Times & Places: Historic, authentic Coimbra, Portugal

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Our third stop on our way to Lisbon in the summer of 2018, was the historic town of Coimbra, known for its ancient library at the university built in the 13thth century, one of the oldest in Europe. The university is on a hilltop in the old town centre accessible through narrow, winding lanes.

We stayed at Dona Ines, in the newer section, a ten-minute walk to the old town. It’s a three-star featuring a large pool and a big, comfortable room. We passed on the library costing 12 Euro for a mere peek with no pics allowed. Instead we chose to visit the wonderful botanical garden. At the entrance there’s a Roman-era aqueduct. In the hot summer that Portugal is experiencing it’s always great to be surrounded by greenery. There’s a huge bamboo forest in the botanical gardens.

We discovered a lovely café in the main square and succumbed to a marvelous mini spinach quiche. The Portuguese do custards, melon, and pastry very well. Chilled melon after any meal is heavenly. In the Plaza Commercio, below the main square, we found a great little lunch place, very authentic, where we dined on Portugal’s famous grilled sardines. There are so many little family-run restaurants. In this one, the kids were having lunch along with a tantrum as we walked in. This family scene only encouraged us to stay.

Many Portuguese speak some English and most understand Spanish although occasionally neither works. Still, people are friendly, outgoing and helpful. Going into one of these restaurants and choosing from the menu of the day at 7.50E, we were never disappointed.

Now for the real find, just across from our hotel, we chanced upon a children’s shop, packed with designer clothes for children and they were having a sale. We couldn’t help ourselves. We loaded up with clothes for the grandkids and niece all at bargain prices for quality togs. Why don’t we have a place like this in Montreal?

There was a lovely little café on the corner across from the hotel that was full of locals. On the first visit we had coffees for the usual price of 70 centimes each, about $1. For some reason, on our last morning, we ordered fresh orange juice and three or four coffees and the bill came to 13.60 E. Walking out we realized we’d been stiffed and at the hotel, when we complained they told us to go back and demand the “Complaints’ Book” and wrote it down in Portuguese in big letters. We returned and kicked up quite a fuss while the owner hid in the kitchen and the waiter refused to answer our questions about prices. While everyone was looking on, the owner finally emerged and after searching tediously for the Complaints Book, and after Barbara demanded loudly that he return 5E, he reluctantly and sheepishly did so.

Wherever you travel, count your change along with your blessings, and don’t be taken for a ride. Make sure you ask the price before you order, even if you ordered the same thing the day before. To be fair, this only happened once on our European stay as far as we know. Usually prices were fair and when they weren’t we didn’t enter the premises.

From Coimbra it was a two-hour train ride to Lisbon where we attended the Jazz em Agosto Festival, a John Zorn special edition.

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