Coimbra in Portugal

July 27, 2012

We drove from Nazare north to Coimbra – Portugal’s Oxford. We managed to navigate to our hotel – a fairly modern, rather nondescript place where WIFI was only allowed for one of our three devices (two laptops and an iPad!) I was not impressed. Fortunately, the room was spacious, modern, and pretty cheap, although a good 15 minute walk from the nicer part of Coimbra.

After getting settled, we walked into the old town of Coimbra (very atmospheric) where we were welcomed by Miguel de Carvahlo, one of Gregg’s compatriots and fellow surrealist. It was wonderful to see Miguel in his amazing bookshop in the tangled web of streets of old Coimbra.

Narrow streets of the old town in Coimbra
View of Coimbra from our hotel window

We had a good visit and made plans to meet again the next day to go to Miguel’s home in Figueras da Foz on the coast. On the way back to the hotel we found a great art supply store — Gregg stocked up on more pastels and paints at very good prices. In the evening we had a wander through the old town, ate dinner and then took in a free Fado performance at a lovely old cafe. The Coimbra fado is sung only by men. The singers we saw were dressed in traditional capes that relate to the ancient university.

Fado singers in Coimbra

The next day we had to ourselves to discover Coimbra before we went with Miguel to his hme in Figueras. We drove up to the ancient university. Unfortunately, a fair chunk of old Coimbra was demolished by Salazar to make room for the awful concrete Fascist-style buildings of the new university. The old part of the university consisted mostly of one very large quadrangle.

Spacious quadrangle at Coimbra University

We checked out the two main sights–the chapel and the library. Beautifully carved wooden shelving, an ornate celing, huge tables inlaid with exotic woods, and hundreds of thick, old volumes filled the 17th century library at the university. A guard regulates the number of people allowed in at any one time so that the doors are opened only three times an hour. The purpose is to keep the humidity low in order to preserve the books. I enjoyed walking down into the jail that housed miscreant students right up to the 1960’s. Common crimes were missing classes and being rowdy. Those were the days.

We left the university and drove about twenty minutes south of Coimbra to visit a wonderful Roman site – Conímbriga. We were told by someone that we would not be impressed by Conímbriga if we’d already seen Pompeii but they were wrong. We’ve seen Pompeii and were still impressed by Conímbriga. It’s not as large nor as well preserved as Pompeii; however, the little museum was just lovely (and very uncrowded) and I’ve rarely seen such well-preserved mosaics.

Mosaics at Conimbriga
A tourist splashed her water bottle over the mosaic to bring up the pattern

Many of the mosaics were out in the open although the best of them were protected by a modern roof. We wandered blithely through the ruins – something we always enjoy doing since ruins are a bit thin on the ground on Bowen Island. I have a soft spot for Roman ruins; I love trying to imagine toga-clad people shuffling about in sandals, being artisans and merchants not much differently from today. The museum showed plenty of evidence of how Conímbriga was a thriving, working town. I’m sure life wasn’t all wonderful but basically, people lived there for centuries doing pretty much what they are doing today in a typical town – making stuff, selling stuff, and consuming stuff.

Roman matron and column
Gregg cracks his back in the Roman amphitheatre

We drove back into Coimbra and returned to Miguel’s shop where we met up with Rik Lina, a Dutch artist that Gregg has been working with this past year on his Cornucopia project and another Portuguese artist from the Cabo da Montego surrealist group. We hopped back in the car and followed Miguel along small country roads to his home in Figuears da Foz on the Atlantic coast. The drive he took us on was just lovely – lots of very green rice fields and sleepy little villages.

At Migeul’s we enjoyed the warm hospitality of Miguel and his wife Maria. Our room in their house was so comfortable – I think I had one of the best sleeps of our trip there! We all hung out on the terrace overlooking the Atlantic Ocean and ate Portuguese cheese and started in on red wine. Rik Lina and his wife Elize (a ceramicst) joined us. They are from Holland but live most of the year in Figueras da Foz. The dinner Maria cooked for us was spectacular – big heaping platters of pork with clams, a green salad and unending glasses of wine. At the end of the meal, Maria brought out two home made cakes – they looked like something out of a patisserie and tasted just as good. I had long since given up on my eating plan (nothing white – yeah right!) and so indulged in a piece of both – a sweet and nutty torte and a berry cheesecake. Miguel brought out the special liquer that is actually illegal in Portugal – kind of like moonshine I guess. It’s a bit like port but I think stronger. It went down easy!

Miguel, me, Gregg, Elize and Rik
Maria, Miguel, Gregg, Elize, Rik

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