Coimbra, Portugal

September 2019

I took a bus with Rede Expresso from Fátima costing 11.90 euros and taking just under an hour. These buses are all on time in my experience and have air conditioning and free wifi as well as somewhere to charge your phone. At the bus station itself, it can be confusing, so allow time.

Coimbra at night

I arrived in the late afternoon and took a walk with my rucksack (but no donkey!) to the hostel by the river.

Igreja de Santa Justa, Coimbra, Portugal (Rua do Paço do Conde 1 239 825 605)
Local tram system
I popped my head into a residential stair and found these amazing tiles – they are a real feature of Portugal
Not far along was the Palacio da Justica de Coimbra with stunning tile panels around a central courtyard

Coimbra is a steep city with an ancient university at its apex. I left that until the next day, tired after my hot walks to the Fatima shrines.

Igreja de Santa Cruz, Coimbra, Portugal
Street sign – from this milestone the distances to all the lands of Coimbra (rough translation from Facebook)

I stayed in the Coimbra Portagem hostel which I booked in advance through hostelworld (be very careful to check your dates before pressing pay as there are often mistakes with the system). There was no solid wall between dormitories so I could hear every word of the woman on the phone next door, and the woman she was speaking to, and she was on the other side of the room! The accomodation is right by the river and in the middle of the tourist area, so wonderfully situated.

R Ferreira Borges, Coimbra, Portugal
Barbican Gate (leads up to the university), Coimbra, Portugal
Largo da Portagem, quaint streets with minute shops all on different levels
Colourfully painted buildings and awnings

I ate fish, served in the traditional Portuguese way with boiled potatoes and braised cabbage (sometimes it comes with the odd carrot). As usual, I was treated with respect by the helpful waiters.

Electric cars being charged

The next morning I took a deep breath and hiked up to see the famous library with my rucksack – it’s one hell of a climb! It was already hot, but I loved the maze of tiny streets, looking as if they were mostly full of tourists. However, it turned out that the people I joined to enter the Bibliotec Joanina, the university library, all had tickets. There was a large group who had prebooked so they only let in three individuals. My wait was for nothing. It took a while to find the booking office (which is up more steps, into the big square, right across and through the great gate on the right).

The queue was too long for me. I was already hot tempered from the climb, heavy backpack and midday heat

It was the same as the bookshop in Porto (also reputed to be a stunning interior): relatively expensive and an off-putting booking procedure. It’s all tours and Trip Advisor. Even Lonely Planet pushes tours. So, I deduced it was not for the simple individual traveller, unless you perhaps come between November and March.

It does not seem to be possible to book the sights online, and because everyone seemed to be clumped together, it was also tricky to navigate the streets and pavements. I headed onwards, attracted by city walls.

By now I was high up and the views were good. Lots of university students were hanging around in their black robes to tell people about their traditions, but I spotted the Botanic Gardens. Anyone who reads this blog or kens me, knows that I can never resist a Botanic Gardens – so that’s where I went next.

The glass houses, almost as impressive as our own in Edinburgh.

The Botanic Gardens (more arboretum than flower garden) are perfect for informal visits. They do not require appointment or payment. There you can sit in a little nook, watch the dragonflies busy about their work, or goldfish lazily float, listen to the birds or the leaves falling, lounge by running water out of the heat, breathe out and dream.

It is elegant with its stone architectural features

There is the garden which centres around the fountain : concentric arcs of Box with grand old trees:

Cherry and maple to name but two. This grand example was too big to fit into one frame with its eerie air roots.

There were roses and upstanding blue allium to match the sky.

The Asian inspired bamboo forest offered a cool, green and refreshing environment.

The little chapel seemed to have fallen onto hard times, indeed nature is taking over in places (maybe as it should?)

St Benedict’s Chapel

What a wonderful place to wander through woods which are succumbing to Autumn, past smooth-trunked ash, and be startled by a wood pigeon! The trails are apparently so rarely walked that the tree-lings are well established in the middle of the paths. I do not know what the dead ones were but they are beautiful in their seeding stage.

I spied plenty of lovers secluded and entwined in corners.

It is the prime time for the citus grove with its shiny, green leaves and rough-skinned fruit

And, as I wound down the hill, a bus passed on its way up, so you do not even have to climb on your own two feet! I thought there were no toilets and too many folk around to use the (copious) bushes but I found them close by the hot house entrance.

I lay under a beech tree on a cool stone mini altar.

I noted the growths spreading along the branches,  how the leaves, in groups of two, three and five at the end of their stalks, were turning brown

Tiny birds – were they just far away? – were feeding up high, camouflaged through necessity, over time. As I was quiet, they came closer and were in fact about the size and shape of a leaf with pale, green-yellow belly, short pointed-yellow beak exactly the same shape as the tip of the leaves, a darker, stubby tail with a very slight V, and perhaps with more pronounced markings on top – I couldn’t see exactly. The big ‘wasps’ from the Zâzere River were here too. A nearby bell tolled 14.30. A leaf fell on me – it was the start of Autumn.

As the sun moved, different aspects were highlighted: some of the leaves had white outlines, the central veins were a strong brown as diagonals left it, tapering to almost-orange at the edges. When I woke from my reverie (I bit the inside of my mouth – ow) there was a green-bellied bird which had a linea negra down the middle and matching cap. The blacktipped wings were folded as it hopped around, just showing at the sides, from the underneath, in exactly the same way that the black lichen edged the branches. Nature is so clever!

I was busy paying attention to all this when a heron surprised us all: it flew at lower-branch level with its u-bend neck and massive slow-flapping wings. It took a while for the littl’uns to return to their foraging.

Morning Glory

I didn’t realise until I roused myself, that i was covered in a fine dust. How much did time turn around while I lay there, I wondered.

View steeply down to the Mondego River, Coimbra, Portugal
Grand, twisted tree, Botanic Gardens, Coimbra, Portugal
Peaceful pool glimpsed through fencing, Botanic Gardens. Coimbra, Portugal
The end of the summer’s bounty
St Benedict’s Chapel
Carving on fallen masonry, Botanic Gardens, Coimbra, Portugal


Fátima, Portugal

September 2019

The Fatima shrine

In the east of Portugal some two thirds of the way from Lisbon to Porto, is Fátima, revolving around its famous Roman Catholic, Marian shrine. It was established in response to the pastorinhos, three little shepherds named Lucía, Jacinta and Francisco who had angelic apparitions in 1917 and walked from their home in Aljustrel to Fatima (2 kms) where this holy place was established as a result.

Here are the little shepherds in the middle of roundabout

‘A journey to the altar of the world’ as the Portuguese tourist website calls it, can be made on foot, a pilgrimage to the shrine in Fátima along the four Fátima Ways: the Tagus, the Northern, the Nazaré and the Carmelite Ways, from Lisbon, Spain (Valença), Sítio in Nazaré (‘where the earth ends and the sea begins’) and Coimbra respectively. Based on the life and work of Sister Lúcia, who lived in the Carmelo de Santa Teresa [Carmelite Convent of St Teresa].

The church at the Fátima shrine
Cloisters, open on one side to the yawning public arena, provides a little shade

There is a large church, mainly white, with small bright and modern stained glass windows, and behind it is a vast space where the Pope gives his addresses. There are all the conveniences you would expect in such a place which draws the penitentious and worshipful thousands from around the globe.

A moving depiction of grief
‘Our Lady’ and I

An altogether more peaceful place to visit in Fátima is Valinhos, accessed by the Via Sacra.

The little shepherd’s Camino, the via Sacra

The birthplace of the little shepherds is the location of this second shrine – arrived at by a walk, with the Stations of the Cross along the way, and set amidst evocative olive groves.

There were many nuns around
One of the Stations of the Cross
The XIV Station

The quiet and preserved natural environment means that I saw many more birds (and flies) than I have seen so far – a pair of jays, a robin, greenfinch, sparrows, an giant grasshopper, stalkfuls of snails and the white, bobbed tail of a rabbit as it loped away.

Believe me, it was the an inch long!
The great, green grasshopper
There were two jays under the olive trees
Queues of snails

I seemed to attract more attention than usual – perhaps the rucksack and baton were the reason. A man gestured for me to stop and he took my photo. He shook my hand and said he was from Brazil. Another gent asked if I was a pilgrim (!) and, in an Australian accent, said he would walk 25 kms a day from Porto a day ahead of me.

There is always a choice of which way to turn

A third, a Portuguese, asked if I needed an albergue to stay in, but I had already spent the night in the city in a small, single room with a private bathroom in a great stack of serviced apartments.

The ‘What Else’ guesthouse where I sayed in Fatima, Portugal
The window display at the guest house refelcted the reason for this town being the way it is
The sun was high by the ime I left the guest house an had a good walk to the shrine, enjoying the brightly coloured houses
And passing this little chapel at a road junction
I sat in this olive grove and meditated
Flowers all around

Hungarian Calvary or Santo Estêvão Chapel

River Zâzere, Portugal

I have spent 2 days in the region of Dornes, at the border between Castelo Branco and Santarém, Portugal. September 2019.

Stop sign, Rua Domingos Viera Serrao
Turn off the N238 onto a forest track at this junction

The Grande Rota do Zâzere (#33, 370 kms) starts at the Serra da Estrella and follows the River Zâzere to its confluence with the River Tagus at Constância.

Eerie light caused by the Portuguese forest fires

The first day was windy. The smell of burning was alarming, not for myself on the opposite side of the river, but for the trees and people over the hillside.

Smoke rising in Castelo Branco

An ominous plume of smoke, orange grey and thick, was rising from behind it and slowly it filled the sky, obliterating the sun. The talk was of despair at how nature was responding to our greedy behaviour.

A mixed wood of ferns, eucalyptus and pine

The water was murky, the wind was rallying in the eucalyptus woods, and black ash fell on me as I swam.

Ash at the edge of the river

After the endless toing and froing of the emergency services the day before – noisy, yellow bi-planes circling, landing on the lake and, air bound again, leaving to release their wet loads onto the undergrowth (or so I imagined) – there had been rain, most gratefully received.

Emergency services collect water
Checking for damage

And the next morning the sky was clear.

The day after – a magnificent azure sky

High above, I spotted a pair of birds, glimpsing their white under-carriages, and was impressed by their jet, square-ended wings. Not long after, they were joined by others. They made a few flaps to raise themselves, but then lazed on the thermals, way above, around and around so that I could feel their pleasure. When they landed on the water, they splashed like happy dogs!

Great birds enjoying the wind
Playing and soaring

The mixed plantation behind the rocky beach also drew my attention at intervals: the crackle of brittle leaves, which every now and then fell onto the surface without my noticing how they had got so far from their origin unnoticed; the dry seed pods which fell, singly; and the wiggling of the triangular and smooth, green aspen leaves on their stalks. The silver-green soft fronds of a pine new to me has seeded in the yellow clay of the foreshore and it tickles my elbows.

Self-seeded mini trees
Long, sharp sections of eucalyptus trunks sloughing off
Ochre clay and turquoise waters
The unidentified pine
And its seed pods
Sparkling Aspen

As I stepped into the water a grass coloured fish darted away silently. I lay as quietly as I could, just sculling under the surface to keep myself afloat, when something leapt twice: up, arcing in a blur, down and then again, up and over, making a plash each time.

The wind creating endless patterns on the surface

The distant voices of fishermen on the opposite bank roused me from my meditation and, eyes open, I admired the ripples stippling the reflections of the slopes across the channel.

The broken rocks had sharp edges – not the most comfortable of resting places I admit

A few others bathed along the shore, two camped overnight. There was a water skier, five boisterous water scooters, an altogether calmer paddle boarder, and quite a lot of small yachts, but the predominant sound was of nature.

I sat and gazed – you can see why

At night when I swum under the hidden full moon, the water was like a thick liquid slate and the plaintive sound of an owl came from the trees, so different from in the morning when a single sweet call serenaded me. At lunch time, a tapping and knocking could be heard (but not seen) in the forest, and in a garden, a Jay zipped from branch to branch and screeched its existence. The enormous and garish ‘wasps’ buzzed so ferociously I was momentarily woken from my reverie.

A massive wasp or bee sort of insect which made the loudest buzz I have ever heard!

Don’t all rush down there at once and spoil the peace!