Coimbra - Worthwhile stop on the road to Lisbon

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February 1st 2012
Published: February 1st 2012EDIT THIS ENTRY

Coimbra blog

Thankfully Portugal has a pretty impressive train system running north and south between the major cities of Porto and Lisbon. And smack in the middle is Coimbra, also connected by train. From Porto we just jumped on the metro near our hotel and arrived right at the train station. Once we arrived to Coimbra, we learned that we could take another train for a quicker way to town. Of course, thinking we might save time by not waiting for that train to arrive, we decided to walk, with our luggage. We later learned that the train would have dropped us off right next to our hotel AND that the route we walked was not meant for pedestrians. It’s always interesting arriving to a new city and not knowing what kind of distance you are from your hotel. Map or not, you never know what you will encounter. Anyway, a little exercise never killed anybody.

When we finally arrived to our hotel, the woman behind the desk told us (again, in English) that we could upgrade our room for an extra 10€ a night. She gave us two sets of keys and told us to bring back the set for the room we didn´t want. We looked at the one we had originally booked on the third floor and it wasn´t too bad but then we headed up a flight of winding stairs to the room we would choose. We decided immediately that we were going to fork over the extra cash. The room was terrific! We had an huge bed, seemingly brand new bathroom and our own personal balcony with a great view of the town. The staff was great and graciously accommodated our requests during our stay - a corkscrew for our wine and ice for our airplane-sized bottle of Licor Beirao, a typical liquor of the area.

The hotel was pretty much in the heart of downtown Coimbra, so the first thing we did was explore the area looking for some food. The cafeterias in Portugal display their food, in a deli-type case on their counter, and seem to have more smaller items to tide one over than in Spain where you are having to get a giant meal when you´re just looking to nosh a bit. We found a cafeteria we liked and spent a good few minutes trying to decide what we wanted. We chose a couple of things that were similar to ham and cheese sandwiches but instead of bread they were baked into a pastry. We also got some fried fish balls and some croquettes too. Not too bad and enough to take away the hunger pangs. We talked ourselves into adding dessert to our snack and asked if there was a special dessert of the area. We ended up with a flaky sweet dessert called pastéis de Tentúga.

After some food in our bellies, we continued to explore. We walked through a plaza with some stores and an ancient church, and we bought a cone-shaped bag of freshly roasted castañas (chestnuts) from one of the push cart vendors. We saw a sign with an arrow pointing up the street toward a market, so we decided to head that way. We walked up and around the outside of the old town and found that the market was closed for the duration of our stay in the city. Oh well. So we continued walking up and decided to head towards the university which meant tackling one heckuva incline. We trudged up a hill, switched back up another and then switched back again and came upon the University of Coimbra. The University seemed to own the entire center of town, which was on top of one giant hill. We took a peek into a couple of buildings and then ended up in this amazing courtyard in the University of Coimbra, which includes the Joanina Library (more pics here and here), an impressive clock tower, a statue of João III ¨the Pious¨ and a phenomenal view of the city. Parts of the Harry Potter movies were filmed in the Joanina Library, and sorry for the bad pun, but the place is indeed magical. We toured a couple of the buildings in the University, which was established in the year 1290 and is one of the oldest universities in the world still in operation. The grounds were quite amazing and rich with history and the sights were well worth the price of admission. We finished up the tour of the grounds and headed back towards the hotel and instead of repeating the way we came up and around the hilly town, we found some stairs that headed straight down through the old part of the town towards the hotel. On the way we found a cool old church that we poked our heads into and we did a little window shopping before making it back too.

While researching Portugal and drooling over all the food and wine opportunities, we also found some non gastronomy related culture we were both interested in checking out. When we arrived at our hotel in Coimbra we saw some options to experience an interesting piece of the Portuguese culture called Fado. Fado is a Portuguese music genre that dates back to the early 1800´s and is known for it’s mournful sound and beautiful voices and instruments. We booked our reservation through the hotel and were told the performance started at 10pm-ish in a 14th century chapel. We were excited! We arrived early and found a great table about 10 feet from the stage. It was a very intimate setting with only a dozen or so tables and seemingly natural dim lighting. The mood was perfect and honestly we didn’t know what to expect from the performance. The other half of the chapel was the stage area and a very tall elevated platform with a black grand piano. Once we were seated, a waiter came out to take our order. He was very patient and tried to speak English to us, but after watching the poor fella struggle for a few minutes we suggested that we communicate in Spanish; he was very grateful to speak to us in something closer to his mother tongue. We ordered a bottle of wine and a cheese plate and enjoyed the ambiance while we waited for the performance to begin. Soon the tables started to fill up and the lights went down, setting the tone for the night.

A man with a mandolin, another with an acoustic guitar and a third with a cape draped over his barrel chest and was presumably the lungs of the operation came out onto stage. They introduced themselves and started right into the music. The string playing was beautiful and the opera-type singer was really amazing. Such a joy to hear wonderful and authentic music in the setting of an ancient church. They played for some time and then took a short intermission. After the break they were joined by a fourth man on accordion who was quite talented. Later in the performance the 4th man jumped on the piano and was joined by an impressive woman vocalist. The performance went on for about two and a half hours and the night concluded with a sing-a-long that the entire audience (except us and the other American couple in the room) happily belted out in unison. A very cool experience and one we look forward to having again if we get a chance to get back to Portugal!

The next day we slept in a bit and decided to see what else the town had to offer. We stopped by the tourist office to see what they recommended we see, grabbed our map and started walking to the water. There are two bridges in town to cross the river so we chose to enjoy the river scenery and take the colorful footbridge off in the distance. We arrived at the Quinta das Lágrimas park/hotel/golf course thinking it would be a free walk-though of the gardens. After being talked out of 2€ each, we went to see what the park had to offer. It was fairly interesting. There were a few fountains (more like trickles) and a trail to walk through the landscaped grounds and the wooded area. It wasn´t really worth the time or money if we had a chance to redo things, but we did get to see a tad bit more of the town along the way.

We headed back towards the direction of the other bridge while staying on the same side of the river. We followed the map towards the monument icons and found the exterior wall of a park. When we finally found the entrance we were happy that it was open, so we paid the steep admission even though we realized it was a park for kids. Portugal dos Pequenitos is the park and it consists of diminutive versions of Portuguese houses and monuments; themed miniature structures from countries influencial in Portugal´s history. These include the islands of Madeira & Açores, Brazil and parts of Africa; and pavilions dedicated to the former Portuguese colonies. But most importantly, it looked really cool! Each miniature structure represented something similar to what you would find in that part of the world and when you went inside there were artifacts and history about those particular regions and influences. We could enter almost all of the small-scaled homes and buildings...and we did. We spent a good amount of time in park and it was worth every penny.

Since that evening was our last in Coimbra we wanted to check out some other local cuisine that we had read about, called Chanfana. We had snacked a little earlier and weren´t terribly hungry, so we ended up going for a late dinner. We left the hotel and headed for the area that we had found earlier that seemed like it would most likely have what we were looking for. We found a nice looking place and went inside. Chanfana was indeed on the menu, so we took a seat and ordered Chanfana and a grilled squid dish to share. Something different that we soon found out was that the bread, the cheese and the packaged pate (or any other food they put on your table before dinner) is not free. You touch it, you buy it. We bought almost everything that night. Luckily we saved room for the main course. The chanfana arrived in a Le Creuset-type pot was set down in front of us and the dish was a dark purple color. It looked absolutely revolting. We gave each other a look and a shrug and dug in. Luckily, in this case, looks were deceiving and the Chanfana was fantastic (squid was great too!). For those of you wondering what it is we ate, it is lamb (or sometimes goat) roast, cooked slowly in its own juice and various spices. The meat isn´t gamey and it falls right off the bone. We would definitely recommend giving it a try if you ever get a chance. A great way to end our time in this interactive town. For our early morning train to Lisbon, we definitely took advantage of the closer train station.

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