15 Aug - Learning, beach holidays and great sardines
Day 2 of the Northern Portugal Pedal Car Rally saw us complete a circuit in the Douro region before heading south to the ancient university city of Coimbra. An interesting stop along the way was the town where Ferdinand Magellan grew up. He was the chap who proved that the earth was not flat by sailing around it and is a great symbol of Portugal’s Age of Discovery. It’s hard for us to imagine just how brave these visionary people were: not only did they have to persuade their crews to venture into the unknown for unspecified periods of time, without charts, without communications, without any form of outside support, but they also had to contend with the large numbers people who thought they were mad, or heretics.
Ferdinand Magellan’s house in the middle of a vineyard. Why did he leave?
I wonder who compares with them today? Who takes the same sort of risks at quite such a personal level? As a boy, I remember watching Neil Armstrong land on the moon. It was inspiring on an individual level, but then so was the apparatus that put him there.
Coimbra was an early capital of Portugal once the Moors were in retreat. It became an important centre of learning and remains, for many Portuguese, an important historical and cultural centre. Winchester or York might compare, I suppose and it is one of the world’s oldest Universities. Built on the banks of a river and quite hilly, it reminded us of Oporto without the same mercantile feel – and with significantly fewer foreign tourists. The same cobbled, narrow streets – great traffic calming tools, but arguably more dangerous for the unwary pedestrian – the dark, mysterious doorways which might reveal a ceramics workshop, a Fado bar or simply some chap’s front room, the wrought iron railings holding the washing out to dry, the graffiti…
We arrived at Coimbra relatively late in the day and whilst we were staying in a Pousada with a fine restaurant, we followed the fine Matelot’s tradition of ‘never eat onboard in a foreign port’ and struck off into town. We struck lucky as it happens, but the most memorable bit of the evening was wandering through some of those narrow, cobbles streets afterwards and stumbling across a bar under the walls of the old cathedral where there was a chap playing Brasilian/Latin/Classic guitar. We lingered a while…
Coimbra by night. Who’s the Lady in Red?
In the morning, we climbed up to the heart of the University and enjoyed a couple of hours taking in the UNESCO World Heritage sites there. Of these, the Joanine Library is the most noteworthy. It dates from the 1700s and is rich in gold leaf and exotic wood. Interestingly, a colony of bats eat the miserable insects that might otherwise destroy the books; no mention is made of what happens to the bat by-products, though. It was interesting to compare this great building and its beautiful interior with the library at Trinity College, Dublin, which Julie and I were privileged to visit last year. There we saw the Book of Kells, an astonishing work of exquisite, intricate beauty which we both found hugely inspiring. Equally memorable at Trinity College was the fact that students use that library today; whereas the library at Coimbra seems to exist purely to provide a home for a pile of books that nobody will ever open again and some useful income from the steady stream of visitors. Perhaps I’m too cynical?
The University at Coimbra
By lunchtime, our academic appetites were sated and we headed back to the seaside and the town of Aveiro. This is something of an anomaly: a huge lagoon providing salt pans and a major cod fishing base, with the main town effectively cut off from the sea thanks to a huge storm in 1575 which silted up the harbour. Some prosperity has returned and the mixed economy still includes salt, but also heavy industry, a university and tourism. We found a rather uninteresting lunch in a back street but decided to go and have a look at the seafront, now about four miles away. The approach reminded us of Florida and the Intercoastal Waterway. At the sea, we found huge sand dunes and a long spit of land running south. Here, Portugal is on holiday: the beaches are fantastic and the town behind the dunes is very picturesque. The wooden fascias of the fishermen’s houses are brightly painted with white and a suitably vibrant colour. They are immaculate, as are the pavements and promenades and it all looks very jolly and undeniably attractive. I tried a local delicacy: Tripas de Aveiro. It looks like tripe (sic) but actually it is a sweet, soft pancake filled with sweetened egg yolk. Surprisingly tasty, unsurprisingly sickly. I shan’t be needing another for a while.
Aveiro beachfront homes: do not adjust your set.
Our journey return to Oporto reminded us that Portugal is being gripped by a plague of destructive forest fires, some of which have killed dozens of people and continue to wreak havoc and fear. As we closed the metropolis, thoughts returned to the more mundane and we took in the giant Jumbo hypermarket. Owned by the French Auchan chain, we were like kids in a sweet shop: Twinings Earl Grey tea, McVities Chocolate digestives, decent muesli, crème fraiche…
Exhausted, we returned the pedal car to the airport and stopped for dinner at a kerbside restaurant just outside the dockyard gates. They had a makeshift barbeque pit going and the menu was essentially sardines or an indistinguishable cut of cow. The sardines were sublime; on the other hand the pudding made the Aveiro tripe look like a Michelin chef’s finest effort, but as the whole bill including soup and a giraffe of house white came to just twenty gold coins, who could complain?
Back to sea next and the push south to Lisbon.