Have Bag, Will Travel
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“Portugal has a tradition of fado, the idea that one’s fate or destiny cannot be escaped, and it’s the name given to a form of traditional Portuguese singing that’s been given UNESCO World Intangible Cultural Heritage status. You’ll often hear fado in bars, cafes and restaurants – melancholic songs of love, loss, hopefulness and resignation – accompanied by soulful guitars, mandolins and violins.”
The very reasonably priced IBIS hotel was not as grand as the Conde de Ferreira Palace in Tomar but was in a perfect central location situated on the River Mondego with the historical centre of Coimbra rising up in dramatic style behind it like a sheer mountain face and perfectly placed for a short walk to an attractive and vibrant square busy with restaurants and bars basking in the sunshine.
From there we made our way to the old town and the University district and quickly discovered that Lisbon isn’t the only hilly city in Portugal. Coimbra is built on the top of a hill, not all of it of course, because it is the third largest city in the country but the bit that we wanted to see was certainly on the top of the mountain.
It was hot again and the climb was a bit of a chore but as well as getting our bearings and seeing some of the sites we needed to find somewhere suitable to eat later and after our successes in Lisbon and Tomar there was a lot to live up to. We found one or two likely looking places but none really stood out and then we tired of examining menus and made our way to the very top.
Kim wasn’t terribly enthusiastic about visiting the inside of the University today so we concentrated instead on the exterior and agreed that we might come back tomorrow (a certainty for me but doubtful for Kim). There were some wonderful views from the top and we strolled around the ornate courtyards and admired the Palaces and the churches and the two cathedrals and it occurred to me that Coimbra could easily be tagged the Florence of Portugal.
There was a lot of activity at the University because this was first week of new term – ‘Freshers Week’. I remember ‘Freshers Week’ when I pitched up at Cardiff University in September 1975. With hormones raging in overdrive I thought this was going to be opportunity to meet new girls but I quickly realised that this is the week when second and third year students turn up in force and get all the girls before a new student gets a look in and it looked very much like it was exactly the same procedure here in Coimbra.
University students in Coimbra wear a black uniform complete with a cape, they are known locally as ‘the cloaks’ and if I hadn’t known it was a University I might have mistaken it for a convention of Vampires.
We weren’t going to visit anything today that had an entrance fee so we made our way back to the river and I became interested in a sign outside a small building that was advertising a Fado show, traditional music of Portugal. I was keen to go along but I couldn’t persuade Kim to join me so I bought a single ticket and would return later alone.
On the way back to the IBIS I spotted a small restaurant that looked traditional and welcoming and had a reasonable menu so I suggested that we try this one. Kim agreed and I worried then that my bad luck with recommendations might strike again and I would come to regret ever having mentioned it. As I have said before I prefer to leave restaurant selection decisions to Kim and then no blame can be attributed to me in the case of a bad one.
Later I returned to the centre for the five o’clock Fado show and after only five minutes or so I realised that Kim had made an absolutely brilliant decision in declining to accompany me. I didn’t enjoy it at all, it was terrible; if had had the sense to consult Wikipedia before impetuously buying the ticket I am certain that I too would have rejected the idea…
“Fado is a form of music characterized by mournful tunes and lyrics, often about the sea or the life of the poor, and infused with a sentiment of resignation, fatefulness and melancholia”
… this, let me tell you is music to get seriously depressed to. There was zero chance that I would buy one of the CDs on sale at the entrance. If I could have sneaked out then I would have left there and then but I was in the middle of a row quite near the front and it would have been impossible to leave without drawing a lot of attention to myself. I had no alternative but to stick it out, thankfully it only lasted for an hour and there was the consolation of a complimentary glass of port wine when it finally came to an end.
Now it came to restaurant time and I worried that my poor judgment might continue but it turned out to and it turned out to be excellent, so good in fact that we agreed that we would return there again the following night. Once we find a place we like we don’t like taking unnecessary risks!
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.
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.
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%.
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”.
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.
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.
* 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.
We generally take our main annual holiday in September. Sometimes we go to the sea, usually the Greek Islands which are our favourites and sometimes we travel. This year we decided to travel and we chose to go to Portugal.
There are organised guided tours available for this sort of thing but we prefer to make our own arrangements and not be restricted by a holiday company schedule and inevitable stops at shopping centres and outlet factories that suit the Company but not the Traveller.
We had decided to use the Portuguese railways so we plotted an itinerary that started in the capital Lisbon and then worked north through the town of Tomar, the city of Coimbra, the seaside at Ovar (Furadouro) and then finished in the second largest city in the country at Porto, a couple more days by the coast at Vila do Conde, visits to the cities of Guimarães and Braga and then back home.
In preparation for travel I carried out my usual research and used my favourite benchmarks to try and understand the country that I was visiting.
I started as usual with the Human Development Index which ranks countries by level of ‘human development’ and the statistic is composed amongst other criteria from data on life expectancy, education and per-capita gross national income. Portugal is ranked forty-first which is quite low, especially for Europe but it is improving and is up two places from the previous year.
Although it is in Western Europe (in fact it is the most western mainland European country) Portugal did not begin to catch up with its neighbours until 1968 after the death of the dictator António Salazar, the Left Wing Carnation Revolution of 1972 and eventual entry into the European Community in 1986.
Unhappily, the European economic crisis has had a negative effect on Portugal’s position in the Europe Happiness Index and it is rated at only fifteenth out of thirty which is one place behind the United Kingdom. Finland is the happiest and Albania (no real surprise) the least jolly.
The Country has fifteen UNESCO World Heritage Sites and our travel itinerary was going to take us to six – The Tower of Belém in Lisbon, built to commemorate the expeditions of Vasco da Gama, the National Palace of Sintra, the Convent of the Knights Templar of Tomar, the University of Coimbra, The Historic town of Guimarães and The Historic Centre of Porto.
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 all participating countries but looking at the statistics in a different way they get even better and dividing length of coastline by number of beaches, Portugal is way out in front and storms into first place with one proud blue flag flapping away every three and three-quarter miles or so.
When it comes to wine, screw caps have all but completely replaced the cork. Interestingly 35% of the World’s cork forests and 50% of World supply comes from Portugal so there for the time being the cork stopper still reigns supreme.
My next measure is always the Eurovision Song Contest and Portugal has participated in the annual contest forty-nine times since its debut in the 1964. Up until recently the country held the unfortunate record for the most appearances in the contest without a win but they put that right in 2017 when they won in Kiev with Salvador Sobral’s entry, “Amar Pelos Dois”.
In my research I have discovered some more impressive statistics: Portugal is ranked third in the Global Peace Index, just behind Iceland and New Zealand. The index gauges global peace using three measures – the level of safety and security in society, the extent of domestic and international conflict and the degree of militarisation. Portugal for example was one of only a few European countries that escaped involvement in the Second-World-War, the others were Spain, Switzerland (only in theory of course because they did a lot of Nazi banking and gold trading), Sweden and The Republic of Ireland.
On the subject or war and peace, the Anglo-Portuguese Alliance (Aliança Inglesa) ratified at the Treaty of Windsor in 1386, between England and Portugal, is the oldest alliance in the world that is still in force – with an even earlier treaty dating back to the Anglo-Portuguese Treaty of 1373. England (UK) and Portugal have never been on opposite sides in any military conflict which is a very impressive statistic when you consider that in that time England (UK) has at one time or another been at war at some time or another with almost every other European country.
We arrived at Lisbon Airport early in the afternoon and took the metro into the city centre. A rather odd journey as it turned out because the automated on board information system curiously announced arrival at the stations one after the one we were stopping at next so we had to be careful not to get off one stop too early. Anyway we negotiated the journey and then after a bit of map confusion which we sorted out over a beer at a pavement café walked the final half a mile to our accommodation.
We had selected a studio apartment for our four nights in Lisbon and it turned out to be most satisfactory. The Travel and Tales rooms were situated in a domestic block of apartments so we were going to spend our time in Lisbon rubbing shoulders with real locals and we were happy about that.
We were allocated the Fernando Pessoa apartment who according to Wikipedia turns out to be… “a Portuguese poet, writer, literary critic, translator, publisher and philosopher, described as one of the most significant literary figures of the 20th century and one of the greatest poets in the Portuguese language”.
I apologise immediately for my ignorance in this matter but I have to confess that I had never before heard of him.
Is there a bluer country than Portugal?
The blue sky and Atlantic Ocean embrace the land. The blue moods of Fado, the melancholy folk music, form the national soundtrack and all across Portugal, the typically blue designs of azulejo, ceramic tiles spread across churches, monasteries, castles, palaces, university halls, parks, train stations, hotel lobbies and apartment facades.
The result is an embellished land of Christian saints, biblical episodes, Portuguese kings, historical glories, pastoral idylls, aristocrats at leisure, landscapes, seascapes, floral designs and, above all, geometric motifs.