Tuesday, July 19, 2011

June 17th - Lamego, Coimbra and June 18th Exploring around Coimbra!

Today it was drive and explore our way to Coimbra.  Its so easy to drive in this country, its so beautiful and all the roads are maintained, whether they are small country roads or highways - we were very impressed.  We stopped at the city of Lamego, known for its 18th century Church and the top of 686 steps - we walked up about 250, took pictures and then walked back down.  (No, not because we couldn't walk up those many steps but we were on our way to Coimbra, we couldn't linger too long, now could we)?  There was also a Castle here but we just did a drive by.   We did stop in the middle of the town, had our usual cafe com leite and walked along the beautiful, flower, tree-lined pedestrian walkway.  Visited another beautiful church!  Lamego is really a very pretty city!

We continued driving southwest towards Coimbra.  At one point, on our left, we passed the Bucaco Forest, we've read its beautiful and made plans to return during our time in Coimbra.

This was the first time that we were actually winging it, we did not have a reservation.  We had a few hotels picked out to choose from but no idea where they were, just knew they were in the Historic area!  Unfortunately, this was a work day and the traffic was horrific and parking non-existent. I ran into one of our choices but decided to keep looking (they did not offer parking or WiFi in our room) so we tried to find the others.  Due to traffic and not knowing our way around we ended up on the bridge crossing the river!  At first it was Oh, NO but it turned out to be a blessing!   I ran into a Tourist Office (on the other side) and asked about hotels with parking.  She circled a few on the map and pointed one out on this side!  We normally like to stay right in the center of town (and not stay in BW) but we figured, we're here lets check it out!  This hotel was on the hill with beautiful views of Coimbra, the river etc.  It turned out to be our lucky day!   Not only did we get 3 nights for the price of 2 but we also got a King Size bed, not very common in these parts.  In fact when reading their literature I discovered that out of 98 rooms, 10 had King Size beds.  I could have kissed the handsome, kind, desk clerk!  We were only a beautiful bridge across from town, had marvelous views and we even had a walking bridge, the best of both worlds!

We enjoyed our 3 nights here so much that we learned a lesson - sometimes staying away from the Center of town and using a BW can be a good thing!

After napping (in our King size bed) we drove into town for dinner.  We had just arrived on the Main Plaza when a group of people dressed in Traditional Portuguese dance costumes arrived and started unloading musical instruments.  (Unfortunately, we had not brought our camera to dinner, big mistake).  I wanted to find out what was going on but Howard was on the hunt for a good dinner!

We wandered thru the maze of streets, there was a lot of street activity - music, food vendors etc.  Just as it started to drizzle we chose a small Ma/Pa restaurant filled with locals, so we decided to give it a try.  We communicated mostly with pointing, the owners little English and our poor Portuguese but we succeeded.  We ended up with Goat Stew, just meat actually, no veggies ;( , boiled potatoes and a salad.  While we were eating the people I had seen in Costumes came down our narrow street playing music and signing.  I had to run out and watch them for a minute.  (The Gods were watching over me).

After dinner we walked around and found more and more entertainment - listened to an orchestra of mostly young people, saw more parades, each group representing a different school, church etc.  I finally asked what the celebration was all about and they told me it was the Festa of San Pedro!  Portugal is a lot more like Mexico than Spain, in more ways then one!  Needless to say we had a fun, entertaining first night in Coimbra!  No pictures but the memory will live on!

June 18th - Exploring around Coimbra and ending the day with dinner and Fado back in the Historic Area

Today we were off to see the Roman Ruins of Conimbriga, one of Europe's great Roman archaeological finds and one of the best preserved in the Iberian peninsula.  In the Iron Age it was a Celtic settlement but in the 1st century AD it was the Romans who turned it into a prosperous city.   We explored ruins of an opulent Villa, one of the largest houses ever discovered in the Western Roman Empire.  It included a bathing complex and a sophisticated heating systems.  There is also a House of the Fountains, which still has pictorial mosaics - a lot of them in almost perfect condition.   We spent a lot of time exploring the grounds including ruins of Temples, a forum, an aqueduct and the elaborate piping system that heated the towns public and private bathrooms.   We also visited the museum on site that recounted the daily life of this town.  It was very interesting and we really enjoyed our visit here!

We were feeling a little run down (lets see today is #38 of being on the road) so we weren't sure if we should drive to the Bucaco Forest or not.  We had come south of Coimbra (about 10 minutes) for the Ruins and the Forest was about 20 minutes north of Coimbra but we decided that sitting in a car would not be much exertion, so off we went discovering more beautiful roads and countryside!

Buçaco is a delightful refuge of cypress groves, ferns, statues, fountains and trails!  The Buçaco Forest was first settled by Benedictine monks in the 6th Century. Later, it was administered by priests from Coimbra Cathedral, and a Papal edict of 1622 declared that women entering the forest would be excommunicated. The Discalced Carmelites, an order of barefooted monks, took over in 1628. They built a monastery and surrounded the 250-acre (105-hectare) forest with a wall. Over the centuries, the monks and the government foresters who succeeded them have planted nearly 400 Portuguese varieties of trees, shrubs, and flowers while importing some 300 species from as far away as Mexico, Chile, and Japan.  I am happy to say that I was not struck down by lightning or anything, so I believe that the Papal edict of 1622 must have expired ;)

Since we were a little run down we mostly just drove around the forest, up the mountain, down and around.  We had to be very careful choosing the roads because if we went down the right side (as we were going up) we would have ended up in another valley, on the other side of the Mountain and far away from our King bed!  As luck would have it (or good navigating-I am the navigator)  we always seemed to choose the right direction and we ended  up at the Tippy Tippy Top of the Mountain where there was a Monument (I'm sure it was dedicated to some Saint or something) and the most marvelous 360 degree views, going out to never, never land!

There were also hiking trails from up here but not really knowing how long it was going to take to get back off the mountain (or even if we were going to take the right turns) we decided not to venture off.  On our way down we did see a Big, Rock Wall with an open gate and decided to stop.  It too had trails and we went for a short hike.  As we were driving down the mountain we could see way off on our left beautiful, huge homes dotting the countryside, this was definitely a wealthy area!
Before going completely down we took a different road and found a Cafe over looking the valley below(opposite of Coimbra side).  I think we crashed a private party but no one seemed to mind.  We bought a snack and sat on a bench admiring the views!

Back at our hotel we were ready for a Nap before going out to dinner and listening to some Fado music.  We wanted a good tasty meal so we chose an Indian Restaurant we had spotted yesterday - our 3rd since arriving in Portugal.  Had a wonderful meal and then walked thru the Historic area - our goal was to find "A Capella" - a tiny chapel that has been turned into a temple for traditional Coimbra style Fado music (different than Fado from Lisbon).
The streets here are all narrow and winding, a little confusing but fun to explore.  But since we had to buy tickets and were afraid that it might sell out we finally asked a family to help us with directions - its good we did we never would have found it!  They were all very helpful - Dad, grandma and mostly Mom who spoke fabulous English!  It was all uphill, we barely had the energy to make it, got a table, ordered a drink and waited for the show to begin.  Before beginning the little place did fill up.  The show consisted of 2 musicians and one singer!  It was an interesting experience but too dull for our liking.  The Portuguese Guitar was wonderful but the Fado was too bland for us!

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