Figueira da Foz, Beiras, Portugal Tuesday, April 28, 2009
It's amazing how a bit of sunshine lifts the spirits and makes everything look better! Our new campsite, Camping Orbitur Gala at Figueira da Foz, on the coast about 125 miles north of Lisbon, was just what we needed. Set in pine trees behind
the dunes, it was peaceful and relaxing, with the distant sound of the Atlantic breakers to lull us to sleep. There was a brand new and very comfortable toilet block (the best we've come across so far in Portugal), free wi-fi in the bar and just a handful
of other campers. We relished the opportunity to just sit in the sun and listen to the birds. Even my interest in wildflowers was catered for, as there were wild orchids growing on some of the pitches - they were either woodcock orchids or bee
orchids, it was difficult to tell. (Sorry, I'm being an anorak.) There was a magnificent, totally deserted beach nearby, with miles of almost white sand, backed by dunes and pine trees. We loved watching the huge waves breaking on the sand,
but of course the water was still far too cold for swimming.
The campsite was actually at Gala, just south of the estuary of the Mondego, so to get to Figueira da Foz it was a short drive across an impressive bridge. Fig Foz is both a working port and a popular holiday resort, with a long promenade lined with hotels and cafes. It's got one of those beaches that's so deep, it takes about half an hour to actually reach the sea, a bit like Southport, except that the walk is still there even when the tide is in! To facilitate all this walking it's criss-crossed with long boardwalks and even streetlights, and of course when you do reach the sea it's a lovely blue, unlike Southport!
One day we drove the 35 miles to see the ancient city of Coimbra. The town is very hilly and is divided into the low town, where the shops are, and the high town, with its narrow cobbled streets, where there are two cathedrals (the Old Cathedral, 12th century, and the New Cathedral, a mere 17th century), and also the University, founded in 1290, so it's even older than Oxford or Cambridge.
The oldest existing university buildings date back to 1540 and were originally part of a royal palace, because Coimbra was for a time the capital of Portugal. They are grouped round three sides of an elegant courtyard, the fourth side of which is a terrace with views over the lower town and the river Mondego. One of the buildings facing the courtyard is the library, an ornate Baroque building full of ancient leather-bound tomes. The main enemy of old books is insects, bookworms in fact, and the library has a unique means of controlling them - a colony of bats live in the building and come out at night to feed. The librarian has to cover the tables with cloths before closing, and removes them next morning, to protect the ancient wood from bat poo!
Like all old uni's it has its own bizarre customs. Instead of halls of residence the students live in communal houses called "republics". They wear long black capes and decorate these, and their briefcases, with ribbons denoting their faculty - blue for arts, red for law and yellow for medicine. At the end of the academic year they have a ceremony in front of the cathedral where they put the ribbons into cauldrons and set fire to them!
The original Roman settlement was called Conimbriga and is a few miles south of Coimbra itself. I have to confess that I'd never heard of it, but it must have been an important town as the ruins cover an extensive area and include some beautiful mosaic floors in an excellent state of preservation. Once again we had to admire the Romans' building skills. The site was very well presented, with an excellent museum, and as an added bonus entry was free because we happened to go on a national holiday, 25th April, the anniversary of Portugal's "Carnation Revolution"!
Another site nearby was the castle of Montemore-o-Velho, which looks so exactly like a castle should, it might have been a film set. There is very little left inside the battlements, but the whole place was beautifully maintained with green lawns, flowerbeds and a smart café.
From the walls there were views of the pleasant countryside about, some of which is used for rice paddies. Portugal seems to be a very fertile country (now we are out of that central plateau), much greener than Spain, with plenty of small-scale agriculture.
During our stay at Fig Foz I faced one of the problems of a protracted stay abroad - having to go to the hairdresser's! In the past John has suffered some rather bizarre haircuts, due to language problems. In the end we solved that difficulty by buying electric clippers, and they are so easy to use that I've managed to keep him looking presentable, despite my famous lack of manual dexterity. My own hair problem is not so easily solved, so I tend to put off getting it cut as long as possible, until it looks a fright. It wasn't a problem in Spain because the high percentage of expat Brits meant it was easy to find an English-speaking hairdresser, or indeed an actual English one, like the lovely Kenneth in Marbella. I realised that this is not likely to happen in northern Portugal or Spain, so I bit the bullet and made an appointment at a hairdresser in the local shopping centre. I can manage maybe a dozen words of Portuguese, none of them hair-related, and her English was pretty limited too, but between us we managed to communicate and I ended up with a reasonable, if alarmingly short, hairstyle. And it only cost 21 euros. With a bit of luck it won't need doing again until I'm back in England!
We've enjoyed our stay here - nice campsite, nice scenery and nice weather. We're about to move on to Porto, and rain is forecast again! If we have wet weather there we'll just have to take shelter in the numerous port wine lodges and drown our sorrows!