Downtime in Coimbra – Ancient Capital of Portugal

It’s Wednseday 27th February and today is our 23rd on the road since we up and walked out of that Morrison’s supermarket back in Edinburgh. Today that may as well be a lifetime ago as Iggy and the Travel Malarkey team are living the easy life at the free Aire in Coimbra ( 40.199315, -8.429043 )

It’s a lovely free spot, right by the riverside in a park. This morning we had tosdada, cake and coffee for breakfast at the tiny park cafe. The prices are so cheap even poor van folk can afford to eat there, and the business is good for the old couple who own it.

Yesterday, when we first arrived here from Aveiro, we were keen to rush out and explore Coimbra immediately. Well, when I say “we” were keen, that’s more like “I” was keen.

Jay’s always a little more laid back about these things. Pottering about filling bags with water, sun lotion, Smidge – all the little things it’s quite handy to have with you when you go out for the day. While I bounce up and down in the doorway, an impatient five year old on Christmas Day, shouting “Come on!!” at my poor, long suffering hero.

Finally he was ready (It muct have taken him at least five minutes!) and off we set to explore Coimbra – University City and, once upon a time, the Capital of Portugal.

Iggy doesn’t want to move from Coimbra Motorhome Aire

As usual we set off to wander, any which way took our fancy, without having much of an idea what we might find. Marley was loving being in a park area, with lot’s of grass and other dogs around. Not to mention lots of ducks too. She’s fascnated by ducks this dog. I think it’s because they scoot off over the water where she can’t get to them. Teasing her from the few feet away that’s she’s too nervous to swim.

The park lay along both banks of the river, connected by a snazzy “rainbow” footbridge only a minute or two from our parking spot.

Marley hated it. Her nervousness of bridges and walkways by water had been resurrected by a floating pontoon I took her onto in Porto. It  had moved a little and given her the shock of her life. So now she scraped her way across the center of the bridge, splay-legged, claws digging in for terra firma at every step. Oh dear. Poor Marley Pop.

Over the bridge, and Coimbra rose up to our right as we ambled along to what looked like an interesting area at the far end of the park. It  also looked like conquering Coimbra was going to mean a pretty big uphill hike. And that nice looking area ahead  seemed pleasantly flat.

Plus, as we got closer, we could make out cafes, and people sitting outside in the hot sun. Lunchtime was making rumbling noises in my stomach, and our feet were already starting to complain after their wander along the river banks.

Entering the Baixa, the area with the shops and cafes. Jay’s looking for cake already.

Reaching the small plaza we found that cafes there were in plenty. The kind of bakery/cafe that are typical in Portugal/ A bit like a standard bakery in Scotland, only with outside and inside tables and chairs, and both soft and alcoholic drinks. We’d fallen into the habit of getting one savoury item and one sweet, and sharing them between us. The portions were often so big we think a lot of the stuff is  probably made for sharing.

Are you sure this is where you want to get lunch Jay?

Cafe chosen we sat back at a table outside and people watched while we waited for our order. Coimbra, so google told me, was nearly as big as Edinburgh, and it had that quirky, city vibe all over it. It was fun to watch the eclectic, ragtag medley of humans that passed by our admiring eyes. Young, old and everything in between. Smartly dressed, casual, eccentric. Funky students, wealthy tourists, the down and outs and alcoholics. There is always room for everyone in cities. When that stops being the case. Then, history tells us,  it’s time to worry.

Turning our attention to our food we became more aware of the shops around us, and I couldn’t help but be intrigued by the incredibly posh looking place just up the road. It looked for all the world like a fancy jewllers – but the staff were all wearing oudoorsy, workmen’s shirts. What were they selling? We just couldn’t…quite…see…

Lunch finished we sauntered over to see what all the smartly dressed folk had been buying and carrying away in their fancy, posh gift bags. And found to our amazement that it was…

Fish! Yes fish. You heard me right. A whole, big, elaborately decorated shop for elegantly packaged and beautifully displayed canned fish. Tuna, mackerel, sardines… This fish must be something else!

Still in pieces laughing at the fancy fish shop we strolled on down the shopping streets drinking in the feel of the town. And, maybe, putting off the climb up that hill.

It was a pleasant enough amble, though there wasn’t much to it, and, as always, the less fortunate people, and more run down buildings, stand out more in the winter.

In the summer the vagrants are hidden by the crowds. Everything is cleaned of winter moss and painted in bright, fresh colours, for the tourist bucks. There is more music, more hustle, more quick, more slow, more everything that is bright and cheery and beautiful.

In winter, there is more real.

We come out at a plaza with a big church I later find out is a 900 year old monastery. Built outside the original city walls it is a national monument and home to the mortal remains of Portugal’s first kings. It is also, our last excuse not to climb that big hill and see what we can find at the top.

The first two kings of Portugal are buried here in this 900 year old monastery.

And so, finally, we began the walk to the top. I’d love to say we were silly to put it off – but we weren’t. I’d love to say it’s not half as bad as it looks – but it is. I’d love to say we were fit enough to take it in our strides…But it was a darn good motivator to get fitter, and walk up more hills to do it!

It wasn’t the most pituresque or exciting of walks. Coimbra is a city, the hill we were climbing was a city hill. With traffic, folk collecting kids from school, apartment blocks and interesting, if you don’t have to live in them, run down barrios. The normal sweep of any modern city, but with a distinctly Portuguese flavour.

A dirty fountain with the water switched off caught our attention. Despite it’s ample coating of black filth it was an eye catching building. So much so that we went for a half hour wander up some side streets while we waited for the Instagrammers to do their thing.

When we returned it was still attracting lots of attention by folk hunting their perfect Coimbra photo opportunity. DM – limelight hugger that he is – got a bit fed up waiting and decided I should start up a new Instagram just for him. With me as his photographer and general all round dogsbody of course!

DM practises his Instagram moves at the Jardim de Manga Fountain.

After DMs photo shoot we trudged onwards up the steep, never ending, hill that is Coimbra. There was not a chance that any heavily armed men were going to fight you by the time they climbed this hill! Anyone with any sense would have turned back twenty minutes ago.

The buildings became older, the streets narrower and more warren like. Signs pointed for this University building and that University building. This church and that church. And the lanes got tighter. And the lanes got steeper.

More and more graffiti and street art appeared on the walls around us. Signs for Republica this, and Republica the other hung from balconies and were spray painted on walls. Some kind of grass roots political thing we figured, as we gasped ourselves on up the mountain that is Coimbra.

As the steepness started to ease out near the top we came across balconies and walls covered in all kinds of hanging junk. Along with more “Republica” signs. Suddenly I had a brain wave. Maybe it was kind of like University, Student “Houses”? It seemed a fair guess, and a google later that eveing confirmed I was thinking along the right lines.

A few more twists and turns and we staggered out of the lanes and into the wide, open plazas of the University buildings. It was great not to be walking up hill anymore, but for two adults and a dog there wasn’t a huge amount to do up here.

Maybe without Marley we could have peeked inside a few places, but instead we just wandered around the outsides of the enormous, quite plain buildings. Like many in Portugal they were primarily massive walls of creamy white stone, embellished minimally with the odd sculpture or carving. Size, more than beauty being their dominant characteristic. Although many would find beauty in their stated simplicity too.

We don’t know who these guys are, but we figure they must have been “important”


If our feet had been complaining earlier they were whimpering and moaning in despair now. Definite bleats of “I want to go home” could be heard from Jay’s toes. And mine just silently shivered in agreement. They were all citied out, and the rest of us weren’t far behind them.

What a joy then, what a blessed relief, when we spotted the entrance to the Botanic Gardens in front of us. Especially when a quick check of the map showed it went downhill, all the way to our bridge across the river and home.

The gardens are beautiful, and we shushed our toes and zig-zagged our ways slowly downwards. We’d already decided we weren’t coming back up the hill again, so we wanted to make the most of our wander 

Finally we wound our way through a small wood of bamboo and soon found ourselves back out on the bottom road. We could see our rainbow bridge back to Iggy, dinner and a nice wee glass of Portuguese Tinto. While our feet propped themselves up on the cushions and fell fast, fast asleep.

Fi. x

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