CoimbraJoy DoddsMediterranean MusingsPortugalReviews Read all of JOY DODDS’ previous Mediterranean Musings – from Italy to Spain, and including gastronomic delights …As the train sped towards Lisbon from Faro on the Algarve coastline, a debate began – whether to alight at capital Lisboa (Lisbon) or to keep on heading north to much smaller cultural centre Coimbra, hitherto unvisited.My earliest experience of Lisbon wasn’t without drama. As Australians travelling with uni friends in our Kombi, we had managed to have our valuables, including passports, stolen as they lay “safely” locked in the van while we had a quick dip at Estoril, to the west of the capital. In the old days, this meant a 10-day or so wait until we could leave pre-EU Portugal – so, rather, we flew off to Madeira, the Atlantic island former colony since the 15th century, to ‘regroup’ in capital Funchal.Before the dreaded break-in, we had managed to partially explore Lisboa’s medieval district of Alfama with its Castle of St George (Castelo São Jorge – 5th century), tangled alleys and stairways, taking in the Mosteiro dos Jéronimos (built to honour Vasco de Gama) and the Torre de Belem (to honour the Age of Discovery). We marveled at the 12th century cathedral (Sé) and caught a #28 tram through the narrow streets of Bairro Alto, Alfama and Castelo districts. Bairro Alto was a great nightlife hub with restaurants and bars, as were riverside haunts in Baixa along the River Tejo towards the harbour. And of course Fado music, which originated in Alfama, heightened the ambience.Lofty Coimbra Cathedral architectureNotwithstanding such attractions, a sense of the unknown won the day and we proceeded two hours further north by train to Portugal’s central region, Beira-Litoral, and World Heritage Site and medieval capital Coimbra. Conimbriga, home to the Iberian Peninsula’s largest Roman ruins, was also on our radar screen.Springtime hits Coimbra, with Mondego River vistas from medieval University PrecinctCoimbra is a city of culture, known for its 13th century university (one of Europe’s first) and other treasures such as Joanina University Library with its magnificent gold decor. The Old Cathedral, Se Velho, (12th century) along with the new cathedral, Se Nova, and the Cathedral of Santa Cruz, the Arch and Tower of Almedina are all within the town walls. Be prepared to climb steep alleys on foot, via the Almedina Arch, the city’s ancient Moorish gateway – and wear non-slip shoes!We found the city abuzz with student life and Fado music. Today student life pulsates through Velha Universidade, built upon the remains of Roman occupation, ancient and modern side-by-side. Fado guitar music and singing – the spirit of CoimbraWandering along steep cobbled streets, you come across an open door, through which it is possible to step back in time to imperial Rome’s colonial conquests. The outstanding architectural remains, with ancient columns and arches decorated with bright blue tiles, mosaics, emblems and wrought iron balconies, are even more amazing by the fact that present-day university life and lectures carry on around it, amid the usual buzz and laughter from the ancient lecture halls and refectories. The Archaeology Department, fittingly, has an entrance adorned with Roman sculptures. Rio Mondego from our classic columned hotel balconyThe cobbled laneways of the university precinct reveal all manner of vistas and panoramas over the Modengo River, with bright purple spring-fuelled wisteria cascading over stone walls behind ancient Roman-based structures that now house locals, all respecting the architectural origins of the hill-top precinct.Typical architecture in the University PrecinctTwo museums, the Nacional Machado de Castro with its fine royal treasures and sculpture collection, and Santa Casa da Misericordia, as well as the Monastery of Santa Clara-a-Velha (13th century) are other highlights.Outside Coimbra is the National Forest of Bussaco, the Bacchae wine route, and a few kilometres to the south, ruins of the ancient Roman site of Conimbriga complete with a forum and a villa with mosaic floors, baths and vestiges of underground heating.Hotel Astoria, our riverside headquarters, proved perfect. Built in 1926 in classic Art Nouveau style, it was a genteel blast from the past, with wrought iron, stained glass, marble and dark wood furnishings, and an original lift well and ground floor telephone cabinets from a bygone time, setting this hotel apart as a unique experience, a step back to times where baths were deep, rooms spacious and furnished with Art Deco wooden pieces. Wi-fi was available only in the lobby – but who cares?? Our stone columned balcony offered brilliant vistas of Rio Mondego and a vibrant university city with its medieval backdrop.After a day’s exploring, it was a real treat to sample some of the local traditional dishes, including bucho recheado (pig’s stomach), wild boar, chanfana (meat stew) and suckling pig, washed down with local Rioja wine. One entree served, chicken giblets in a red wine sauce, was a trifle off-putting – but the local specialty of bacalhau (codfish) certainly hit the mark. Enjoyed against a backdrop of Fado guitar music and singing, life was sweet. The evocative, hauntingly unique sound of Fado music, Coimbra-style, is said to have originated from the night-time serenades and guitar-playing by students on the cobbled streets.Coimbra’s shops are a cornucopia of bright ceramics and tiles (azulejos) from pottery centres, leather goods and hand-embroidered linen. Cork goods are particularly interesting, cork being one of Portugal’s main exports. Many of the shops are located within the Roman and medieval precinct, literally amid the arches of the old walls, making the shopping experience even more memorable.Classic ceramics and handicrafts a la CoimbraThose fortunate enough to have additional time around Coimbra should not miss the Ria de Aveiro region to the north with its own vast architectural and historical heritage. For centuries the islands and marshlands at the mouth of the river have supported fishing (salt cod, or bacalhau), salt production and other activities, including old rice paddies.Aveiro is known as the “Venice of Portugal” because of its canals and home-grown gondoliers operating brightly-painted long boats (moliceiros). An evocative statue of a salt lagoon labourer stands on the bridge of the Central Canal while another magical sight is the blue and white-tiled (azulejo) façade of houses and other buildings, including Aveiro’s old railway station.Aveiro, the “Venice of Portugal”, and a long boatOur decision to examine Central Portugal in detail, steeped in culture and history, proved correct. Coimbra, a.k.a. “The Oxford of Portugal”, is a must, with the nearby Roman ruins at Conimbriga a fascinating bonus.And now it’s on to Porto on the Rio Duoro.