This is my first time in Portugal and I’m really enjoying it. The country is a bit more “behind the times” when compared to Spain, but this makes no impact whatsoever on the richness of the architecture, history, or culture. Like Salamanca, Coimbra, Portugal is a university town that boasts the country´s oldest university, the University of Coimbra, which was built in 1290. The university itself sits atop a hill above old-town Coimbra. For the ambitious and physically fit (or for those who are just gluttons for punishment…which is the category I fall into), you can get to the university campus via a steep, narrow, cobblestoned road. St. Michael´s Cathedral (b. 1218) is on the way and has the trademark tilework inside for which Portugal is well-known. Once we visited the university at the top of the hill, we started back down to old-town and were pleasantly surprised to come upon what appeared to be a monastery with an old underground Roman city beneath its foundations. We followed the little Roman ´streets´ and saw where the Romans bought and sold food goods, where the sun peered through the stone walls to light the underground city, and the many Roman arifacts that were recovered from the site.
After Coimbra, we headed to Lisbon; however, not without stops to Batalha and Fatima, two small towns in Portugal. Batalha is so named because it was once the sight of a famous battle in the 1300s (batalha = ´battle´ in Portuguese). An amazing gothic monastery called the Monastery of Santa Maria Victoria was built upon the site in 1388 and is a gorgeous example of gothic architecture, complete with flying buttresses. Fatima, on the other hand, is famous for something entirely different. Though I could re-tell the story here, there are many recreations of the miracle at Fatima on the web, so if you’re interested, I would recommend ‘Googling’ it.
After a long day of stopping at these small, but memorable sites, we finally arrived in Lisbon, Portugal´s capital city. Though the city itself is quite old, much of it is relatively new because Lisbon experienced an earthquake followed by a tsunami in 1755 that destroyed two-thirds of the city. As a result, many of the buildings seen in Lisbon have been built since that time. However, one can still see ancient Moorish ruins that loom over the city (which were untouched by the 1755 disaster). Lisbon itself is a colorful place, partly due to the blooming Jacaranda trees that line the streets and spruce up the city with their purple flowers. The city center is a vibrating mixture of culture and people. On one particular evening, a celebration was going on in one square to honor Angola´s Independence Day (yes, that would be Angola, Africa), and in the next square there was an unrelated protest. Amidst all of this hubbub, a swarm of panhandlers and beggars pester city-goers for spare coins. This is sort of an ongoing theme in the trip thus far and is likely to get much worse as we head toward Africa.
Incidentally, I learned an interesting fact: cork comes from a tree called the ´cork oak.´ This probably sounds stupid to those who already knew that, but I always just assumed that cork was made up of myriad soft wood particles or some such thing. As it happens, cork is one of Portugal´s major exports and as you motor through the country, you can find many cork-oak forests. Apparently, professional harvesters can only harvest the cork once every nine years (any earlier and the cork isn´t thick enough); as a result, it is common to see cork oaks with a number on the tree that represents the last year it was harvested. Also of endless fascination to me is the number of products that can be made with cork. Not only are they used for wine bottles, but you can buy cork purses and shoes here that feel almost like leather. Wild.