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Passion, History and Culture in Coimbra, Central Portugal:
Heading out to visit the university town of Coimbra in Portugal I wasn’t sure what to expect. The country has been in the media’s glare recently, lumped in with Greece, Spain and Ireland as merely another victim of European economic malaise. The Portugal I visited, however, has a lot to get excited about with delicious food, some of the most beautiful architecture I have ever seen and an incredibly welcoming and vibrant population whose playful fingerprints can be seen all over the country’s landscape.
A brief introduction to me then! Not your usual correspondent I know, my name is Natalie, I split my time between running a little theatre company in London and studying Classical History up at Oxford but like any student I’m also a pretty keen food eater and wine drinker so when Fiona asked if I wanted to head over to Coimbra for their cultural festival I jumped at the chance, or jumped straight into the fast track queue to renew my passport…
I’ll share a more detailed account of my trip over the next few posts but for now here is a brief sketch of what I did and saw, cramming what felt like enough for several weeks holiday into four brief days.
Arriving at Porto I was greeted by Silvia who would be my guide throughout the stay; always full of information, pointing out exciting little details as well as sketching out a broad history of Portugal she proved to be an insightful host fielding even my most pedantic and misguided questions with aplomb!
On the first night we hurried straight from the airport to our first meal, a thoroughly grand affair entitled “Three Cooking in Nature” where Michelin starred chefs Albano Lourenco, Joachim Koerper and Jose Cordeiro created a phenomenal series of Portuguese classics presented in a modern style. This was to become a recurring theme of the trip, traditional meals deconstructed and rebuilt by people who loved and respected local methods and ingredients, but much, much more on that later…
On the second day we toured the ancient University of Coimbra, recently made a UNESCO World Heritage Site for the breathtaking gilded library (complete with its own colony of trained bats!) and unusual combination of medieval and 1940s architecture.
We would also later visit the domestic quarters of the students, housed in appropriately named “Republicas”, strictly democratic establishments, not unlike the American fraternity system but with a strongly leftist political agenda and an enjoyably anarchic sense of fun.
One highlight of the visit was the open-air musical performances, which made up part of the 5th Coimbra Arts Festival.
. I’ve always been a pretty big fan of opera but I’m far from an expert and have always shied away a bit from modern composers (fearing and onslaught of atonal artistic expression) but seeing a newly written opera inspired by local folk music performed in concert by brilliant Portuguese musicians was, for me, a surprise favourite.
And then on to Aveiro, a nearby town whose original Art Nouveau architecture remains stunningly intact with richly painted tiles protecting the houses from a salty breeze blowing in from the vast surrounding lagoon.
This position on the water supports the town’s most important products: fresh fish and salt. Whilst the community is unable to compete on a large commercial scale my visits to the market and, most excitingly, the salt beds gave me a fascinating insight into local commitment to preserving the traditional methods that insure their reputation for high quality. I never knew the production of salt was such a painstaking and complicated process, every step of which was explained by Juan, a spry septuagenarian who, after 60 years of harvesting, assured us that he was still learning new things about the white stuff every day.
This is all just a fraction of the trip’s activities and experiences. In future posts I’ll go into greater detail about the food, the art, the music and the culture of this often overlooked region, I think it deserves a second trip, maybe I can convince you to take your first.
- TAP Portugal (0845 601 0932, www.flytap.com) flies from London Gatwick to Porto from £126 return including all taxes and charges
- For more information on Centro de Portugal visit: www.visitcentro.com/en/
- For more information on Portugal visit: www.visitportugal.com
I travelled as a guest of Centro de Portugal