July 19 2008
Up in the morning at our residencial, and once again it seems that we are the only ones at breakfast. We quickly polish off our plates and empty our glasses, because this is a big day. We have placed three different cities on our itinerary: Batalha, Alcobaca, and Obidos. I have calculated around a 1 hour drive from city to city. However, we first must complete our main site in Coimbra, Velha Universidade.
The old university is a quick drive through the town, making several rights and lefts to get us to the top of the hill. We parked at the new section of the university which is very stark. You can tell this was built under the countries only fascist regime. The 20 foot tall statues on the corners of the buildings look like something out of an old superman comic. Solid stone, hard set determination in the faces, and straight lines. There is nothing soft about these figures.
We continue across the quad and pass through the original palace doorway. What a difference a few hundred feet can make. We are now standing in the 13th century courtyard of the old university, whose first 300 years were as the royal palace. We are all drawn instantly to the library façade. Joseph breaks out the camera and starts snapping away photos of the building. In contrast, I take my camera out and locate it on the base of the statue facing the library. Once adjusted I collect our group for a photo. It is funny, because I remember when I was first traveling and I took tons of photos of stuff. Eventually I realized you can buy the pictures you want, but you cannot add yourself to them afterwards. I guess this aside has to do with the similarity between my son and me.
The Library is limited to the number of people admitted and you are given an entrance time. We only had to wait 10 minutes for our admission time. You always feel special when you are given a building all to yourself to explore. We were the only ones admitted for the 9:20 time slot. The three of us moved slowly through the extensive room, with some 20,000 volumes on the walls and admired this hall dedicated to the written word. The building has housed these volumes since the 17th century, and still is not using modern technology to regulate the facility. This is because it was so well designed originally. The 6 foot thick stone walls only allow a 4 degree Celsius shift in temperature. Insects are kept away due to the oak wood that is used, which has a natural odour that repels those insects harmful to books. This system has an additional feature, in that bats reside in the library and at night make their rounds sweeping the room clean of any potential threats. Joseph spent a lot of time trying to locate the bats roosting areas.
The rest of the tour went well, but it seemed dull in comparison to the library. Imagine calling 16th century hand painted tiles, 17th century ceiling frescos, and 18 century hand crafted furniture dull. We made our way to the car all expressing the same thing, the library was worth the entire visit to Coimbra. In the car we aimed our car at the signs marked N1/IC1 Lisboa. This is a rural highway and not the superhighway. We have only used the superhighway on our longest stretches of road, or when we have gotten lost.
Batalha jumps out at you as you are driving the N1, you do not need signs to tell you when you have reached the town. There is nothing taller than 2 stories in the town, which makes this monastery an impressive structure. Bob does not recall if he has ever seen spires and flying buttresses with sculpted “spikes”. We do our usual roundabouts until we reach the parking lot. Since we are returning the car in a day, and we have parked next to recycle bins, we do a quick sweep of the car to clean out plastic water bottle (10) and papers (barely any). On our walk to the monastery, Bob spots a cyber café, and we decide to lunch there after our visit. We seem to do our visits in reverse. Our first stop was the Capelas Imperfeitas (unfinished chapels). It seems that I use this phrase a lot during our journey, but nonetheless, this site was breathtaking. I have not seen such ornate stonework. Bob thinks that the fact the chapel was not finished and that it stands under the sky makes it even more spectacular. I would like to have scene it completed considereing the mass of the columns which were reaching upward into the sky. The chapels first interruption came when the stonemasons where moved to Belem to construct the chapel of Manual I in that monastery. That was the last real work done to the chapel. We all spent a great deal of time examining the intricate carvings and getting stiff neck from looking up.
The café was simple, and I fumbled my way through Portuguese once again to get our meals ordered. We uploaded our last couple of journal entries, and checked e-mail. Then off we went once again. This time our destination was the monastery at Alcobaca. We continued down the N1. A much more stoic structure with quite a bit less embellishments. This was a true cisterian monastery, which only stopped operating in the late 19th century. A wonderful example of unspoiled gothic architecture. Massive columns reaching heavenward with a simple rib vaulted ceiling. No ornate frescos or woodwork in gilded with gold. Simply smooth stones creating an impressive interior conducive to religious meditation. This location makes the two tombs of Dom Pedro I and Ines de Castro stand out even more. For all of you interested, this was the Romeo and Juliet of Portugal, with a royal twist and a good does of revenge. Both tombs are beautifully decorated with ornate carvings of the bible. Joseph really liked sculptures of the 6 men under Ines de Castros whose back the tomb rests on. We toured the building, and it was a great adventure. The incredible large kitchen with 2 story fume hood. The 2nd story dormitories and the cloister with orange trees still producing fruit. You really got a since of how the monks communed together.
While we talked about the shear magnitude of the building, and tried to calculate how many monks lived there, we walked to a café for ice cream. When refreshed by the frozen goodness of Nestle, we resumed our journey. Next stop Obidos. About an hour into the drive, I wondered why we had not reached Obidos. A quick look at the map, told me I had shifted us onto the N1/IC2, rather than the N1/IC1 and were headed west instead of east. Some map work and a little back tracking helped us locate the Superhighway. We wanted to backtrack quickly, because it was 4 o’clock, and we wanted to secure lodging. Driving into Obidos was no problem, although parking was another issue. With the number of cars, throngs of people, and police directing traffic, we felt that we had stumbled across tourist central. When we stopped in the tourist office to ask about lodging, she informed us that it might be hard considering it was the annual medieval fair. Joseph and I both said awesome, Bob groaned. Bob said fairs mean crowds and hi prices. Well the tourist office called and found a place with a room, but she could not secure it. We made a dash to the bank machine, back to the car, and then zipped to the residencial. Our hopes were shattered. In that short amount of time, the manager had rented out the only two rooms he had remaining. Oh well, back to the tourist office. The new suggestion was to travel to Peniche which was about 10 miles away. We were supposed to take the IP6, and instead took N114. That’s OK, because I enjoyed the drive. Bob was worried about lodging; Joseph was counting down to the tournament start time in the back seat.
Peniche ended up being a coastel resort town that was huge. However, it’s tourist office closed an hour before we got there. So we turned around and fought traffic all the way back to where we got off the IP6. Luck was on our side, because Bob spotted a residencial sign when we got off the freeway going into a town. One time around the circle and we found the sign and made our way to the residencial. Cheapest place the whole trip. 35 euro a night for the three of us. Of course we had to negotiate in Portuguese, because the owner only spoke Dutch, French, and Portuguese. What’s this world coming to :-) We quickly unloaded our bags and jumped back into the car. The drive back to Obidos was much more lively, spirited, and quick. This time we had to park out past the aquaduct. We had our tickets in hand and were into the festival 20 minutes after we parked.
This was a great experience. Imagine being in a walled medieval city with people dressed in period clothes, smoke billowing from grills, a touring drum group, archers, artisans, jugglers, knights, maids in waiting, a king, jousting, sword play, a market, and anything else associated with a fair. It was great. We watched the games, which we were about 15 minutes late for, so we just missed the joisting. Joseph however got a very good seat on the hill. He blazed a path through holly bushes and climbed a tree to video tap and photograph the tournament. When the event ended, around 10, we headed to the Taverna Real. This was quite authentic, considering the building was an old chapel from the 14th century, and had no electricity. The room had candle lighting on the walls and some chandeliers. The people stuffed inside made it stuffy and hot. After about 15 minutes of waiting, a beer, and an aperitif of love potion, we were able to sit down at a table were 6 other people were already eating. Anna, our maid, came by and explained everything on the menu to us in english. Bob ordered sausages, I had chorizo, and Joseph ordered blood pudding (because Anna said it was her favorite). We also shared some form of beans, rice, bread, and seasonings. A pitcher of water and a pitcher of beer were also ordered.
Sometime during dinner we began to talk to our neighbors, Sarah and Miles. Londoners on a two week holiday. What a great experience. They were both seasoned travelers. We spent the evening talking about the fair, laughing, and sharing travel stories. When the evening was over it was 1:30 and we had spent all of it at the tournament and the tavern. As we walked to the car we decided that after we walked the walls in the morning we would go back to the fair for lunch and the market. Arriving at the residencial in Peniche, everyone fell into bed and went off to sleep.