Bridges over quiet waters
The moment I hear the evocative name the locals use for their river, O Rio dos Poetas, it sounds so romantic that I just have to book a 50-minute boat trip along this so-called River of Poets, the Mondego. It courses through historic Coimbra in central Portugal, the country’s former capital,the birthplace of six kings and the seat of the oldest university.
The late-afternoon light glints golden on the river as we descend stone steps to board O Basofias, a motorised barge built in France specifically to sail the Mondego. “Bem vindo a bordo!” crackles the skipper’s welcome over the PA. With a whiff of diesel and a honk that sounds oddly like a clown’s hooter, we are away. Little waves from our wake slap the quay and Portuguese songs of love and longing ebb from a speaker.
We chug alongside the banks of Baixa de Coimbra, the city’s historic centre, and now a vibrant warren of winding, cobbled lanes filled with churches, cafeterias and a perplexing array of shoe shops. We pass the genteel Hotel Astoria, all faded 1920s grandeur. Then we chug beside Coimbra’s lovely railway station, with its terracotta-tiled roof and giant clockface, and a backstreet cafe where we ate last night, delighting in its rustic menu. Black pork? Wild boar with beans? Spoiled for choice, we opted for a stew of young goat in red wine.
Afterwards, in search of wine and song, we’d wandered through the Arco de Almedina, the 12thcentury gateway to the old city, wheezing our way up a steep stepped passage (aptly translated as Backbreaker Street), which opens up into a maze of narrow alleys. The reward for our cramping calves? An atmospheric fado club in a smoky 14th-century stone chapel, and sweetly melancholy folk songs sung a capella by blackcaped students.
Through the barge’s windows, we gaze up towards Alta where the historic upper town forms a crescent around Alcacova hill, and where a Roman aqueduct still stands. Two cathedrals, Se Velha and Se Nova, lie in the shadow of the prestigious university perched on the top of the hill. Also up there is the Baroque Biblioteca Joanina, Portugal’s oldest library and famous not only