We left Sintra on Saturday, May 13th, to head to Coimbra. Our hostel in Coimbra advised us to buy our train tickets far in advance because we were traveling the same day the Pope was coming to Fatima, a place located between Sintra and Coimbra, and travel was expected to be difficult. We followed that advice and, thankfully, had no difficulties and didn’t actually notice any extra “chaos” due to the Pope being in Portugal.
Of all the cities we visited during this trip I really didn’t care for Coimbra. I found it to be grubby, lots of graffiti everywhere, and not all that much to see. I do have to admit that I was actually quite tired at this point in the trip and Coimbra is built on steep hills that made it exhausting to walk around and this may have affected my opinion.
Coimbra is known as a University town. The University of Coimbra was established in 1290 in Lisbon and went through a number of relocations until it was permanently moved to Coimbra in 1537. It is the oldest university in continuous operation in the world, the oldest university in Portugal, and one of the country’s largest higher education and research institutions. There are over 25,000 students with one of the largest number of international students in Portugal. The university is also a tourist attraction. The old part of the university has a large courtyard enclosed on three sides. Fronting onto the courtyard is a very old and ornate library, a chapel, a clock tower and a great hall (used for ceremonies) with adjoining rooms.
For me, the most interesting thing we did was take in another Fado performance. The Fado in Coimbra is different than the fado in Lisbon. Here it was created among the university students. It is sung exclusively by men and has a strict dress code demanding they wear their university black capes. Fado ballads are themed on serenades to loved ones, graduation ceremonies, and on “honour”. I found the music more lyrical and upbeat than the music in Lisbon. I was also surprised that many of the songs they sang were well known to much of the audience and they often sang along.
That’s all I will write about Coimbra but I have included below a few pictures of the city.
From Coimbra we travelled by train to Porto, our final destination in Portugal. I had a mishap getting on the train. I have no idea how I managed this, but I missed the step into the train and fell between the train and the platform! I didn’t even think there was enough room for a person to fit there. Amazingly, I landed on my feet but now the train entrance was about at my chest level. A fellow behind me lifted me all the way up and into the train. Everything was so quick; I fell and I was up. The only “damage” was a scraped leg and a small tear in my pants. I felt very fortunate because these days, any tug in the wrong direction with my body often means months of physiotherapy to get things sorted out. I got a lot of attention afterwards, several train employees came by to check on me and they asked for all my particulars. The fellow looking over my passport noted I was from Winnipeg and mentioned that just last week he was talking to the President of the University of Winnipeg! Hmmm, I wonder if he/she also fell between the train and platform? Maybe it’s a Winnipeg thing?
I really liked Porto; lots of sites to see and although still hilly, not as challenging to walk around as in Coimbra. One of the best sites was the spectacular azulejo (tile) panels in the Sao Bento train station. Completed in 1915, it is considered one of the world’s most beautiful train stations. The atrium is covered with 20,000 azulejos painted by Jorge Colaco and depicts history and folk scenes from this region of Portugal.
Believe it or not, there is a list of the world’s greatest bookshops to visit and one of them is right here in Porto! Livraria Lello opened in 1906 and houses more than 60,000 books. This shop is famous for its unique intersecting staircases that locals maintain helped inspire J. K. Rowlings, who dreamed up Harry Potter, while living in Porto. To be honest, I was a little underwhelmed by this site. The bookshop is extremely small with the staircase taking up almost the whole interior.
While in Porto we took a river cruise along the Douro River. This river originates in Spain and flows 895km across Spain and northern Portugal and then spills into the Atlantic Ocean at Porto. The seven hour cruise passed us through two sets of locks, the first, Crestuma/Lever Dam raised us 14 metres, and the second, Carrapatelo Dam, raised us 35 metres, one of the highest in Europe. It was interesting to see how the system works from the “inside”. The landscape in the Douro Valley was very scenic throughout and changing from forests to lush green pastures to olive groves and pretty villages and finally to beautiful steeped slopes of wine terraces used for Port wine. We got served breakfast and lunch on the boat. The cruise ended in the small town of Peso da Regua and from there we took an almost two hour train ride back to Porto. It was a very relaxing day!
Porto marks the end of our Portugal leg of the trip. Next stop will be Barcelona, Spain.