Tuesday, July 25, 2017

Camino Portugues, Day 9, Coimbra to Mealhada

Day 9, Monday, April 17  Coimbra - Mealhada (25 km)

A breakfast buffet was included at Hotel Oslo where we stayed in Coimbra, so we started out with a good meal.  Coimbra is the place where, they say, some pilgrims take the bus or train to Porto, because there were few places to stay, but we read that more facilities were opening up, so we weren't worried about continuing ahead on foot.  On the contrary, we actually found more places open than on previous days.  There was lots of road walking today, but, different from previous days, there were towns with mini-mercados and cafes that were actually open.
Camino sign in municipality of Coimbra

Not just today, but often, we passed thru many small hamlets with many beautiful and neatly landscaped homes, but it always seemed like no one was there.  We hardly ever saw anyone when we walked thru these hamlets and there wouldn't be cafes or markets open that serviced these areas.  We wondered and guessed reasons why this was.  It wouldn't be until our last day in Portugal that we would find out the most likely reason.

Another interesting thing we noticed in the small towns was that there were often loud speakers attached to the roof of the town's church or chapel.  We supposed that it was a convenient way for local announcements, or maybe sermons (?), to be broadcast to the entire community, but just a guess.
Note the loud speaker attached to the roof of the chape
For a while we had to walk on a major highway, which was extremely dangerous.  For a bit we saw no signs and were worried that we were off track, but then we saw an arrow as we reached Santa Luzia.  There we saw the restaurant, Manuel Julio, mentioned in our guidebook, and decided to stop for a full lunch, since we didn't know what the rest of the day would bring.  Behind the restaurant, according to the guidebook, we would find a new woodland path that we could use instead of walking on the highway.  So we went into the woods on what turned out to be a wide dirt road thru a eucalyptus forest, then onto a regular road which would lead us to the town of Mala.  We were looking forward to stopping at a pastry shop there, but found it closed.  Either a wedding or a funeral was going on in the church.  We figured that the owner of the pastry shop, plus everyone else in the town was in the church.

After Mala, it seemed like the longest walk ever to get to Mealhada.  We sweat lots and drank so much water.  My back began to hurt.  My worst day ever.  I was ready to collapse by the time we finally reached a cafe (it was called Cafe Senor in the guidebook, but has a new name now, which I can't remember) by a park outside of Mealhada.  I sat with my head down on my lap and finally perked up with cold water and rest.  There a family arrived at the same time.  They were celebrating something with a couple bottles of champagne and the kids were running everywhere, even climbing on my backpack, using it as a stepstool to climb thru a low open window.   We relaxed and enjoyed a few moments laughing with the family and taking photos before continuing on. 
Enjoying a family gathering at a cafe near Mealhada
Around the corner from the park we came to a roundabout full of traffic.  In the center of the rotunda was a statue of the god, Bacchus, sitting on top of a wine barrel, as a welcome to Mealhada, center of the local Bairrada wine region. 
Busy roundabout in Mealhada with statue of Bacchus atop a wine barrel
Since I was not feeling well, we decided to stay in a regular hotel, a Best Western called Tres Pinhieros, which turned out to be 3 km beyond Mealhada.  It wasn't easy to find and we got lost for a while, so, from the cafe, it took at least another hour to get there.  It was 6 pm by the time we arrived.  After our showers, we briefly went out to look for a restaurant or cafe, but it didn't seem like there was anything close by in either direction and the evening was windy and cool.  Instead we sat in the hotel lobby and had a glass of wine and peanuts while we waited for the restaurant to open.  Our waitress there was so kind.  It turned out to be an enjoyable evening.  We even were able to try white and red versions of the local wine, Bairrada, which we had not heard of until today.  The waitress taught us how to say, 'very good'...'muto bene'...words that we could use frequently from now on.
Trying the local red and white Barriada wine from Mealhada

Sunday, July 23, 2017

Camino Portugues, Day 8, Coimbra

Day 8, Easter Sunday, 4/16   Coimbra

This morning we made tea in the communal kitchen of our albergue, packed up and left early.  We didn't find any markets open the day before so we had nothing for breakfast.  It was Easter Sunday so we wondered if anything would even be open.  At least we were just outside of Coimbra.  A big city should have something open.  We started walking and stopped at the first cafe we found that was open.  It had coffee and croissants but also was a doner-kebab place.  Soon Chantelle and Jean-hugues also arrived there.  Lorenz left earlier to go to the airport for his flight to Barcelona.  We wouldn't see him any more on this journey.  We said good-by to Chantelle and Jean-hugues because they were continuing on and we were planning to stay in Coimbra one night.  We would continue to keep in touch with Jean-hugues by email after this, but Chantelle didn't share her contact information with anyone.

It was too early to find a place to stay so we headed to the cathedral to attend Easter Mass.  Mass was just starting but the cathedral was packed.  We decided to come back to a later Mass without our backpacks and early enough to find a seat.  We walked around and checked some of the places that the guidebook listed but then saw the Hotel Oslo.  They were busy with checkouts going on, but the man asked us to wait a while.  He gave us an early check-in.  Such a comfortable room and we were able to catch up on laundry and have a good shower before heading back to the cathedral for Mass.  How special it was to be able to attend Easter Mass at Se Velha, the old cathedral, a Romanesque church built in the 12th century.  There is a new cathedral built not that far away, but it doesn't have the same feeling of history that this special place holds.
Se Velha, the old cathedral in Coimbra
 Coimbra is a huge, bustling town, overwhelming to us after spending the last several days in very small places where we saw few people.  It is the third largest urban center in Portugal, after Lisbon and Porto, and is best known for its university, the oldest in Portugal.  It was the capital of Portugal for a while during the Middle Ages, and some of its medieval area is considered a UNESCO World Heritage site.  Along the pilgrimage route in Coimbra was the medieval Church of Santiago.
Igreja de Santiago, medieval church of Santiago
The Convent of Santa Clara, where we stayed the night before, was actually just across the river on a hill overlooking Coimbra in the suburb of Santa Clara.  It was founded by Santa Isabel, wife of King Dom Dinis.  She later became the patron saint of Portugal.  The original convent (Santa Clara-a-Velha) was built near the river, but it often was flooded, so the current convent (Santa Clara-a-Nova)(where we stayed) was built in the 17th century further uphill.
Coimbra from the top floor of our hotel
We planned to stay 2 nights in Coimbra but learned that museums and tourist buses are closed or don't operate on Mondays.  Instead we changed our reservation to one night and signed up for the hop on-hop off bus for that afternoon, to give us a good feel for Coimbra.  We had a nice, but expensive salmon lunch at a restaurant near the cathedral then took the bus tour.  It was a relaxing day, but we were ready to get back on the Camino tomorrow. 

Thursday, July 20, 2017

Camino Portugues, Day 7, Rabacel to Coimbra

Day 7 Saturday, 4/15/17  Rabacel to Coimbra - a 32 km day!

In the morning we had a most wonderful, full breakfast (probably the only one on this Camino) at the Casa Bonita albergue.  The owner took our orders and customized whatever we wanted, omelets, etc.  Along with the egg concoctions, she brought juice, yogurt, bread and coffee.  We were all stuffed and spoiled by her.

After that spectacular breakfast we faced the longest day ever, but we didn't yet know it.  The plan we had in mind was originally to walk 11 km to Conimbriga and stop there to see, what they say, is the most important Roman ruin site in Portugal.  Then we would take a 2.4 km detour to Condeixa a Nova, a town with plenty of hotel options, and even a posada.  Others have said to be sure to try staying at a posada in Portugal.  This might be our only chance for that.  We hadn't yet learned that, on the Camino, things happen as they should...there is no need to make plans

The first town we reached after Rabacel was Zambujal.  This town, though all was quiet, seemed to be very pilgrim-friendly.  There were many tiles displayed that told stories of Santiago and of local sites.  Our guidebook said that there was a cafe there but we found nothing open.  Soon we came to another pilgrim town, Fonte Coberta, with tile images of Santiago.  Outside of town we passed a Ponte Filipina on the right and then turned left into a trekking path. 
One of the tiled Camino signs in Zambuja

Tile Santiago image in Fonte Coberta

It was a hot day.  By the time we reached Conimbriga we were tired.  I needed a cup of coffee and Krishna needed a beer.  At the site complex we learned that the museum was closed due to a strike.  The ruins were open and there was lots of walking involved to get to them.  We headed first to the restaurant in the complex.  Chantelle and Jean-hugues were already sitting there having lunch.  They said that Lorenz had already continued on.  We had our coffee and beer and then some cheese and tuna sandwiches.  With Chantelle and Jean-hugues we talked about seeing the ruins and ended up all agreeing that we have all seen lots of Roman ruins and maybe we should focus our energy on walking instead of sightseeing on this hot day.  They left, and soon we left as well, no longer even thinking about our plan of stopping at the nearby town to experience a night at a Portuguese posada.  We had only walked 11.6 km so far today, so we decided to continue on.

From this point everything seemed to be closed.  We finally found a cafe in Cernache.  There was supposed to be an albergue there as well.  We saw it, but it seemed to be closed.  It was so hot, I ordered a large bottle of water but then felt bad, because I then realized that whatever we didn't drink we would have to carry.  Little did I know what was ahead and that we would need every drop of that water.  Chantelle and Jean-hugues were at the cafe already.  We all talked and planned to stay at a guest house, Janesta Guest House, in Palheira, the next town.  But, when we walked thru the town later, we didn't find it.  Everyone we asked kept telling us to continue forward to Santa Clara (the convent albergue outside of Coimbra).  We just kept walking and walking.  Krishna was getting concerned that it would get dark before we found a place to stay.  After 32 km and feeling exhausted, we finally reached the Santa Clara convent albergue.  Chantelle, Jean-hugues, Lorenz, the Irishman (who we met earlier) and the Hungarian were also there.  No one had found any other place to stay on the way!  So we were all together again.

At the convent albergue, Convento Santa Clara, an unusual man checked us in.  He first scrutinized our Camino passports and commented that we should have stayed at a different place in Tomar.  He finally stamped our passports and we paid our 15 euros per person.  Because it was a convent, there were rules.  Men and women had to stay in separate bunk bed rooms, but we all shared one bathroom.  Krishna was sent up some narrow stairs and assigned to a top bunk.  He asked for a lower bunk downstairs, but the man told him he would have to wait until 8 pm, after his boss left, to see if a downstairs bunk was available.  When Krishna told him that he wanted to check with his wife and maybe find another place, the man let him move downstairs to a lower bunk.  An Italian man whose wife was also in the ladies room downstairs was happy and shook Krishna's hand, because he got to move downstairs as well.  Upstairs were Jean-hugues, Lorenz, the Irishman, and the Hungarian.  Downstairs in the men's bunk room were Krishna and the Italian.  In the ladies downstairs bunk room were Chantelle, the Italian man's wife and me.  All of us in the two rooms downstairs shared 1 bathroom with a shower in it.  The funny thing was, though the men and women had to sleep in separate rooms, to get to the bathroom, the women had to go thru the men's bedroom.  We took our showers as soon as we could get our turn and decided to skip doing laundry tonight.
Albergue Convento Santa Clara, on a hill overlooking Coimbra
Five of us, Chantelle, Jean-hugues, Lorenz, Krishna and I, went out to find a place for dinner and had a celebration of good friends on the Camino.  Krishna ordered frango (grilled chicken) which the waiter said would take a little longer to make.  It was so good and no one even noticed the extra wait because we were enjoying the camaraderie of the evening.
Dinner and fellowship with fellow peregrinos
That night, after we were settled in our sleeping bags, I began to hear the nuns singing in the convent church next door.  I then realized that it was Easter eve, a special and blessed night.  It was magical to be in this ancient convent on this evening listening to the sacred singing.  I felt that I had been swept back into the medieval ages ... a magical moment on the Camino!