Coimbra: Day Two

Sophia Residences, my hotel in Coimbra, is ideally located and well appointed. I’m in a suite on the second level and, even though the building is old and somewhat unappealing on the street side, inside the rooms are beautifully decorated with a minimalist aesthetic. The bathroom is huge and everything is stainless steel and white porcelain. The A/C is robust and the windows are double-glazed. There’s even a dishwasher, which is a bit incongruous. A washer would be much more useful for guests. The only drawback is the street noise. You never know about room location when booking; but in my review I’ll suggest staying in the rear of the property. The hosts are solicitous and Ricardo, the manager, brought me a room fan to provide white noise. With some high-end ear buds, I slept soundly.

Across the street is a pasteleria that opens at 7. I made two espressos in the room machine and then walked over to grab two cappuccinos to go: 3 EUR!

On the advice of my English dinner companions, I booked the 3-hour city tour beginning at 10. Our guide, João, graduated from the university with an anthropology degree, but he stated that he was working as a substitute teacher since there was no demand for his field of study. We were a group of eight, mainly retired Canadians who were planning to cycle to Lisbon the next day. The weather was cool and cloudy, but the sun came out in the middle of our three-hour tour.

João was a excellent guide. Although I’d walked through 90% of the route the evening before, he added significant details. There are 35,000 students in the city of 140,000, 24,000 of whom attend the University of Coimbra. Yesterday, I overstated the number, based on the recollection of my English acquaintances.

The tour began in the Baixa district of town. A few of the churches and cloisters dated from the 11th and 12th centuries, while the city was still under Moorish rule. We climbed the hill to the main campus and spent some time near the 18th century Joãnina Library, named after its benefactor, King João III. They have a nest of bats that operate at night, consuming insects that would otherwise attack the collection of 200,000 rare books and manuscripts.

The plaza that features the library has an iconic clock tower and commands a panoramic vista over the city and the Rio Mondego, which runs broad and swift and is the only river that begins in Portugal; the others originate in Spain.

Much of the university was built by the Marquis da Pombal, who served as prime minister and virtual autocrat in the mid-18th century. He also rebuilt much of Lisbon after the epic 1755 earthquake. Like many of the Portuguese elite of the time, he was a Freemason and anti-clerical. He banished the Jesuits and other orders from the kingdom and confiscated a number of church holdings. He recruited top intellectuals from Europe to staff the university and introduced the sciences into the curriculum.

The other significant builder was one of its graduates, the dictator Antonio Salazar. Before assuming power, he was a finance minister. He built a number of faculties, including the well-regarded medical and mathematics schools. He also built a number of monumental buildings, as discussed in yesterday’s post. He had strong Hellenist leanings and strove to model the university after Athens, with gigantic statues of Greek gods and goddesses. Despite his reputation, it is agreed that he was not corrupt and lived simply. Ironically, the movement to overthrow his Estado Novo began with student protests in Coimbra in 1969.

At the end of the tour, we tipped him well and went our separate ways.

I decided to sit in a shaded cafe and enjoy the street activity before taking a long walk along both sides of the river. A group of pharmacy students in their traditional black capes were playing Fado music with their guitars, mandolins and drums. I learned from João that Coimbra Fado is more romantic and wistful than the Lisbon variant, which is sadder.

On the other bank of the river, I watched a group of young ballerinas demonstrating their skills to the music of Johann Strauss and later entered a large sports exhibition and watched a few rounds of young boxers. I recalled how popular boxing was in the US a hundred years ago and could understand why.

Walking along rivers is one of my favorite activities while traveling. With glorious sunny and breezy weather with just a hint of fall, my 5-mile walk was invigorating. I recalled similar walks in Salzburg, Kyiv, Salamanca, Florence, Rome, Prague and Kraków, to name a few.

I wasn’t sure where to eat, so I headed up the hill to the university district where I’d noticed some attractive restaurants. I didn’t want to eat in the Baixa area near my hotel because it was too touristy. Today was a fasting day, so after 8 miles of hilly walking I was ready for a great dinner.

I chose well. O Trovador (The Troubadour) had no inside availability, but luckily I had donned a navy blazer and was pleased to eat on the terrace, across from the Romanesque 12th century Sé Velha (Old Cathedral). I ordered the salmon and a glass of red Douro wine. I cook fresh salmon regularly when I’m at my summer house in Langley, on Whidbey Island, so I’m familiar with all sorts of preparation. That said, this dish was superlative. I declined dessert, since I still had that chocolate from the night before. I’m happy that I waited until 8 to eat so I wasn’t the obvious Anglo-Saxon early diner. On the walk back down around ten, I noticed that the restaurants and cafes were buzzing.

Next stop: Porto!

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