Category Archives: Cathedrals

Portugal, Coimbra to Furadouro

Coimbra Postcard

When we woke in the morning, instead of the blue skies that we had become accustomed to there was a thick mist over the river and the city and it didn’t look like clearing away any time soon.

We had planned to have a final hour exploring the streets of Coimbra but after a second excellent Hotel IBIS breakfast the mist had become a fog so we made breakfast last a while longer, waited around for half an hour or so and then made our way to the railway station and waited for the train to Aveiro.

The plan now was to spend a few days at the coast, relax and to take a break from the city visits.

The train was on time and it didn’t take long to get there and as we crossed a spur of the River Boca and looked out towards the lagoons and the Atlantic Ocean we could have been forgiven for thinking we had been transported to Venice because the city has a very Italianate architecture and a waterway full of Gondolas.

Not surprising then that Aveiro is sometimes called the Venice of Portugal.

Aviero Postcard

Other places have their own associations with Venice – London and Birmingham in England are two examples as are Amsterdam in the Netherlands, St Petersburg in Russia, Prague in the Czech Republic and Edinburgh in Scotland who are all sometimes called the ‘Venice of the North’.  There is a Little Venice in Michigan USA and another in Bavaria in Germany, there is a casino in Las Vegas designed as Venetian canals and there is even one entire country that is called ‘Little Venice’.

The name ‘Venezuela’ is believed to have originated from the Italian explorer and cartographer Amerigo Vespucci who led a 1499 naval expedition along the northwestern coast of South America.  When he landed he saw people living in houses on stilts and using boats that were shaped like gondolas. He thought that the country resembled Venice so he named it Venezuela, which means ‘Little Venice’.  That’s a bit odd I suppose when you consider that Venezuela is nearly two thousand three hundred times bigger than Venice itself!

We thought that we might like to stop a while and explore Aveiro but there wasn’t really time because we had a train connection to make and needed to dash to the Porto Metro line for the train to the nearby city of Ovar.

On first impression we weren’t quite sure what to make of Ovar, it seemed like the end of the World, almost like that scene in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid when they first get off the train in Bolivia and wondered why they had gone there.

Furadouro Stone Fishes

We needed to travel about three miles west to the seaside town of Furadouro and rather unsure and completely disorientated we broke our no taxi rule for a second time in four days and hitched a ride to our hotel, the Furadouro Spa.  The taxi dropped us off outside reception and we went inside to register where on account of a nippy wind coming in off the sea the staff were in thick jackets and expressed surprise that we were wearing our summer clothes when, in their opinion, it was so cold.  We explained about being from England and living on the North Sea East Coast.

After we had approved our accommodation and settled in, good but not as good as the last three in Lisbon, Tomar and Coimbra we stepped outside to take a look at Furadouro.  This didn’t take very long, but we found a restaurant that caught our eye for later on and a nice pavement bar to have a beer and then we made our way to the seafront.

There was a strong wind blowing, towering Atlantic breakers and red flags flapping furiously, rather unnecessary in my opinion because only a crazy person would go into a sea as mad as that.  Only half crazy we went into the sea but only up to our ankles with an occasional waist high splash and we walked the beach for about two miles or so.

Furaduero Beach Portugal

Portugal is famous for its Atlantic beaches which stretch for one thousand, one hundred and fifteen miles and along this coastline are three hundred Blue Flag Beaches which is the fifth highest amongst participating countries but looking at the statistics in a different way and dividing length of coastline by number of beaches, Portugal is way out in front and storms into first place with one blue flag every three and three-quarter miles.

It was certainly storming today and as we walked the salt spray splashed our clothes and the wind whipped sand stung our faces.

We could have walked forever along pristine sands between Sahara like dunes on one side and crashing waves on the other but eventually we reached an agreed point and with only more sand and surf stretching out before us as far as we could see we turned around and returned to Furadoura.  We hoped the sea might be calmer tomorrow and we might be able to go for a swim.

Later we found a back street fish restaurant overflowing with local people so on the basis that this is always a good sign we requested a table and had a first class meal for a very reasonable price and we agreed, as we always do, that we would come back tomorrow.  On the way out we attempted to book a table but the waiter told us they were closed now for an end of summer vacation.

We were having a lot of bad luck with restaurant closures in Portugal that was for sure!

Furadouro fish restaurant

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Portugal, The University and Cathedrals of Coimbra

The University of Coimbra Portugal

I liked the IBIS hotel in Coimbra and I especially liked the breakfast, it wasn’t expensive but it was expansive and I probably managed to eat rather more than I should have.

In between return trips to the buffet table we debated our options for the day.  I wanted to return to the University and take the tours but Kim wasn’t keen so we compromised.  I would go to the University in the morning and Kim would find the shops and then we would meet later for lunch.

So we left the hotel and at the busy square went our separate ways and I made the climb to the top for a second time.  I went straight to the University to purchase my ticket because visits are timed and I wanted to get in there early.  I needn’t have panicked because early in the morning it wasn’t that busy and I bought a ticket for fifteen minutes later.

Coimbra University Portugal

I purchased the tour which included the Joanina Library and took my place in the line of people waiting for the same time slot.

Built in the eighteenth century it is a National Monument and has priceless historical value being the main tourist attraction in Coimbra.  The building has three floors and contains about two hundred and fifty thousand volumes and being someone who loves books this place is a little bit of heaven.  The collection dates from the sixteenth to the eighteenth centuries and represents the finest works from Europe at the time on the subjects of medicine, geography, history, science, law, philosophy and theology.

For old books they are in remarkably good condition, I have books in my own collection which are barely thirty years old and are badly foxed and falling apart.  This is the result of strict atmospheric control, nothing modern however just down to the original construction, thick exterior walls and bookcases which are made of oak which is a dense wood that prevents boring insects from taking up residence.  The books are also protected by a small colony of bats that live in the building and during the night consume the insects that appear that might otherwise damage the collection.

The downside is that the bats make a nasty mess and that is why the library doesn’t open until eleven o’clock.  I won’t go into unnecessary details here.

Joanina Library Coimbra University

For such a famous building the tour was over really rather quickly, rather disappointing really, the main library room, down to a study room and some exhibits and then down again to some grim cells where in the past misbehaving students were sent to reflect and repent.  They don’t use them any more because I guess they would be full to overcrowding every night.

The tour included entrance to an ornate chapel which didn’t really strike me as anything particularly special and then the old Royal Apartments which are now the main celebration and awards ceremony rooms for the University where there were some fine views from the top across the whole of the city and beyond.

After the University my ticket was good for entrance to the Science Museum just a short walk away and determined to get full value for my purchase I went there next.  I am not really all that keen on science, at school in 1970 I failed every single science ‘o’ level – chemistry, physics, biology, chemistry with physics and physics with chemistry – the list was endless.  The following year I had a shot at the allegedly much easier subject of General Science which it was said that a ten year old with a toy chemistry set could pass but I failed that as well.

chemistry set

After ‘o’ level and if you were staying on at school students were separated into sixth form Arts and sixth form Science.  I didn’t have to spend very much time deliberating the matter!

The only thing I ever really liked about science was the Science Museum in London and I remember going there several times as a boy, unfortunately the Science Museum in Coimbra wasn’t nearly so interesting so it didn’t detain me for long.  Next to it was a Natural History museum which had an enormous collection of stuffed animals which I imagine can only be of great interest to a taxidermist so I didn’t stay there very long either.

Instead I made my way down from the top of the hill to rendezvous with Kim as arranged stopping briefly on the way down to visit the old (Romanesque) and the new (Portuguese Colonial) cathedrals, nothing special about either of them but both worth a courtesy visit.

Coimbra Cathedrals

Back at the river we met as planned and stopped for a brief lunch before taking an afternoon stroll along both sides of the river with good views of the old city of Coimbra especially from the west bank.

I was dreading the next job which was to go and buy railway tickets for the next stage of our journey to the city of Ovar just south of Porto.  I thought that it was quite likely that I would explode with impatient rage if I had to queue at one of those awful ticket machines but it was a lot more civilized in Coimbra and there was a proper ticket office and no great line of people.  I bought the tickets and went for a beer in the sunshine  to celebrate.

Later we went back to the same restaurant and over a second excellent meal we declared the whole visit to Coimbra to be a complete success and we looked forward to the next day and three days and nights at the Atlantic Coast and the seaside down of Furadouro.

Coimbra Portugal

Portugal, Coimbra Pictures

Coinbra Wall Art MuralCoimbra Wall ArtCoimbra Univerisity

Portugal, Tomar to Coimbra and the story of Fatima

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After a final breakfast at Conde de Ferreira Palace we checked our bags and documents, left and walked the short distance to the railway station and waited with a handful of other passengers for the train to Lisbon.

We weren’t going back to Lisbon of course but first had to go south to make a connection for a train to our next destination – Coimbra.

We were a little early but sat in the sun until departure time and then climbed on board and enjoyed the short journey to Lamarosa where we switched trains to Coimbra.

After a few stops we pulled into a station for the town and pilgrimage site of Fatima and I mention this here only because a few weeks earlier we had visited Ireland and been to the pilgrimage site of Knock which has a very similar story.

Greetings From Knock

In the spring and summer of 1916, nine-year-old Lúcia Santos and her cousins Jacinta and Francisco were herding sheep and later claimed that they were visited three times by an apparition of an angel. They said the angel, who identified himself as the “Angel of Peace” and “Angel of Portugal“, taught them prayers and to spend time in adoration of the Lord.

Then, beginning in the spring of 1917, the children reported more appearances of the angel and starting in May 1917, they cranked the story up to a new level to include apparitions of the Virgin Mary.

Fatima Children

These little children look trustworthy enough don’t you think, would they make up such a yarn?  If my children came home one evening with such an unlikely tale I would tell them not to make up ridiculous stories and to forget all about it or they wouldn’t get any supper.

I confess that I am rather sceptical about these stories, I think it is something that is mostly good for tourism and rather conveniently the two boys died soon after in the flu pandemic that swept across Europe after the First World War so could answer no further questions on the matter.  The Virgin Mary and her miracles were not much help to them were they!

Lúcia became a Nun and took a convenient vow of silence on the matter although she did write an account of three secrets and passed this to the Vatican for safe keeping.  All have now been revealed – a vision of Hell (not difficult with a good imagination) the end of the first World War followed by a second (revealed in 1941 so a bit of hindsight might have helped) and a vague warning about persecution of Christians.

The widely reported sightings were the catalyst then for the tiny village of Fátima to quickly become a major centre of Catholic pilgrimage. Two million people visited the site in the decade following the events of 1917.  In 1930 the Catholic Church officially recognised the apparition events as “worthy of belief” and granted a papal indulgence to pilgrims visiting Fátima.

Fátima today is the most visited Catholic Pilgrimage site in all of Europe, I’ll say that again – the most visited Catholic Pilgrimage site in all of Europe,  with even more visitors every year than the Vatican, Lourdes or Santiago de Compostela.   The most visited Catholic Pilgrimage site in the World is The Our Lady of Guadalupe Shrine in Mexico City, where the Virgin Mary is believed to have appeared in the sixteenth century (yes, you’ve guessed it) to a poor peasant and estimates for annual visitation to the basilica run as high as twenty million, which is a figure getting close to the entire population of Australia.

The most religious country in Western Europe is Malta where in a survey in 2010 95% of the population said that they were practicing Catholics.  Nearby Italy (where the Pope lives) only managed 74%.   Portugal registered 72% and was fifth in the list. The least religious countries are all in the north where over 80% of respondents in Estonia, Norway, Denmark and Sweden all said that religion isn’t very important at all.

Interestingly this survey didn’t seem to include the Vatican State where I imagine the response would surely have been 100%.

Fatima Portugal

Today many thousands of Portuguese Catholics make the pilgrimage to Fátima. The German couple at breakfast in Tomar visited one day and reported that there were eight hundred buses in the coach park all bringing visitors to the sighting of the Virgin Mary.  Not all that surprising really because 2017 is the hundredth anniversary of the sighting, specifically the 13th October.

The Virgin Mary had promised a miracle for the last of her apparitions and on this date a huge crowd of possibly hundred thousand people turned up. What happened then became known as the “Miracle of the Sun”.

Knock Holy Shrine 02

Various claims have been made as to what actually occurred during the event. The three children who originally said that they saw Our Lady of Fátima reported seeing a panorama of visions including those of Jesus, Our Lady of Sorrows, Our Lady of Mount Carmel, and of Saint Joseph blessing the people.

According to accounts, after a period of rain, the dark clouds broke and the sun appeared as an opaque, spinning disc in the sky. It was said to cast multicolored lights across the landscape, the people, and the surrounding clouds. The sun was then reported to have careered towards the earth before making its way back to its normal position.

Could this be true, I don’t know. Maybe it was just an ordinary sunset.  I keep an open mind on the matter of  Marian Apparitions, does the Virgin Mary every now and again keep randomly appearing to people in remote towns and villages, maybe!

Anyway this being the hundredth anniversary of the miracle the pilgrimage town of Fátima was planning the Mother of all parties to celebrate.

Fatima 100 year anniversary

After Fátima the train passed through several more towns and villages before arriving in Coimbra where we took a taxi to the city centre IBIS hotel.

I hate taxis, I am a very nervous taxi passenger, I am petrified of the metre which seems to rack up charges at an alarming rate, faster than the acceleration of an Apollo rocket on its way to the moon and I spend any taxi journey fixated upon the clock.  I am almost as afraid of taxis as I am of dogs, but that is another story.

As it turned out, the journey cost less than €10 so I was panicking about nothing really and soon we had checked in, approved our room and were ready to visit the historical centre of Coimbra.

Coimbra Mosaic

* A Marian Apparition is a reported supernatural appearance by the Blessed Virgin Mary. The miracle is often named after the town where it is reported.

Malta 2017, Preview Pictures

Malta Mellihea

I went to Malta last month, here are some post preview pictures…

Malta SunsetMalta Sunset The Red Tower

Portugal, Tomar and The Convento de Cristo

Tomar Portugal Castle of the Knights

There was a steep path to be negotiated to get to the Convento and by midday it was really quite hot so it became quite uncomfortable just to get to the top of the hill.  Luckily it plateaued out by the time we got to the entrance and paid our €6 entrance fee and went inside.

This was becoming a perfect day and thanks to the distraction of the Festival we arrived later at the Convento than we had planned and this turned out to be a good thing because a lot of the coach tour parties were now gathering up their passengers and beginning to leave.  On the down side we just missed free entrance because we were a few minutes past one o’clock because before that it is free on a Sunday.

Convento de Cristo Tomar portugal

Tomar is one of the most historically important cities in all of Portugal with a history that stretches back to the Romans and probably even before that.   Fast forward a thousand years and after the capture of the region from the Moors in the Portuguese Reconquista, the land was granted in 1159 to the Order of the Knights Templar. In 1160, the Grand Master in Portugal, Gualdim Pais, laid the first stone of the Castle and Monastery that would become the headquarters of the Order in Portugal and from here they pledged to defend Portugal from any subsequent Moorish attacks and raids

The history is important so please bear with me here.  In 1314, under pressure from Pope Clement V, who wanted the Templars banned throughout Europe, the King of Portugal negotiated to transfer the possessions and personnel of the Order in Portugal to a newly created Order of Christ. In the 15th century by a compromise agreement the position of (cleric) Grand Master of the Order was nominated by the Pope, and the (lay) Master or Governor by the King.

Henry the Navigator (one of the most important people in Portuguese history) was made the Governor and he used the resources and knowledge of the Order to succeed in his enterprises in Africa and in the Atlantic. The cross of the Order of Christ was painted in the sails of the ships that crossed the seas and the Catholic missions in the new lands were under the authority of the Tomar clerics until 1514.

IMG_7941Fountain at Convento de Cristo Tomar

The Convento was a wonderful place to visit, so much better than the Palace at Sintra and at only two-thirds the price so much better value.  We spotted a coach tour party arriving so we started with the visit before we were overrun with tourist invaders.

And what a tour it was, through courtyards and grand rooms, all empty of course and I prefer it that way to places that are stuffed full of furniture and decorations.  Personally I prefer to see a place stripped bare rather than full of old tat.

Through corridors and chapels, great halls and kitchens, dormitories and medieval offices it was all completely wonderful, I could easily have gone through the place for a second time but I knew Kim wouldn’t like that so we left the Convento and made our way to the castle and climbed the walls and made a circuit of the complete site before returning to ground level and after a surprising three hours leaving again and making our way back down to the main square stopping on the way in a café for a drink.

convento de cristo 03

Here I reflected on the visit and I realise that it is easy to get carried away by the moment but I compared it to a visit to the Alhambra Palace in Granada a year ago and I concluded that this place was better.  If someone told me that I could visit only one of them ever again then I would choose the Convento de Cristo.

Eventually we arrived back in Praça da República and stopped for another beer.  We liked it, the weather was perfect and we were seamlessly adjusted to life outside of Lisbon, it had been a very good few days.  When we first arrived I worried about filling three days in Tomar but right now it really wouldn’t have bothered me if the trains went on strike and I had to stop for a fourth.

If you are planning a visit to central Portugal then you simply must stop over in Tomar.

As it happened I was becoming an expert now and I was confident in giving directions to Caminho Way walkers and giving restaurant recommendations to new guests at the Conde de Ferreira Palace. It was rather a shame to be leaving but eventually we left the square while Kim went back to the hotel I walked to the railway station to buy tickets for the next leg of our journey, this time to Coimbra.

Our preferred restaurant was closed tonight so we walked the small town looking for an alternative and eventually settled upon another local sort of place which was nowhere near as good but we enjoyed a good meal at a reasonable price before one last walk through Tomar and back to the hotel for suitcase packing.

Conde de Ferreira Palace Tomar

Portugal, Tomar, an Unexpected Festival and a Geographic Coincidence

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Breakfast at the United Nations table was a little easier for us today, the French Canadians and the Flemish Belgians had left and been replaced by an Irish couple and two ladies from New Zealand, so we were not so linguistically outnumbered this morning and ours was the majority language.

The Americans continued to struggle with the English language but it didn’t seem to bother the Germans who were quite happy chatting away with us all in Queen’s English.  The Russians showed no inclination to join in.

As it happened, the Germans were leaving today and driving to Coimbra, the Americans were driving north and the New Zealanders were going south to the Algarve but our plan was to visit the Convento de Cristo, an important historical monument built originally by the Knights Templar as long ago as the twelfth century, their most important possession in all of Iberia and now since 1983 a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

I diagress here for a sentence or two – Tomar is most famous, not just for the Convento de Cristo but also for the Festa dos Tabuleiros. A festival that is held every four years when the local population parades in pairs with women and young girls carrying tabuleiros on their heads and men accompanying them to make sure they don’t fall off because these things are seriously heavy.

Tomar Festival

What is a tabuleiro I hear you ask?  Well, a tabuleiro is made of thirty stacked pieces of bread, liberally decorated with flowers and carried on the head.  At the top is a crown which normally contains either a white dove, symbolising the Holy Spirit, or the Esfera Armilar, which turns out to be a symbol of  historical Portuguese maritime expansion of five hundred years ago or so.  Tomar it turns out was once the base of Henry the Navigator even though it is some considerable distance from the Atlantic Ocean.

I mention this because after we set off at about ten o’clock and were almost immediately distracted by some music and making our way to the town centre we came across a parade. You are probably expecting me to tell you that It was the Festa dos Tabuleiros but of course it wasn’t because this wasn’t scheduled for a further two years or so but rather an annual religious event called Nossa Senhora da Piedade which is always held on the first Sunday in September and which also involves ladies carrying baskets of bread on their heads.

Nossa Senhora da Piedade 01Nossa Senhora da Piedade 02Nossa Senhora da Piedade 03Nossa Senhora da Piedade 04

This was a real bonus; usually we are unlucky about such events; they have usually taken place a week before we arrived or are due to take place a couple of days after we have left. I am not exaggerating here, this was literally the first time that we have ever had such good fortune on our travels.

We chanced upon the parade at the very start and then followed it through the streets until it made its way to the main square, the Praça da República (in any Portuguese town the equivalent of the Spanish Plaza Mayor) and then following some religious rituals that we didn’t fully understand it set off again to an out of town religious sanctuary, the Hermitage of Our Lady of Mercy, but we had enough by this time so before setting off for the Convent we sat in the square in the already burning sun and had a coffee and a beer.

Nossa Senhora da Piedade Tomar Portugal

As we sat we engaged in conversation with a Canadian man who was walking the Camino Way, as you do in these situations we naturally exchanged personal information and told him that we lived in a town called Grimsby in England and he told us that he lived in Toronto near a place called Grimsby on Lake Ontario and close to the Niagara Falls. I really didn’t expect a coincidence like that during a chance meeting at a pavement bar in central Portugal.  Moments like that always enhance the travel experience don’t you think?

We finished our drinks, he drank the last of his mineral water, left and followed the sign of the scallop shell on the way to Santiago de Compostela and we said once again that one day that we would like to do that but for today we simply contemplated the climb to the Convent and the Castle and then had a second beer to prepare ourselves before setting off.

Tomar Portugal