|Flag of Coimbra|
I realized I’ve drawn out my three week vacation in France and Portgual to three months of blog post (which are summarized so far here and here). And I’m sad to say, I’m also at the end of recounting my trip.
|Quinta das Lagrimas, Dom Pedro and Ines de Castro’s hideaway in Coimbra|
Alyson and I had planned to see the famous monastary Batalha, as a day trip from Coimbra, but on our last day, we woke up to gloomy skies. We ate breakfast, thinking perhaps things would pass, but instead everything seemed to be taken over by a filmy gray mist, which, when going oustide, felt like spider webs brushing against our skin.
|Students Perform Regional Music|
One of the things that I liked particularly about Coimbra was the abundance of restaurants that offered traditional food at extremely reasonable prices that was of excellent quality. I think if I had been more of an unseasoned traveler, I might have been taken aback by the stripped down places that often had very simple tables, rarely with any kind of table cloth, paper or otherwise, the chairs set up to watch the tv in the corner of the room. It took Alyson and me awhile to realize that we didn’t have to sit side by side–I had read in my guidebook that no matter how upscale a Portuguese restaurant, there is always a tv and they will not turn it off, even if you ask. Surprisingly, the one decoration in the room, besides the tv, was one or several walls covered in azulejos, the blue and white Portuguese tile.
As for the meals, we often just ordered whatever was the special of the day–the translation of the menus often leading us to a state of confusion–Alyson’s dictionary translated “Jardinera mista” as “Mixed Dungarees” (the British term for overalls)–the restaurant was out of whatever it was, but we later learned it was a stew-like plate of assorted meats and vegetables.
Our typical dinners were pretty extravagant affairs. Portuguese main dishes often serve two, but a combination of worrying whether it would be enough and not having to worry too much about prices at these local joints, we would order two main courses. Then there would be soup or salad, bread and olives (although anything that arrives at your table is not free–you have to pay for what you eat, including butter, which often cost 10 cents). And of course, a carafe of wine. This would usually come out to about 15 to 20 Euros total, depending on how crazy we got.
By the end of the main course, we would be pretty stuffed, but having been a source of amusement for the waitstaff, usually the owner or the family, they would insist we have dessert. This ranged from cake to various layered puddings to a cup of fresh fruit. Or something that was translated as “cookie cake.” The best was a cake like custard, that I sadly didn’t get the name of, although I think Alyson wrote it down, which was a regional speciality of Coimbra. We think it was something served during Easter season, the Portuguese loving their seasonal desserts. When Alyson asked the owner what the cake was, he told her to come with him. He took her back to the kitchen and pulled out a heavy ceramic dish from the refrigerator. One of the cooks raised his fingers to his lips and kissed them with a good smacking sound. “Very good, very good,” he said. She was sold.
The first night we were in Coimbra, we went to a whole in the wall place, where we had a really nice tuna and white bean salad and a plate of cooked bacalhao, the Portuguese salted-cod. The next night we went to the churrasqueira (or grill) called Adega Paco do Conde (the one where we had the great custard cake) where I had plate of stewed veal with vegetables (you almost always get potatoes and some sort of green) and Alyson had grilled swordfish. We also had an excellent soup that was translated as something like “cream of seafood,” but was a creamy soup with pieces of fish and mussels.
The owner also suggested we get a red version of Vinho Verde, a light almost-sparkling white wine my old Portuguese roommate had introduced me to in college. It was the kind of wine that was perfect after a hot day, sitting on our porch. But the red was even nicer in someways–the sweetness balanced by an earthy tart undertone–the lightness still shining through.
After that, we decided to try Ze Manel, another Coimbra establishment, but we sat at an awkward table by the door and felt a bit harassed, seeing the line outside the door. Apparently if you arrived after 8pm, you wouldn’t be able to get a table. Little pieces of paper in a variety of languages covered the walls, ripped from the paper tablecloth. There was everything from sketches of the waitstaff to recommendations. We ordered Feijoada, a Brazilian bean stew, but it was mediocre at best. Alyson said she had had much better.
So after that one slightly disappointing meal, we decided to head back to Adega Paco do Conde, where the owner promptly recognized us and laughed at us when we wanted to know if they still had the same cake. This time we ordered a pot of Chanfana, which I had heard about being a traditional stew of the mountain region. I had no idea what it was made of, but it was excellent as well. I later looked it up and found out it was a goat stew made from red wine.
Then of course, there were all the different varieties of pastries we tried and the wondrous displays of Jordan almonds in every color possible in the bakery windows, nestled in among other Easter treats. But that will have to be a post unto itself.