Early starts will never win our hearts but this year my husband, Mike, and I have been timetabled to teach on Saturday mornings. As a sweetener, we’ve decided to reclaim the city from the drudgery of work and shopping by dedicating Saturday afternoons to rediscovering the delights of Coimbra.
We drive in, sleep-groggy; the streets are eerily deserted, parking blessedly easy. The kids are a joy to teach. By one o’clock, though, we are all happy to finish the lesson and start to the weekend.
To kick it off, Mike drives us to the esplanade for lunch; we’re too hungry to walk. The car rumbles and judders over the cobbled streets and through the dirty butterscotch stone arches of the 16th century aqueduct, past the Botanical Gardens.
We walk across the wide flat lawns of Green Park to the strip of riverside cafés and bars. Out on the decking, we bask in the warmth of the sun like happy dogs and listen to the squeals of amusement as children clamber onto the leg of the giant artificial grass teddy bear.
Underneath the pastel-coloured pedestrian bridge, bright yellow pedaloes bob patiently in the water, waiting for customers. Dazzling white light skips across the ripples of the water like glitter. Our salmon salads arrive and divert our attention. “It’s like being on holiday,” says Mike. I grin in agreement.
After lunch, we wander through the flickering shade of the camouflage-barked plane trees that flank the paths of Mondego Park. This is the older, prettier park with flowerbeds and a bandstand but my students prefer the newer, plainer Green Park. Maybe it’s because of the bear.
We emerge at Largo da Portagem where a statue gazes across the river at the slightly sunken caramel-coloured Convento de Santa Clara-a-Velha. Since we’re in exploration mode, and conveniently next to the tourist information office, I decide to ask who he was. Given the quill in one hand and a sheet of paper in the other, I assume he was a writer. I’m definitely not expecting Tiago’s answer: “That’s ‘Mata Frades’, the Friar Killer.”
“The Friar Killer?”
“Yes. His real name is Joaquim António de Aguiar and he was Prime Minister in the 18th century. He got the name because he made a law that extinguished all monasteries, convents and other religious orders in Portugal.” I go back outside to share this information with Mike. He is impressed, I can tell.
We pass the pavement cafés, adjusting our eyes to the patterned black and white cobbles of the pedestrianised shopping street. After a cursory glance at the massive meringues in a cake shop window, we cut down some steps into the square below and find ourselves in a scarecrow fair.
Delighted by this unexpected and bizarre event we amble from stall to stall, admiring the ingenuity behind the newspaper scarecrows, the simple beauty of one made entirely from corn stalks and leaves, and the general abundance of colourful clothing and wonky facial features.
Wrinkled women from surrounding villages have been busy baking and are wearing traditional costume, complete with headscarves, aprons and layer upon layer of underskirts in order to ply their cakes and tarts.
Still full, we forgo the cakes and head to where a couple of boys are screwing their faces up at something on a stand. It’s a slice of beehive, trapped between sheets of glass and full of living, working bees. It’s almost grotesque but oddly captivating.
“Come on,” says Mike, leading me by the hand past the bored-looking donkeys and their snoozing owners. As we leave the square, the buildings huddle closer together, high above us, and we enter the shaded labyrinth of the Baixa.
This is the shabby part of town and I adore its faded charms, crumbling plasterwork and decaying balconies. Gloomy cubbyholes selling ancient hardware sit alongside cafés with original painted tiles on the walls. The harsh strip lighting in the cafés reveal cloth-capped men nursing bottles of Sagres lager. We are bombarded by various smells: coffee, ‘bacalhau’ (salted cod), bleach, suckling pig, ancient damp and wafts of cigarette smoke. It’s a far cry from the sleek modern shopping mall on the other side of the river.
Later, we go through one of the stone arched gateways to the ancient city that spills downhill from the university in search of a craft market I’ve heard about. Past the tourist tat shops and lo and behold, the worn steps of ‘Quebra Costas’, (backbreaking street), are strewn with stalls hosting elaborate and imaginative jewellery. I buy a brooch made from buttons as a souvenir.
We’re flagging now, after the early start, so we stop for a coffee then meander back towards the car. After all, we’ve got months of Saturday afternoons in Coimbra to look forward to.