then.

Gilded wood statue and tiles inside Coimbra cathedralWhen we came back down after some hours we found the cathedral doors open. The inside was nice, but nothing really distinguished it from the many churches we had already seen. Perhaps it was a touch more imposing: the height must have been hard to achieve in the days before the flowering of the Gothic style. Perhaps all the really good stuff was moved to Lisbon when it became the capital in 1255 CE. There were lovely azulejos on the wall, a portrait of the queen, St. Isabel, a nice gilded altar-piece. I liked the painted and gilded wooden statue whose photo you see alongside. The most amazing things in the cathedral were the two immense sea shells which serve as baptismal fonts (one of them is in the featured photo). Apparently they were found somewhere in the Indian Ocean in 1952.

The bride arrives for a wedding in Coimbra cathedralAs we exited the cathedral we realized that a wedding was in the offing. A few men milled around a priest in formal vestments who stood at the top of the steps leading up to the door of the cathedral from the square. As we watched, guests began to arrive. Most drove up to the square and disgorged women in beautiful gowns escorted by men in suits. We did not feel out of place in the gaggle of ill-dressed tourists who were on watch. The Family wanted to wait for the bride. I looked for a good place to photograph her from, and eventually found one at the mouth of a road coming into the square from above. The Family was lost in the knot of people and cars in the square. I could get a few photos of the bride in her long white train. You can barely see at the edge of the photo her mother in a lovely purple gown.

So the cathedral still does play a role in the life of the community. It is just that the relatively hard days that Portugal is going through leaves little money to keep all large old structures in good shape.

The university of Coimbra

I’d booked our flat in Coimbra by the map: it was close to the railway station and very close to the university and the cathedral. What I hadn’t realized that the distance was mostly steep uphill.

Eaination hall in the university of CoimbraThe other thing that we realized only after reaching Coimbra is that the most important thing in the town is the university. It stands much higher up the hill even than the cathedral! The featured image in the post is a panorama taken from the top level of the university building, not the tower. And you can clearly see that the cathedral is far below.

Ceiling of the hall of exaination in the university of CoimbraThe hierarchy is clear even inside. The Great Hall of Acts in the university (photo above) is where important oral examinations are taken, for example the examination for a doctoral degree. It is lined with portraits of the kings, and details of who made the paintings, who did the woodwork, etc, are all recorded. The great importance given to learning is even visible in the coat of arms which is in the thumbnail picture above.

Chapel in the  university of CoimbraWe had to decide on what tour to take inside the university, and opted to go everywhere in the main building except climb the tower. It is also possible to take a longer tour which includes the Royal Palace, the Natural History Museum and the Old Physics Laboratories. These are supposed to be worth seeing, but we were a little short of time. After the hall we visited the chapel of St. Michael. This bright and very ornate room comes with azelujos, of course. The large organ is decorated in what is called the "Chinese style". This turned out to be largely because scenes from China are painted in gold on it.

The library of the university of CoimbraThe high point of this tour is supposed to be the Baroque Library. Since the number of people in the library is strictly controlled, you are given an entry time when you buy the ticket. We queued up to enter the grand room. We thought it was baroque, but not very large. It would be right at home in a movie with a teenaged magician looking for old spells. The press of people included a guided tour which took up the center of the small room, leaving the rest of us quite constrained. We walked around as best as we could, but it was not really possible to figure out which books were on the shelf. It was not the sort of place where I could have done much reading: it was too dark and ornate.

Don Quixoite, early edition, university of CoimbraWe escaped to the middle level, which had the hushed and clean book-lined atmosphere of a modern library. It seems that most books were actually stored here, and were taken upstairs only on request. This is what we call "closed shelf" today. Some of their more remarkable holdings were on display. In honour of Cervantes, who died exactly 400 years ago, several copies of his books were on display. I saw a book by Cervantes published in 1617, but it was not a book I knew. The oldest edition of Don Quixote which I spotted is from 1744 (see photo) . It is interesting that this edition was published 139 years after the first edition. Don Quixote still has a score of 3.8/5 on Goodreads. That is something!

A cademic prison, university of CoimbraAnother level down a little gift shop softens your entry to the only university dungeon in the world. Unseemly behaviour in the library, or disrespect shown to teachers and learning could land you here once upon a time. I’m sure the place was damp, cold, and dark. There was little you could have done in there except to jangle your chains or meditate upon ways of making sure that you were not incarcerated again. I wonder why they gave up the practice. Like much that is modern in Portugal, I’m sure that an answer would lead back to the late 18th century and Marquez de Pombal.

Coimbra on a rainy afternoon

The fast train from Lisbon stops at a station called Coimbra-B, a little away from the center of town, but very much inside the town of Coimbra. When we got off the train it was pouring. We had to take a train into the main station of Coimbra, and we got ourselves quite wet trying to do this. It was still raining half an hour later when we reached Coimbra. We’d chosen to stay in an apartment very close to the station, and we managed to do it with one umbrella between me and The Family.

The apartment was very nice, and even nicer because of the great wifi connection. We made ourselves a couple of cups of hot tea after drying off. The rain had reduced to an occasional drizzle, so we ventured out to do a little shopping for breakfast. At this time of the year the markets in Portugal are full of wonderful cherries, nectarines, strawberries and peaches. We saw, but did not pay much attention to a fruit which I later found was called a loquat; if we’d known the story of the imaginary insult behind them, we might have bought some. We shopped for jam, cheese and a ham, and then walked into a bakery for some bread. Our breakfast was arranged.

Waiting in the rain outside Ze Manel dos Ossos in Coimbra Table at Ze Manel dos Ossos in Coimbra Zany decor at Ze Manel dos Ossos in Coimbra

Dinner was another matter! We’d read of a tiny local restaurant called Ze Manel, famous for "bones", and decided to go there. We were warned that it is very tiny and unless you are there at 7:30 in the evening, when it opens, you may be turned away. We lost our way slightly in the maze of streets which makes up Coimbra’s baixa (lower town) and reached immediately after it had opened. All three tables in the kitchen were taken, and there were two Portuguese families waiting in a queue ahead of us.

Since the families seemed to be negotiating with the manager (first photo above), we decided to wait. The manager went away. Nobody left. So we waited and peered into the kitchen with its steaming pots. Soon another door opened, and the manager beckoned us into a staircase. We trooped up and into an extra room which they apparently keep for such times. We had a lovely table by the window (middle photo above), and left the long tables to the two families. The room was decorated with a bizarre collection of things which restaurants in Portugal manage to bring together: this had pens, medals and watches (last photo above).

One thing to remember about restaurants in Portugal is that they will often put down bread, cheese, olives, and even a little extra dish on the table. These are not free, but are charged. Usually the price is not high,Two portuguese cheeses but it never hurts to look at the menu to check the price of the "cover". This place had two different cheeses, one of which was the cured sheep-milk cheese which I’d encountered just the previous night. We looked at the menu as we had the cheese and olives. We ordered osso (bones), which we thought was a soup, and a fish and a meat dish. Although the food was wonderful, this turned out to be a mistake. The other families ordered only the bones, and they got the soup and piles of delicious looking bones (with meat on them). We marked this down for another meal.

Igreja da San Tiago in CoimbraCoimbra, like Lisbon and Porto, stands on a river. All three main towns are at a height and the lower town which has grown up on the banks of the river is called the baixa. After dinner we wandered through the maze of narrow alleys in the baixa, deliberately avoiding the motorable roads. They were well lit but completely deserted: tourists as well as locals were still busy with dinner. We came across a couple of churches, which were closed at this time, before we wandered back home. The weekend will be long.

The discovery of Portugal

PortugalMapI asked "Portugal?" She said "Yes." That’s how we decided to spend about 10 days in the country which Goa has a lingering relationship with. Portugal has an embassy in Delhi certainly, but its only other representation in India is a consulate in Goa. As a result, if you apply for a visa to Portugal from Mumbai, then your application is processed in Goa. As we discussed this, I checked up on my faint memory that Portugal’s current prime minister has a tenuous connection to Goa through his father. These relationships are only in the mind, as I found when looking for flights. There is no direct flight between Mumbai, Delhi or Goa and Lisbon.

There is so little I know of modern Portugal: only a handful of people, and a wonderful film on the Portuguese musical form called Fado. Even there, the movie was made by Carlos Saura, a Spaniard. I browsed a list of Portuguese film makers, and realized that I haven’t seen modern Portuguese movies. I score slightly better with Portuguese novelists. I recalled that a google search for the name of the bridge which joins Panaji and Vasco in Goa led me to a stunning photo of the Vasco da Gama bridge in Lisbon. We are looking forward to Portugal: it will be a journey of discovery.

We blocked out our basic travel plans. Although the country is not large, we have too little time to cover it thoroughly. We decided to skip the south entirely. The main stops then will be Lisbon, Coimbra in the center, and Porto in the north. Coimbra seems to be the historical center. Porto is the gateway to history: with access to paleolithic art, and Celtic and Roman remains. Lisbon also looks like a lovely town, as does Sintra nearby. Now the work begins: there is a lot of reading, viewing and listening to be done.