A Travellerspoint blog


sunny 15 °C

Coimbra was the capital of Portugal for a bit over a century, from 1131 to 1255, and was a Roman town before that. These were not the reasons I chose to stop off on the way to Lisbon: every so often people on the internet put out collections of the most spectacular libraries in the world, and one which regularly features in such collections is the Biblioteca Joanina, which is part of the University of Coimbra. Built in the early 18th century, it has been described as a "baroque fantasy of exotic carved wood, intricate arches, and gilded patterns". The University itself was started in 1290, oddly enough in Lisbon, not Coimbra, but apparently the students and the populace of Lisbon didn't get on and it was moved to Coimbra in 1308. It ping-ponged back and forth between the two cities a couple of times before finally settling in Coimbra for good in 1537, in the former Royal Palace. Surprisingly, apart from a 200 year period starting in the 16th century, it was the only Portuguese university until the early 20th century.

I arrived on the Saturday and had a good look around the outside of the university but because I'd got a bit lost getting there (which is pretty stupid since it sits directly above the centre of town), I decided to put off the pleasure of touring the university until the next day. Unfortunately, the library had a very strict no photography policy, and several people were chastised for not observing it. I did manage to sneak a couple of photos onto my tablet under the guise of typing notes on it but couldn't really get any photos which really demonstrate the luxuriousness of the library. Luckily there are photos on the internet which I have been able to snaffle. This is still a working library, although the texts are rare and, I suspect rarely consulted: having big groups of tourists coming through every 30 minutes or so (they only allow entry at fixed times) would be quite a distraction for any user.
Biblioteca Joanina

Biblioteca Joanina


Downstairs, there was a feature I have never seen in any library I have ever visited: a small and very dark prison for students (and "scholars" i.e. staff!) who broke the rules - makes the 50 cent a day fine for late returns of library books look ridiculously lenient. There was another collection of books on this floor as well - totally unglamorous but still hard to get photos. The library is named after King Jao III, who made things happen so that the University could settle on its present site: his statue is just outside.
large_IMG_20150104_113505.jpgEntry to cells

Entry to cells


The old part of the University is on a quad (although one side is open to give views of the river) but the general public can only go in and see the chapel (when there is no service underway) and the main building of the old palace, which had a big (and very dark) room in which they conduct examinations, as well as a smaller room to examine senior students. In this building I noticed another unusual feature: back when the King was in residence, there was a ceremonial guard, the Royal Guard of the Archers (although they were actually armed with halberds i.e. an axe blade topped with a spike mounted on a long shaft, which has a hook or thorn on the back side of the axe blade for grappling mounted combatants). When the King left, his halberdiers went with him, but the University formed a replacement guard to police the University - which it retains to this day.
Main Palace Building

Main Palace Building

large_IMG_20150104_121257.jpghall of halberds

hall of halberds

Most of the teaching and research work of the University is done in a modern campus alongside this quad.

Down the other side of the hill from the university, there is a nice looking botanical garden and a very visible sign of the Roman period: an aqueduct.

One thing that struck me as I walked around was the enormous number of churches - just outside the University, there were three clustered together, and several others not so far away. It turns out that these were originally established as University colleges - using the same model as Oxford and Cambridge - but the system of colleges was abolished in the 19th century. Many of the buildings are still in use as churches, although some have found other uses - including the Santa Cruz Cafe set up in the church of that name, at the upper end of the main pedestrianised shopping street.
large_IMG_1344.jpglarge_270_IMG_1346.jpglarge_270_IMG_1351.jpglarge_270_IMG_1354.jpgCafe Santa Cruz

Cafe Santa Cruz

The food, unfortunately, was not great but it was a nice space in which to enjoy a beer after my walking about. Walking in Coimbra is not as easy as in some places, because of the University being on top of the hill and the various steps, near vertical laneways and passages to get about - but they were enjoyable to explore because they contained interesting wee shops and bars.

Because Coimbra has been around for a while and is a significant city, it has a variety of interesting buildings - some obviously past their best but manifesting a sort of faded elegance (except for the last building).

Others have been kept up, and remain very stylish.

Some were standouts - particularly the Colégio Rainha Santa Isabel and the Fundação Cefa. It struck me as appropriate that in a country which takes its sports and religion seriously, the Coimbra sports stadium (a cathedral to sports if you like) and the Coimbra Cathedral were side by side.
Colégio Rainha Santa Isabel

Colégio Rainha Santa Isabel

Fundação Cefa

Fundação Cefa


I would have liked just a little bit more time in Coimbra - I had a fairly quick walk up the pedestrianised shopping street, but it looked like it would have been worth a dawdle and I barely touched on the river. Still, it was a fascinating place to spend 24 hours.

Posted by NZBarry 16:44 Archived in Portugal Comments (2)

Provesende - Coimbra

sunny 15 °C

I didn't know anything about where the Quinta Manhãs D'Ouro was, except that it was 9 km up the hills from Pinhão. It turned out to overlook a medieval village called Provesende: Magellan was born just up the valley. The village was originally settled by the Moors, and legend has it that it takes its name from the dying words of the local Moorish leader when the place was taken by the Christians. For once I was very pleased to have to rush in the morning - I had to get back to Porto to return the car - as it meant that I was up to see the sunrise over the Douro and the village.

Although where I stayed was called a quinta, it wasn't really - the people who own it are in the grape growing industry, but this place was more of a small hotel, with just a handful of (very comfortable) rooms and a restaurant - I could imagine spending a week there.
large_IMG_1222.jpgQuinta Manhãs D´Ouro

Quinta Manhãs D´Ouro


Some parts of Provesende are in better condition than others - the north end tended to be in the poorer condition

The central village was at the south end - I was still very early, so there were very few people about, although I did encounter this rather aggressive little dog
and neither of the cafes I saw were open: one has been set up as a wee museum I would very much liked to have seen. I think the last photo in this group is of a bar, but a particularly small and old one
Cafe Central - Provesende

Cafe Central - Provesende

large_270_IMG_1255.jpgCafe and Museum - Provesende

Cafe and Museum - Provesende

These next photos are just of buildings that caught my eye as I wandered

The plan had originally been to backtrack to Porto on the same small road, but there was no way I would be back in time to return the car, so had to forgoe the charming byways of Portugal for its motorway system.
These motorways are toll roads: although I had no prepaid toll card, I thought it would be a simple matter to pay at a toll booth. Not so: the first toll point I came across was unmanned and demanding that I put a card in a slot in order to be let through the barrier. Awkward. Luckily there was a lane for commercial operators with tagged vehicles with no barrier - I was able to back up and go through that lane, knowing that they have a system of photographing vehicles and paying after the event. So when I came across the next toll point, I just swept through but at the third one, just outside Porto, I came unstuck: it was manned, and to get through without a prepaid card cost 60 (SIXTY!) euro. I really had no option but to submit to the extortion.

After that, I was determined to get off these damn toll roads before I suffered any further damage to the pocket, but I had planned my route before I left and really didn't want to get lost by going off the plan. Nonethess, when I saw a sign indicating the general area in which the railway station is located, I took the off-ramp and in a huge strok of luck, after taking a couple of random streets, found myself back where I started. It was then a simple matter of having a quick beer and hopping on the train to Coimbra, the former medeival capital of Portugal and rather a delightful place.

Posted by NZBarry 16:47 Archived in Portugal Comments (0)

Now the fun begins: driving Roman roads in Portugal

sunny 15 °C

Before leaving this part of the world, I really wanted to go further up the river to where the grapes are grown, and because I'd heard that the river itself was worth exploring. There are trains which go up it - they had gone all the way to Spain but now stop just short of the border - but they don't follow the river very closely at the beginning, aren't very useful if you want to hop out and wander around on a whim and taking photos through grimy train windows is less than optimal. On the other hand, the advice I received was that the best part of the river was up near the Spanish border but the road doesn't go near the river there whereas the rail line runs along its banks. The solution was to rent a wee car - a diesel Ford Fiesta for 31 euro for 24 hours - but dump it along the way and swap for the train.

I really had no desire to just get on a motorway: this was very much about the journey rather than any destination (which turned out to be just as well), so declined the kind offer from Avis for a toll pass, which would have only cost a couple of euro. Instead, I took the minor road that ran, more or less, along the south bank of the river: every few kilometres there was a sign indicating this was a road built by the romans. The rest of the signs were not very helpful - in the numerous villages I had to pass through, I could not see the river so at several intersections was reliant on roadsigns but they would only indicate the next village, rather than any name I could recognise: it turns out my intuition was pretty good as I never made a false turn. These little villages tended to have no parking spaces, so people would just stop their vehicles at random points and quit them to do whatever it was they had to do, and it was rather a narrow road, possibly not widened since the romans built it - all in all, it made for an interesting drive (particularly as I had no idea what the road rules might be). But it was wonderful - I liked the wee villages clustered along the river and the way they optimised the use of the rather hilly terrain through terraces and saw my first quinta not far out of Porto. Obviously, since I was driving, diving into a quinta to taste some port was not an option (although I suspect most were closed for the winter anyway).
large_IMG_1137.jpglarge_IMG_1139.jpglarge_IMG_1140.jpglarge_IMG_1141.jpglarge_IMG_1144.jpglarge_IMG_1145.jpglarge_IMG_1147.jpgQuinta de la Rosa, Douro Valley

Quinta de la Rosa, Douro Valley

large_IMG_1157.jpglarge_IMG_1158.jpgQuinta do Noval

Quinta do Noval

It was in Pinhão that I dumped the rental car outside the railway station - I couldn't see any signs indicating there were parking restrictions and I had to just hope that it would be safe there until after dark. The railway station had a wonderful set of tiled murals, but I couldn't hang about because the next train up the river was due to leave. I can't say it was the most modern or fastest train I've been on, and there were only a handful of passengers - maybe half a dozen in total made it the whole way to Pocinho, which is the end of the line. The river between these two towns (apart from the fact there was a railway line running along it) was pretty remote - hardly any signs of habitation, although every so often a road would snake over the hills to connect a quinta or the occasional hotel to the outside world.
Pinhão Railway Station

Pinhão Railway Station


Technically, Pocinho was my destination, but apart from the station, a few houses, some sort of processing plant across the river and a very closed social club for railwaymen, there was nothing there: very much the end of the line.
End of the line @ Pocinho

End of the line @ Pocinho


I had about an hour's wait before the train headed back, and was very much at a loss for what to do, so after taking the five minutes to see the sights, I just got back on the train - mysteriously, there were quite a few more people leaving than had arrived. Things did not go very well on the journey back to Pinhão: it was very dark, so I had only just been able to work out we had arrived in Pinhão when the train was on its way again. Luckily, a family as well as a couple of other solo travellers had also failed to get off at Pinhão: they could alert the conductor to the fact we were still on the train (he really should have been able to work it out). This led to prolonged phone calls by the conductor - he arranged for us to get on the next up train at the next station: 35 km down the line at Regua. At least there was time at Regua for a quick snack and a beer before finally arriving in Pinhão. My travails were not quite over: I was staying in a quinta on top of a hill outside Pinhão and had created detailed directions for myself, but they didn't seem to correspond very well to the realities of the roads leading out of town. I knew I had about 9 km to go: it turned into a process of trial and error, going up a couple of roads for 12 km before I found the right one.

Luckily the receptionist at the Quinta Manhãs D'Ouro was able to put together a scratch meal of delicious local cheeses, breads and charcuterie and pour out a couple of slugs of port for me to enjoy: in fact, the evening ended up going so splendidly that I deemed it to be New Year's eve.

Posted by NZBarry 16:47 Archived in Portugal Comments (0)

New Year's @ Porto

sunny 15 °C

Naturally I visited some libraries during the 10 days or so I was in Porto. The central public library was just a short walk from my first hostel and not much further from my second: I went past it a total of four times and only once found it open. Its a 19th century building built around a courtyard - originally endowed by some convent libraries and private collections. These manuscripts are in a fine reading room upstairs - I had got myself settled in and was admiring the place when I was hustled out by a stern librarian: she spoke no English and I speak no Portuguese but it was clear I had to leave because the room was for those consulting the old texts. The University library was considerably further away and apart from being deserted and therefore very quite, had little to recommend it: I was expecting a glorious old building, but no, it was a pretty innocuous building which I suspect has been recently reclad.
Central Library

Central Library

University Library

University Library


There is quite a lot to do in Porto in terms of cultural activities: unfortunately the two I picked to undertake turned out to be duds, with the buildings housing the exhibits being the star of the show in both cases. Serralves Museum is a highly rated modernist art gallery, miles from the city centre, built in the 1990's in the former grounds of the Serralves Estate. The museum building has all sorts of contrived angles and has lots of glass, so is worth seeing in its own right but as for the contents, precisely nothing interested me and quite a bit produced a WTF reaction. I wanted to get out, and fast, but turns out that none of its angles resolve themselves into an exit into the grounds: for that you retrace your steps through all the objets d'annoyance to where you came in. At least once outside, I found a very pleasant teahouse overlooking the estate tennis court and could calm down over a nice cuppa. The grounds are a mixture of formal gardens and grassy areas with plenty of trees.
Serralves Park

Serralves Park

The Serralves Villa is where the family of the Count of Vizela lived - it took 20 odd years to complete and they moved in in the mid 1940's but moved out again a few years later: sadly, its furniture was sold off at various auctions. It came into State ownership in 1987, and had exhibitions of modern art while the museum was being built: when I went in, it was completely empty. I think it really needed its furniture, because it is very starkly decorated, although they spared no expense on mirrors and bathrooms.
large_serralves_villa.jpgSerralves Villa

Serralves Villa

After leaving there, I made my way down to the Douro river - a couple of miles out from the city centre: in the late afternoon sun, it was very peaceful - a few kids playing and old blokes fishing but mostly signs of rest.
My other expedition into Porto's cultural scene was to the Centro Português de Fotografia - there was a big collection of photos of people involved in World War 1 on the first floor and a huge range of cameras and related equipment on the top floor but here the building is the star: built in 1796, it was the main Porto prison and remained in use until the 1970's. It even had its own internal court of appeal. Apparently, photography has been important in this building for at least a century - in the very early 20th century, there was a project to photograph the prisoners and subject their photos to various tests to try and prove some sort of correlation between appearance and criminality.
There was one image I liked so much I took a photo - it is called New Year Postcard with Hilda, and dates back to 1908
I had a third change of location, thinking that it would be interesting to get out of the heavily touristed centre and stay in a pensione in the suburbs. My host was very amiable but had not a word of English. I found the same in the bar next door. And this is where I saw in 2015! Pretty much nothing was open where I was but luckily I had a plan for New Year's day - I wandered further into suburbia to a shopping mall, finding a few places open so I could have some more charcoal chicken for a late lunch (it was either that or the random offerings from a bar or an American styled restaurant I noticed). Now I didn't undertake this wandering because I wanted to see what a Portuguese mall looks like on New Year's day (surprisingly busy despite all the shops being shut - mainly because of the food outlets) but because it had a cinema and in Portugal, most foreign movies are subtitled in Portuguese rather than dubbed, so I was able to watch Richard Linklater's lovely movie, Boyhood. I think this is one I'll be watching again when I get home. Its a long movie so when I came out, I was pretty hungry but really did not expect to find much open at 11:00 at night so am afraid that for the second time on the trip, I succumbed to the charms of McDonalds for dinner. I'd have rather had this burger (something I had a few nights earlier):
To finish, after my big port drinking day in Vila Nova de Gaia, just as it was getting dark, I came across the Casa Barbot, also called the Culture House because it houses the city's Cultural Department - I liked the way it was lit at night and its style.
Casa Barbot

Casa Barbot

In the nearby railway station, there was a very fitting tiled mural

Posted by NZBarry 16:49 Archived in Portugal Comments (0)

More Porto

sunny 15 °C

I was initially surprised by the large number of East Europeans I encountered in Porto but eventually it dawned on me that the Portuguese language doesn't sound like the languages used in the neighbouring countries: it has the cadences of languages from much further east and s is pronounced more like a soft z.

After Christmas, I moved out of the world's best large hostel into the 5th best small hostel in the world, the Rivoli Cinema Hostel, to get a different perspective on Porto. This one is right in the centre of Porto, just off the Avenida dos Aliados which is kind of like city square except that it's not square. The city hall is at its head and it is flanked by grand buildings.
City Hall

City Hall

Avenida dos Aliados

Avenida dos Aliados


When I first arrived, it was set up with quite a few chimes - people were playing them a bit like a xylophone - but by the time I moved on just before the New Year, everything had been emptied out and a stage set up - there was going to be a huge, noisy New Year's eve party, attracting thousands.
The hostel was quite exceptional, and the people running it made a real effort to make people feel at home, organising a communal dinner each night: despite their best efforts, I was not persuaded to join in for the feast of francesinhas (bread topped with steak, sausage and cheese and a beer-flavoured sauce). The chicken night I did go for - marinated in something delicious and cooked in a local churrasqueira over a charcoal grill, it was so good I had to hunt down the churrasqueira and have some more. There was a bloke at dinner who dominated conversation - I kind of got the idea that he was full of shit so badly that I ended up fact-checking a couple of his more definitive statements of fact, and they turned out to be wrong. This, plus the fact there were so many great places and things to eat (including a delicious Ethiopian stew) around Porto, meant I only had dinner once in the hostel. One of my favourite places was the Majestic cafe, which opened in 1921 and is the "most beautiful cafe in Porto" - slightly more flash than the random churrasqueira I visited.



I guess it will come as no surprise that there are a LOT of churches around Porto - I'd have liked to visit the Cathedral but the couple of times I was there, it was in use. A lot of the churches took on a fairly standard aspect, but I felt a bit sorry for the Church of Saint Ildefonso (built 1730), because it has obviously seen better days, and I was never sure if it is still being used - never saw any sign of life as I walked past.
Porto Cathedral

Porto Cathedral

large_270_IMG_0858.jpglarge__MG_1110.jpglarge_270_IMG_0878.jpgChurch of Saint Ildefonso

Church of Saint Ildefonso


There are other great buildings to be seen - the Palácio de São João Novo, Palácio da Justiça and, of course, Livraria Lello & Irmão - which is in all the lists of most beautiful bookshops. The shop was jampacked with sightseers when I went in, and they have a very stringent no photo policy - I only had to glance at my camera to be reminded - so the photos are off the internet. I at least did buy something from them - a map of the Douro valley. The central hospital is a rather grim looking place.
large_IMG_0892.jpgPalácio de São João Novo

Palácio de São João Novo

large_270_IMG_0881.jpgPalácio da Justiça

Palácio da Justiça

Central Hospital

Central Hospital

I was impressed with the sculptures in the park opposite the hospital and courthouse (Jardim de João Chagas) called "Thirteen laughing each other" by Juan Muñoz - they inspired a cheerfulness in me. I also quite liked the whimsy of the bicycle hanging on the wall above the Children's market and the market itself. And then there was the fish, just around from where I had my Ethiopian meal.
Tiles like this are the predominant form of decoration in Porto - railway stations in particular use tiles to create pictures which occupy entire walls.

Old Porto used to be entirely walled, but there are only a couple of pieces of the wall left and, if I read the Portuguese right, just the one gate survives. They also have some very old trams rattling about the place.
Finally, two pictures I failed to include in earlier posts - the world's tiniest cappucino and the rather nice box my macarons came in.

Posted by NZBarry 16:10 Archived in Portugal Comments (0)

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