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Discovering the Ancient Intellectual Centre of Portugal

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2015-09-17 at 11-04-44

Chapter 3 – Coimbra

The night is cool… about 14 degrees tonight. That doesn’t seem to matter anymore though, because the atmosphere is warm. I’m standing on the fountain in the middle of the Praça de 8 Maio, people are all around the square, our eyes and ears locked in, looking forward toward the main entrance to the Igreja (Church) Santa Cruz. It’s such an amazing church. Just like all the others, the front entrance is a massive door, large enough for a couple elephants to fit through, but this one is a little different. It has a large, ornate archway standing out several meters in front of it, giving the entrance a 3D affect.

Under the archway is a small stage setup with 3 men performing on it… 2 guitarists, one playing a conventional acoustic guitar that we’re used to in North America, and the other playing a guitarra, the traditional Portuguese instrument that gives such a unique Iberian sound. The 3rd man was a student from the university, dressed in the traditional university uniform of a black suit with a large black cape wrapped around him. This was the singer. Coimbra fado is different than Lisbon fado, in that here, the men do the singing… usually student age boys singing to girls. In Lisbon, it’s the women who do the singing. So, as we all stood out there late in the night, staring up at church that’s lit up in front us, the sounds fado filled the open air, and turned that chilly night into something warm and comforting. It was a good way to end off my time in Coimbra.

Fado Coimbra

Fado performance in front of the entrance to Ingreja Santa Cruz

I wasn’t overly impressed the first afternoon in Coimbra. I don’t know why though, it wasn’t really a fair evaluation of this ancient city. Maybe it’s because I’d been traveling for about 10 hours (cumulative plane and train). After I finally arrived, I had to lug my bags (granted, I do pack light) across the city, up some super steep hills as well as the stairs of doom. That alone is tiring, but doing this trip with a double herniated back makes is a little tougher. But it was ok, I was getting through it fine. Maybe there’s some magic from all this history on these old European streets.

Although this trip is mostly about food research, it’s also about culture. As someone not from Portugal, and not raised in the Portuguese community, I know that I’ll inherently take some flack from purists when I open this Portuguese restaurant. That’s just the way things work. “But you’re not Portuguese!” they’ll say. No, they’re right. I’m not Portuguese. But my wife is. My new in-law family is. And besides, I like to go against the grain a little (like starting sentences with ‘But’ and ‘And’, which is clearly against the rules. Sorry grammar police, it’s my blog, I can’t write how I want to!)

My way to win the uphill battle against my lack of Portuguese upbringing, is to get more knowledgeable about Portugal than most Portuguese people. That’s the way I’ve always been with different cultures, and I guess that’s why I’ve always found it relatively easy to fit in almost anywhere. There’s just so much to learn about our world, and I love to learn it. So, here I am, adding to my knowledge of Portuguese culture, history and food. This is part of the reason why I feel it’s necessary to cover almost all of the country, to get a good overall perspective rather than only being to one city and then saying, “oh yeah I’ve been to Portugal”. That’s like someone coming to Toronto and leaving thinking that all of Canada is exactly like it… which is far from the truth. A big pet peeve of mine is the trend of cooks out there who go to a country, spend maybe 5-7 days in one city, and then claim they are experts on the food and culture and take it upon themselves to represent that food to our world. That’s how we end up with shit like chicken balls in Chinese food. Don’t get me wrong, I applaud and support anyone who feels passionate about another culture they’ve learned about, but please do the appropriate homework. It’s not always easy, because of time, money, etc, etc… but it’s an investment. That’s exactly how I view this trip I’m on. I don’t really have the money for it, and I’m still trying to recover from a bad back injury, but it’s an investment in my own education and in the future for myself and for others, so it’s all worth it.

Coimbra is one of those cities that I’ve come to for cultural understanding, rather than the culinary experience. Don’t get me wrong, I’m always looking for good food, but that’s not my #1 focus in this city. This city is so important to Portuguese history, that to miss it would be a shame. Coimbra goes back millennia, with the Romans being the first major civilization to settle here, with a city then called Aeminium. At the time, it fell under the administrative influence of Conimbriga, a nearby excavated Roman town that had long been in ruins, since it was sacked by the Visigoths. Conimbriga is one of the most in tact Roman remains on the Iberian peninsula, making an extremely important historical site.

After the Romans, the site of Coimbra was settled by the Visigoths (as all of Iberia was), and then the Moors in the early 700s. In 1064, King Ferdinand of Castile & Léon administered the Christian reconquest of Coimbra and pushed the Moors further south. His son-in-law, Henry of Burgundy, integrated the County of Coimbra with the northern County of Portucale, which sewed the seeds for what was to become the newly formed Kingdom of Portucale. During the 12th century, Henry and Theresa’s son, Afonso Henriques used Coimbra as his home base, sending his armies west and south, eventually conquering the rest of the territory of what makes up Portugal today, making Dom Afonso Henriques the first King of Portugal.

View of Coimbra

View of Coimbra from the Rio Mondego

The main attraction in Coimbra is the old university. It’s the most respected in the country, which is why Coimbra had long been thought of as the centre of academics and intellectualism in Portugal. Coimbra University is also one of the oldest in the world, having been founded in 1290, by King Dinis I.  It completely dominates the city, as it’s built atop the large hill that sits in the middle of Coimbra, surrounded by the “upper town” around it, which you can still see is very Moorish in layout… roads and buildings being all twisted and all over the place, with seemingly no real organization. This is part of what makes these old medieval cities so much fun to explore.

Naturally, after I checked in to my apartment, I headed up the hill to explore the university grounds. Just so happens that it’s their equivalent of Frosh week, so it’s a little bit of madness with students running around…. although pretty tame compared to what we’re used to in North America. The university is definitely old, but has clearly been added to and restored over the centuries, as there is a lot of architectural influence from the several periods following the medieval era. It’s gorgeous though. You know you’re walking in the footsteps of some serious history here. Not only can you see it, but you can feel it. A country was created here. Important knowledge was developed and spread from this place. Some of the greatest thinkers of European history walked these roads, and through these buildings.

Coimbra UniversityOne thing that Coimbra is famous for, is the sight of the students wearing traditional uniforms. The all black attire, with a black suit (dress for the girls, pants for the boys), white shirt, black tie, and the iconic black thick black wool cape wrapped around them. If the colour scheme wasn’t mostly white, I’d think I was walking through Hogwarts and all the Harry Potter characters were running around the place. That’s pretty much what it looked like… The Harry Potter gang. I spoke to one student who kind of burst the bubble and told me that the traditional uniforms were completely optional, and mostly only worn during at the beginning of the year, and the end… the party times. Also, when they didn’t do their laundry and ran out of clothes to wear.

Large groups of these black clad students filled the entire city, leading around other students wearing street clothes. These were the first years, as only the upper years were allowed the traditional outfits. When I asked about the different attire, a student told me, “They don’t wear uniforms because they’re fresh meat!”

Everywhere I went around the city, were these large groups of students, often shouting out chants and cheers as they walked around, like it was a battle for who could be the best new group. It was much reminiscent of my university days, except at our school 90% of people were completely hammered in the day time and all painted up and running around like Lord of the Flies. Like I said, this was pretty tame and respectful in comparison. Also a frequent sight, was what appeared to be the hazing of the first years… but again, hazing, not in the image that we’re used to. All it consisted of was all the first years standing in a lineup, like the military, with their heads down and keeping silent, while the older students in traditional uniforms who lead their group, would stand around them and just hangout and chat, some while drinking a beer. Occasionally, an older student would taunt the newbies, trying to break their silence… kind of like what tourists do to the Buckingham Palace guards.

Coimbra students

Students in the traditional uniforms

One thing that really stood out to me here, was that there were a LOT of really huge tour groups walking around. The ones that I really can’t stand. The ones that you see flooding Paris, with a tour leader carrying a flag of some sort, and then about 60-100 people following in tow. It may be mean, but I really despise these groups. For me, they ruin places. Ok, let’s set aside the positive economic impact they can have on a place…. that’s a given. A lot of people spending money, means better business. But as a non-touristy tourist, they drive me absolutely mad. These groups are the ones that cause massive lineups at places that you really want to visit. They constantly block whatever road/path/sidewalk they are on, making in impossible to get past them unless you fight your way through the crowd.

Mega-tour groups ruin the authenticity of a place, and they are mainly the cause for businesses to shift away from what’s authentic and local, to places that cater only to tourists, that no local in their right mind would ever visit – shitty food, in and out service, and jacked up prices are a result of these mega tours. I was really impressed last time, when I visited Lisbon, that you barely saw these any of these groups around there. I had thought Portugal had escaped it, but here we are, Coimbra is filled with them. At first I couldn’t figure out why Coimbra would have them and not Lisbon, but then I realized that it’s probably because most tourists don’t stay in Coimbra. They visit this city as part of a day trip out from Lisbon or Porto, so for many people, it’s an easy way to have an excursion.

To view the Pátio das Escolas and the buildings within it, you buy your ticket (bilheta) inside one of the main buildings just outside the gate to the oldest section. The ticket includes entrance to all the areas in there, including the much sought after, Biblioteca Joanina. However, for the library, you have to book a specific entrance time, as there is only 60 people allowed inside at a time.

Ticket in hand, I go in the main gate to see the students in the all black uniforms hanging around… some acting as sort of ambassadors to the tourists. On the right hand side after entering I go into the wing of building that houses many regal rooms used by the king and other government officials in Portugal’s past. The Sala das Capelas (ceremonial hall), is closed off to visitors and cameras, and can only be viewed from balconies overlooking it. I was told that it was in this room that Dom Afonso Henriques proclaimed Portugal as a country… a new kingdom independent of the Moors and of Spain.

Next, I went into the Capela de São Miguel (chapel of St Michael), but there was some major restoration work being done on it, so much of the beauty was covered up, making it a quick visit.

I still had about an hour and a half until my time to visit the library, so I decided to walk around the neighbourhood… which is pretty much a series of buildings built along the hill, balancing in steep slopes, with twisting, confusing streets… all cobbled, of course.

I came to a central opening in front of the Sé Velha. The old cathedral. as you round the corner walking down a slope from the university, all of a sudden, the back of a medieval church with Romanesque design appears right in top of you. It’s old. It’s REALLY old. You can tell just by looking at it. It wasn’t overly ornate like the churches of later years…. it’s more like a castle. The present building of the Sé Velha was built in 1162, but there was an original church at this location back during the Visigothic times, of which only small parts still exist within the interior of the current church. This part of of Coimbra is such a great expression of the history of Portugal, with old Christian monuments like this cathedral, mixed right in with the moorish layout of the city, extremely narrow, cobbled streets, twisting and turning, uphill, downhill, around, over… which can be very confusing…. the type you wander and get lost within minutes. It’s awesome. The walls of the church were originally lined with Moorish tiles, there’s even the old Moorish entrance gate, Arco do Almedina, that you pals through from the Baixa (lower downtown area) to the old, hilly part of town, which used to be a medina (market area) in the days of the Moors.

Sé Velha

Sé Velha, from the rear view

While waiting to get  into the Biblioteca Joanina (library), I got to chatting with one of the upper year students who was helping to staff it. He told me about the uniforms, but also something interesting about the library and the rest of the university. Due to the influx of tourism and certain areas (such as the library) being such hot tourist spots, that’s actually exactly what they’ve become… tourists spots only. The library started to get so busy with tourists that they had to pretty much build a new one because the students couldn’t actually use the old one anymore. Non-university members aren’t allowed in the functional library… I know… I tried. To be able to access and browse through books that have centuries of history, would truly be something else. Forget that I most likely would have no clue what they are saying, but just the history of it. Some old, original, authentic works by incredibly important authors, from important periods of history. Damn.

Biblioteca Joanina

Biblioteca Joanina

My culinary experiences in Coimbra were hit or miss. The good were great, and the bad, were really bad.

The first lunch (almoço), I went to a little place just in front of the Sé Velha, appropriately called Cafe Sé Velha. It was shit. Let’s just say that. Pretty much quick service diner style, get ’em in an get ’em out. No care for the food… I ordered a classic home style dish, the bifé a casa. Steak with an egg on top. The steak was cooked so much, it was as if they didn’t believe it was dead already. A sad start to my Coimbra eating, but that happens sometimes.

Dinner (jantar) was a stark contrast to lunch. I didn’t know where I wanted to eat, do I just wandered. My lack of fondness for the city, quickly turned around as I was exploring the much emptier streets at night. Night is an interesting time in these old European cities. Paris is like another city at night, and so is Lisboa. They seem to just come alive in a different way. It’s as if there is a day shift and a night shift for the communities, and the darkness actually brings a whole new light. Coimbra is much the same in this way. Meandering through these ancient streets in the darkness, where so much history has happened, opened up my eyes, as I’ve experienced before in other ancient cities.

Sitting in the corner of a small pedestrian street, in the shadow of the Igreja Santa Cruz, I found Porta Romana. Admittedly, I was hesitant at first. The name made me immediately think Italian pizza joint. There were a decent amount of locals in there, so I went in and gave it a shot. This was clearly a family run place, as it appeared the husband and wife were the owners, he wife behind the bar and doing cashouts, the husband at the counter making pizzas. Yes, they did have pizzas and they looked damn good. It appeared there were three sons, or at least a couple sons and a cousin, because they all looked the same. Two of the boys running the floor, and one popping out every now and then from the kitchen. Although the pizzas were hand made to order, I didn’t come to Portugal for Italian food. I came for something local. I decided to with a Bacalãu dish. Salt cod cooked in the oven, served with a creamy macadamia nut sauce. Batatas Fritas on the side, because that’s just what Portuguese people do!

It was good. The food was cooked with care. It was simple, and it was done well. Homey and hearty, and it turned around my Coimbra food experience in that one meal.

Dinner at Porta Romana

After a great dinner, I walked about 20 feet over to Café Santa Cruz, the coffee shop/bistro that’s attached the big church. Perfect way to end off the night.

The next morning, I figured the best thing to do would be to visit inside the church that I sipped a coffee beside the night before. As I described in the intro, the entrance way to the Igreja Santa Cruz, is a marvel in itself. It’s probably one of the beautiful building entrances that I’ve seen. Inside doesn’t disappoint either. Now, There have been some other churches/cathedrals that I’ve been more impressed with when entering the interior (*ahem* Notre Dame), but Santa Cruz held its own, and there was one special thing that got my attention more than the awe of the decor. At the end of the nave, were the tombs of Portugal’s first two kings. Dom Afonso Henriques, the man who branched out from under the rule of the Spanish kingdom of Castile & Leon, from the Country of Portucale (around Porto, Braga, Guimaraes) and pushed his army south through Portugal to reclaim the territory from the Moors, who had long ago taken it from the Christian Visigoths. The second tomb was that of his son, Dom Sancho who succeeded Afonso to further develop what his father had built before him. They are both loved and revered in this country, and are both two of the most important figures in Western European history. Without them, there would be no Portgual or any of the wonderful things that this country has to offer.

Tomb of Dom Afonso Henriques, Portugal's first kin

Tomb of Dom Afonso Henriques, Portugal’s first kin

Coimbra has definitely grown on me now. I’m enjoying what the old capital has to offer, and I’m weaving my way through the maze of streets like and old pro now, often looping around the same areas multiple times. Coimbra sits on along the Mondego river, and I’ve heard about some serious history across the way, so I walked down along the river bank, then across a long pedestrian bridge to the other side, to the neighbourhood of Santa Clara.

Santa Clara only exists for one reason. The monastery. Mosteiro de Santa Clara de Velha is in ruins now, and made into a sort of museum, but when it was built in 1314, it was a major centre of religious worship. King Dinis was an important figure in Portugal’s development, implementing much of the infrastructure that carries into today, and founder of the University, and his wife, Queen Isabela, was devoutly religious. After Dinis died in 1335, Queen Isabela dedicated herself to the monastery that she built. Becoming a nun, she donated much of what she had to the needy, playing a pivotal role in the Order of St Francis and was buried at the monastery after her death. She was later canonized and made a saint.

There’s something about exploring ruins all alone. Absent of anyone else, of tour groups, families with children…. just me and history. Walking through the ruins of the convent, the sun peaking through, I could feel the stories of those who made this place what it was. You can see the outlines of the cloistered area, which held bathing areas, eating halls, and even gardens. nothing stands of this area except the foundations, which allow us to see how it was laid out. The church, on the other hand, is still standing very tall. It’s also in ruins, and there are large gaps in the structure, mainly at the front, almost like the sun is bursting it’s way through.

My last dinner in Coimbra was absolute crap. I was sucked in by the beautiful location, behind a fountain, but it was pure cafeteria style, the food being pulled out of hotel pans being kept hot on a steamer. Restaurante Jardim da Manga. Don’t go there. But let’s move on from that and go back to lunch.

Lunch that day was at Tapas nas Costas, and it was by far the best meal I had in my entire time in Coimbra. It’s located just uphill from the Arco de Almedina gate, and it’s a classy and refined, yet comfortably modern space in the midst of an medieval Moorish medina. As the name implies, the plates were brought out tapas style… although, the food was Portuguese, so it would be more accurate to call them Petiscos (small plates). The pedron peppers were small and blistered perfectly, with just the right amount of seasoning, the Bacalãu a bras (salt cod, potato, egg) was one of the best I’ve eaten. Ever. It was creamy, yet had the perfect balance of contrasting textures. The gambas com alho (shrimp in a garlicky oil) was just what you’d hope for, and the dessert was a beautiful take on the classic creamy creme brûlée with a crisp caramelized sugar top, and accented with a thyme and moscatel reduction.

In spite of a couple bad meals, Tapas nas Costas saved my impression of Coimbra and leaves me with a fond memory of the culinary scene there. However, my time in Coimbra had come to an end, and it’s time to jump on the train and head down to Portugal’s capital, which never fails to excite me, as I know how amazing the food scene is there. Lisbon is old school and cutting edge at the same time. It’s both rustic and refined, and you’ll hear about it more in the next post. Lisboa, here I come

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