Published: April 5th 2011March 22nd 2011
The expansive generosity of the Verdade family was expressed once again as we were shuttled down the road to Coimbra. This was particularly appreciated because of rotating strikes on the part of the train service.
I suppose they imagined us waiting at the station, with kids, for a train that might never come...depending on the whims of the union. But, good natured lovingkindness won over civic unrest.
Coimbra is the home of Portugal's oldest university. It is the part of the country where one begins to notice the strong influence of Moorish culture. When Afonso Henrique threw off the Moorish yoke in 1145, Portugal as a distinct society began its development. But a large part of that identity is Arabic in origin. You can see it in the architecture and the music, in the darker skin and facial features of the people in the south.
Our first stop in Coimbra was the Cafe Santa Cruz. It is established in an old chapel beside an ancient facility built for the use of a local order of monks. After a time, the monks requested another church to be built for the use of the common people. Today, this considerate addendum has
become the Cafe Santa Cruz, a place of devotion to an unofficial religion, the appreciation of fado. Fado is the lively and poignant folk music of Portugal, deeply Arabic in origin as evidenced by the birdsong riffs that accompany the singer. It is a music that is delivered with great gusto and it brings tears to the eyes of almost any listener. Different styles of fado exist throughout the country. In Coimbra, it is the specialty of the male academics as they try to come to terms with their futures via an exploration of their rich history encapsulated in potent song. It's not a bad method. If fado doesn't lift a part of you up, then you're not really listening.
A humourous aside: the toilets at the Cafe Santa Cruz are established in the old confessionals. The um,....sitting area being where the priest was stationed in times past to hear the confessions of visiting penitents. I came out from these quarters feeling more relieved than normal, and somewhat absolved.
From Coimbra we took the bus out to the old Roman ruins of Coinimbriga. Actually, that is an understatement. The site consists of the relics from numerous peoples,
including the foundations from pre-Roman homes (likely Lusitanians or Iberians) and then post-Roman habitation by Visigoths. Indeed, Coinimbriga was inhabited up until the 1500's, thus hosting a substantial population for some 1,600 years. The Romans did not regard Coinimbriga as a mere outpost. In fact, the town was the site of one of the first forums built outside of Rome, under the reign of Augustus, Rome's first emperor. At its height, Coinimbriga hosted a population of 10,000 people. It sported many baths, athletic facilities, the forum and numerous shops and residences. Wealthy aristocrats built wealthy abodes, one beautifully preserved (at least the ornate floor mosaics and the central garden) called the House of Columns.
Being a gardener, I noticed the naturalized fenugreek that grew wherever one cast an eye. This was the progeny from ancient stock, the seeds having fallen from Roman tables.The sense of continuous history was palpable.
We made our way back to Coimbra and spent some time hiking throught the narrow streets. Students ducked in and out of the labyrinth of avenues, some wearing the medieval style robes that are the formal wear of academics. Other students had doffed their robes for the evening.
One cramped stairway led us past some hazing ritual that was situated in front of the gingha bar. This, in itself, is an ominous sign. Gingha is the cherry-flavoured firewater of Portugal, drank by those who have come to find wine boring. With the gingha reserved as a chaser, they were involved in consuming some foul swill of indeterminate origin. I noticed that the swill contained a fair bit of turbidity. They had a table set up for the festivities and much cheering and yelling accompanied the proceedings. Oh yes, somehow, the proceedings involved a goat. Did I mention that this was all happenning at 4:30 in the afternoon on a Tuesday?
Higher learning, indeed......
I went to bed that night thinking of Rome and goats. Somehow, it did not seem incompatible
There are more photos below