Bridges over quiet wa­ters

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - DESTINATION EUROPE - KER­RIN O’SUL­LI­VAN

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

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