Paulo and Victor

I propped the gold M shaped balloon on the back of a chair, tied the threaded happy birthday letters between an umbrella and a wall hung sign, and scanned the road for Minx and Mikey. Tash and I lay in wait outside the pasteleria. We were twelve kilometres from Coimbra, it was 8.45, a birthday boy was about to be intercepted.

The day before we had left Alvaiazere, scaling up deserted lanes, and cresting a hill as the sun rose. We could see pockets of cloud and mist hugging the folds of the valleys below, and occasionally the wind pushing them in drifts up into the sunlight where they dissolved against the brilliant blue sky. We headed down into the cloud, the views shrinking, the far diminishing, and for the next few hours our eyes scanned the near horizon of wild flowers, dry stone walls, and lapsed dwellings.

We reached Anciao just after ten, enough for the recuperating Tash, had a coffee and a pastry, but still uncertain of how we would catch up with our companions. A tourist office magically appeared in this tiny town where the suspected dearth of public transport options was confirmed, one bus at seven another at nine. We booked in to the Adega Typical, loafed around, had a fantastic lunch, sopa? Si. Peixe o carne? Peixe. A generous helping of tinto, pudding, a coffee. A man my age sat near us, patiently attending to his lunch, a not quite finished bottle of tinto, a glass of brandy, a shot of coffee. My imagination had him as the head of a local construction company, or the chief magistrate.

The next morning a taxi took us to our secret rendezvous, Minx in on the plan, Mikey expecting to meet us later in Coimbra. We chatted in French with the driver.

With much noisy surprise, and much local bemusement, Mikey, deep in some important conversation, finally saw us about ten metres from his path. We ambled on to Coimbra.

We dropped our bags at the convent overlooking the river and on the opposite bank Coimbra, its ancient terracotta rooftops woven into a hill. That could wait, a celebratory lunch was called for, and through an unpromising door, but drawn by a promisingly simple menu, we entered Paulo’s restaurant. Chaotic and ramshackle, a few tables perched on a handmade mezzanine had a grand view across to Coimbra. Paulo, large and generous, talked us through the choices. A plate of goat’s cheese, strawberries, papaya and chunks of wild boar appeared, to save you pain whilst you wait for your food. Born in Angola, he came to Portugal in the eighties, since then hosting in his little restaurant. His mother, Irene, came out of the kitchen, our chef, all eighty four years of her. A clear digestif arrived at the table. I started to examine the label until it was pointed out the collar and top didn’t match. Ahh! My sort of no label drink. A little later, he brought out a rich dark spirit, the grandfather of port, lovely. And then a finale of another local speciality. We stood around grinning and being entertained by a truly lovely man.

Picking up our bags we presented ourselves for registration at the Convent Albergue. And so Victor entered our lives. Mid forties, very slim, he examined our credentials. These are not official. You should have two stamps every day. Here see, he produced an official credential, it says, these are the rules, two stamps, you must walk, or go on a horse, no electric scooters. The queen, yes her, he plucked a postcard showing the tomb of Queen Isabel, what did they tell you in the convent, a woman with short hair? Ah she knows nothing, a freshman. See beneath her dress what are these? Mikey, through eyes glazed by alcohol and the suppression of laughter, managed to not say ‘triangles’, for that is what had been sculpted at the end of her stone legs. She wears shoes! No pilgrim had shoes, only the queen. We eventually passed the gatekeeper, and beyond Victor a lovely albergue with a long and rich history awaited us. The doors would be locked at ten.

He caught us on our return, as we sat in the courtyard, looking up at the stars. There Orion, no that one there at the top left is the international space station, you can call them on cb radio, they will answer. None of us answered, even as he segued into his military career, pins in legs, see they are fine…We eventually disentangled ourselves, and crept away giggling.

Tash had foreknowledge of this special host having read the reviews. She decided it would be a great camino experience.She was right.

In the morning we had to exit through the stone hallways and stairs of the convent, still wondering about Victor. But over the bridge lay Coimbra, with its archways and steep winding cobbled lanes, students in black gowns and strange traditions.