The whole gang was up early to give the house a good cleaning before we left, after which we had breakfast, packed the car, and were on the road headed north for the university town of Coimbra. Two unexpected things happened along the way. First, as we were blasting up the toll road at 120 kph, my phone rang and showed a European country code. We answered it on speaker and it was our old buddy James Hooley, whom we probably haven’t spoken to in at least ten years. I first met James on a work project in the Bahamas, circa 1998, and we had so many adventures there I can’t even begin to list them - but I will say that several of these adventures were on the sailboat we bought with two other buddies and did serious damage to the coral heads surrounding Nassau. After our time in Bahamas, we met up again on another project in the Netherlands, and actually lived together for a while there. From what I can remember, the last time we saw James was in England around 2003 so it has been a long time indeed. He is now married with two boys and living near Zurich, Switzerland, and was wondering why we weren’t passing by his place during our trip to Europe! I promised to send the kids to live with him and go to university in Zurich. It was so great to talk to him.
The other unexpected thing that happened as we approached Coimbra was traffic lights. Yes, crappy old inefficient North American traffic lights. I have no idea whose idea it was to install these, but it made me very sad indeed as we sat there at red lights with no other cars approaching from any other direction, wasting gas and time.
We entered Coimbra and drove straight to the oldest university in Portugal, which has served as a centre of learning for over 700 years, and is also the location of the original palace of the first king of Portugal - Alfonso Henriques, and the birthplace of many of the kings after that. We arrived shortly after opening time so had to wait only a short while to get tickets, after which we walked into the main square and were mesmerized by what we saw. It was an expansive cobblestoned courtyard enclosed by ancient buildings including the palace, a chapel, and the Joanine Library, which is the jewel in the crown and houses around 60,000 books mainly from the 16th to 18th centuries. We first visited the chapel, then went to the library at our designated 11am entry time. The academic prison was on the ground floor and was used to lock up students charged with heinous acts, such as arguing with a professor or talking during the lecture. Seemed a bit severe, but I suppose education was a little more rigid back then than it is now.
Walking into the Joanina Library was unreal, and it felt like a movie set - elaborate gold carvings, vaulted ceilings with colourful paintings, ancient oak bookshelves stocked with 500 year old leather bound volumes (some of which were actually checked out, I’m assuming by academics), ladders reaching to the upper levels, and antique hardwood tables and chairs. Absolutely stunning, and beautiful beyond description. We were told that two colonies of bats live in the library and eat up all book-destroying insects. I could have stayed in that library for hours, and would have loved to leaf through some of the books, but it was definitely a “view only” location as security ropes prevented you from getting close enough to touch anything.
The palace was another masterpiece, from the array of halberds, still used today for academic ceremonies such as initiating a new rector, opening the academic school year, and awarding doctorate degrees, to the Hall of Acts ringed by portraits of Portuguese kings, and the examination room where eerie and dark paintings of every rector of the university were hung. Overwhelming.
There were many other buildings in the university region, but only two others were open to the public, one of which was the Natural History Gallery, which we visited, and found thousands of specimens of plants and animals brought back from the Crown sponsored voyages to Africa, India and Brazil during the 1800’s. There was also several rooms full of scientific instruments dating back to Age of Enlightenment which were used by the departments of Chemistry and Physics.
It was nearing lunchtime so we headed into the Coimbra town centre and found a great cafe called Churrasquiera O Beirao that was full of locals and we enjoyed a delicious lunch - swordfish, roasted chicken, olives, bread, all delicious. Ana and I enjoyed a half bottle of white wine for the maddeningly low price of 2.50.
Our final lap for the day was to the town of Aveiro, and along the way we passed several groups of people walking on the highway, which seemed odd, then then we decided they must be pilgrims walking to Fatima, as they had backpacks and walking sticks, but we weren’t able to stop and actually ask any of them to confirm this.
After what seemed like a very long drive we arrived in Aveiro. The week before we left Canada, we were in touch with Ana’s cousin Nellie, and her husband Glen offered us the chance to use his parents’ house in Aveiro. Normally they would be here at this time, but they were not able to come this year so the house was empty and available. We opened up the house, got the water and gas turned on, made up the beds, and then I put the kids and myself to work cleaning up all the fermenting fruit beneath the plum tree, which was causing quite a smell. I picked one of the ripe plums from the tree and cut it open to find the darkest red flesh, almost like a beet, with the red juice instantly staining my fingers, and it was delicious. I ate two more.
It was time for a grocery run so we drove a short ways to the shopping centre, picked up food, returned home for a backpacker dinner, then went straight back to the centre for a late movie at the cinema that Stella was lobbying for. We watched “Scary Stories To Tell In The Dark” and it was an excellent low-gore horror movie that we all enjoyed, except Magnus, who just does not dig on horror.
Around midnight we returned home and crashed into bed for a wonderful night’s sleep.