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