Coimbra and beyond

Home of Portugal’s oldest university, home of our Lebanese host and his family, a world famous library and a multitude of students roaming the streets in little bands wearing their seven hundred euro black gowns, second years, and red t-shirts, first years, Coimbra was also home to a few slightly left field traditions. Walking through the tiny alleys and streets that wend their way up the hill, at the top of which sit the university buildings, amongst the now familiar Portuguse patchwork of ruins, the merely run down or ordinary, washing lines suspended from balconies and fancy World of Interiors exteriors, you occasionally pass a scruffy building with trash art ornamentation, saucepans discarded tech, and graffiti proclaiming a sovereign nation of cooperation and enlightenment. These republica are supported by the university, to join you must be invited to dinner. Once a member, you have a room for life. Uptake is waning, too much responsibility, for repairs, decisions, and cooking for ten.

The bands of students flow in ordered shoals down the lanes around the cathedral, halting here or there and then bursting into chorused chants, haha haha haha HA, each band following a slightly different songsheet. Those in the gowns instruct their first year acolytes, like an older sibling who knows all the rules of some arcane but still important game, and sometimes a contest takes place, at safe distance, the haha-ing and HA seemingly carrying it all.

Tuesday and Thursday nights are student nights, the old town swilling in loud young voices, plastic cups, and by the next morning the stone steps that lead down past the cathedral and through ancient gateways resemble the battlefield of an overrun suburban party. By the time the tides of daytrippers begin their tour guided way along these same streets, the brooms and buckets of water will have removed nearly all trace. They seemed mostly to have more years than me, definitely more kilos, more euros and more camera. The streets are known locally as backbreakers, and whilst the laws of buoyancy and density ensure their safe passage down, their journey back up might not succeed. Thus their coaches tip them out at the very top, and collect them post riverside lunch at the bottom.

Our hostel was a beautifully restored nineteenth century maternity hospital with a wide staircase, a gentle tread to riser ratio and a moulded wooden hand rail that once my hand touched I didn’t want to let go. Eugene, an urbane and cultured Lebanese christian had arrived here via Paris, Dubai, a bank collapse, one minute half a million, the next nothing, and managing a refurbishment during pandemic seizures.

Mikey seduced by the prospect of three days in Hendon, and an FA coaching course, was waved goodbye at the coach station, but our numbers were maintained by the arrival of Sean, here to join us for ten days as we marched towards Porto. We showed him and his ancient backpack no mercy as we headed quietly down those lovely stairs at 6.15 ready for seven hours on the roads and tracks ahead. A locked kitchen which held our carefully crafted lunch supplies thwarted our campaign, a dangerously dozy lull followed until at seven staff arrived to unlock the door and set us on our way.

Ten minutes later we were sitting down to coffee and a pastry. Sean approved, when I was in the army we’d always have champagne for breakfast before an operation, it was a tradition, it might be your last meal. It was not our last meal, nor the last story from Sean.

The road out of Coimbra was flat and quiet. I strode ahead in the morning sun, thoughts busy with news from the world beyond. Occasional cars appeared in my sight ahead, then the gradual rumbling of tires and the humming of the motor. They’d flash past. Thoughts from a world beyond intrude and flash past. Then silence. I stood in some shade by a crossroads, my phone seemed to be leaking energy. As I fiddled with settings and device maintenance protocols Manika appeared. I was fit for company and we walked on.

That night our albergue lay behind a suckling pig restaurant – it was time to try the regional dish. Only two portions left, but a large salad, plenty of chips and then as we looked at the tiny bones that lay on our plates the feeling that two portions, as delicious as they were, might be enough for a long time to come.

The next two days covered a good deal of tarmac, the weather still bright and sunny, and saw us crossing paths with the ancient French pilgrims, smiley eyed Jean and his implacably gallic compatriots, still staring at us uncomprehendingly as we mispronounced our humble french. After seven hours of walking Jean was to be seen browsing the isles of Aldi a kilometre from the hostel, I wanted him to sit his eighty four year old self down.

A stop at an albergue in Albergueria had Tash weeping. A lovely greeting from the hospitalero Katrine, welcome to your home for this night, was followed by a history of the town that grew up around a pilgrim shelter in the 15th century, a history of providing food and shelter, and a donkey ride to the next inn if you were too ill to continue. And mass said three times if you died. The albergue had been built to house the local magistrate in the late nineteen fifties, lying empty for ten years until being repurposed in 2015. I liked the plumbing.

Who knows what happened whilst we were there, but the next stop was certainly paradise.