Picking up the pace in Coimbra

We have moved north to the town of Coimbra, once the leading city of Portugal during the Moorish reign, and the country’s capital in the following 12th and 13th centuries. It is home to the country’s oldest and most prestigious university, founded in 1290.

We haven’t been here long, but we can already feel a different energy. In fact, let’s just say that we feel some energy here and leave it at that. The waiter at lunch was fast and sassy – could fit right into New York. The people walk faster and there is a general air of action, unlike the south we have been traveling in. We hate to agree with cultural stereotypes, but we are beginning to see what the north/south prejudices here are built on.

Our walk today was focused on the lower part of the old town. The first item of interest was the Santa Clara bridge, which is the current generation of a bridge which has been here since Roman times. In the main square is a statue of the prime minister who shut down the city’s monasteries and convents in 1834, known as the “friar killer.” This was part of a country-wide de-secularization movement, a delayed imitation of the French Revolution’s excesses. Forget the past and focus on the lovely squares, all with cafés filled with pastry treats, even what looks like the world’s largest fruitcake.

Naturally, there was a church and a monastery to tour. The Church of Santa Cruz is lavishly decorated with tiles that tell the story of the discovery of the Holy Cross by Emperor Constantine’s mother, St, Helena. There is a statue of St. Anthony, who helped find my tablet after I left it on a bus in Lisbon, and then an amazing organ. In front of the altar are tombs of the first two Portuguese kings, Afonso Henriques (1095-1185) and his son, Sancho (1154-1211). Both were redecorated by King Manuel in the 16th century, as he thought they deserved updates.

We also toured the sacristy and (yet another) cloister. This was a much simpler affair than some we have seen, though the chapel of reliquaries was a bit overwhelming. You have to feel sorry for those poor saints who had bits of their bones spread all over Europe, not to mention the fighting over skulls and thigh bones. The nautical themes in the headings over the choir stalls were quite amazing, however. Portugal’s Golden Age lives on in gold.

The rest of the walk was spent just admiring and observing. We have noticed that most clothing stores in Portugal – with the exception of global brands aimed at the young – feature clothing that hasn’t been in style for decades, if ever. One would not associate the Portuguese with a focus on fashion, the women of Nazaré being the exception. Maybe that’s why so many stores are empty or just dead-looking. (Chic and glamorous? Oh no.) But in the more active squares here, there is certainly a vibrant and social life going on. More to see tomorrow.

Don’s Food Corner

First, I want to thank all of you who let me know that the Portuguese vinho verde — green wine — is well known and readily available throughout America. Not knowing this reminds me that at heart I’m just a rube from Ohio. Until this trip the only Portuguese wine I was familiar with was Mateus and its cheaper cousin, Lancers. I can report that Mateus is found on every restaurant wine list in Portugal, probably put there to appease non-adventuresome rubes from Ohio unwilling to drink something they are not familiar with — although some might first search down the list for Blue Nun.

Knowing that vinho verde would be part of today’s main meal we needed to find something to go with it. Near the hotel was a recommended restaurant that I immediately jumped into because I saw through the window a huge wood burning grill and mounds of fresh fish sitting on top of ice.

Keeping with a pursuit of the next great grilled sea bream (now that sardines seem to have disappeared from menus), I went for that. Like yesterday, the fish was grilled as halves. In this case, however, the head was not hidden under a lettuce leaf. And instead of the plain boiled potatoes that seemed to accompany every dish in the south, the folks at this restaurant provided whole potatoes with their skins, slightly smashed and drizzled with olive oil.  (After lunch, we happened by a large supermarket and I saw that whole sea bream fish sold for about $5 each. Portuguese waters must be teeming with this deliciously delicate fish that holds up so well to high-heat grilling.)

Jo started with a soup of leeks and potatoes, as for once the soup of the day was not vegetable – though that was also available. For her main course, she selected a platter of grilled steak and some French fries, which were served with a little pot of mayonnaise. The steak had that nice crispy flavor of wood-grilling.

I mentioned to the waiter that all was simple and perfect. He replied: “That’s the only way.” Better not tell him about France.


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