I don’t recall what I ordered that night. Sue and I did have a carafe of wine (they brought two for some reason, so we had a little more than one), still that has nothing to do with my lapse of memory. I can’t recall what I ate because it’s the people, stories and laughter I remember from that last night in Coimbra, not the food.
Coimbra is home to Portugal’s oldest and largest academic center, Coimbra University. The university was founded in Lisbon in 1290, about five hundred years before Harvard. It moved back and forth a few times but finally settled in the old Coimbra palace in 1537. And before it was a college town Coimbra was the capital of Portugal. But once Portuguese explorers started claiming chunks of Africa, China and South America for the crown and sailing home with ships full of gold the king decided to relocate to a port town, Lisbon.
The old city sits on the east bank of the Modego River and rain or shine you will see students racing across her waves in razor thin sculls. Flags snapped and skies rumbled as we crossed the bridge from Coimbra to Santa Clara. A sharp contrast to the day before when we sweated our way to the top of the bell tower and under clear skies looked out over red tile roofs, lush hills and a river that wiggled its way to the horizon. Green parks and tan beaches painted the river banks and perched about a mile up from the water on the Santa Clara side stood a massive steel and glass structure.
Sue and I spent two days wandering Coimbra’s twisting streets around the ancient hilltop campus, through medieval stone arches, and back down past souvenir shops, churches and the cathedral. Or what used to be churches, like the Cafe Santa Cruz where the holy water has been replaced by beer taps, the alter has been converted to a stage and the confessional is now the ladies room.
After an hour or so of slogging through steady rain we arrived at that mysterious steel and glass structure, it was a mall. Actually it was more like a city in a bell jar. It had retailers for shoes, clothing, jewelry, books, a food court, all the typical things you find in a mall. But it also had a huge grocery store with technicolor fruits and vegetables from Morocco, Africa and Egypt. It sold locally raised beef, pork and lamb, gangly octopus and bushels of claims and snails. Stacked on a ring of tables like plywood were stiff white planks of salted cod, each at least two feet long. Cod has been a staple of the Portuguese diet for centuries and is the traditional Christmas Eve meal. But since they’ve exhausted their waters of cod they now import it from Norway. After a couple of days of museums, historic sites and two stepping with tourist, a stroll through a modern mall filled with locals was invigorating.
By the time we crossed the bridge back into Coimbra the cafes were stacking chairs and turning out lights. Unlike the Spanish the Portuguese do not dine late into the night. We found a cafe that was still serving but their inside seating was a handful of tables and all were occupied. A man motioned us to go toward the back of the room. Wedged in a corner was the narrowest and grungiest spiral staircase I had ever seen. The gray cement surface was a mosaic of chips, pits and cracks, packed with something black, dirt. They looked more like stairs leading to a root cellar in Kansas than the second floor of a restaurant. We stared at the retched structure for a minute then noticed customers pointing their fingers upward, encouraging us to climb. They pointed and grunted but never spoke nor blinked their eyes, it felt a little creepy. I wondered where the stairs led and when the bell tower struck midnight if demented waiters would grab me. I imagined breaking free and racing down the spiral staircase but slipping on that last turn and my neck snapping like one of those dry Italian bread sticks you get two to a pack in European restaurants. It was a disturbing thought and a foul staircase but we were both hungry so we climbed.
The stairs led to a room with a blood red floor and six tables set with white butcher paper. Next to us sat a man in his twenties with two woman in their sixties or seventies, they were speaking Portuguese. The other tables were empty. Our waitress handed us menus, we asked if she spoke English. With a curtness that can surface at the end of a hard day she snapped, “No English”, then disappeared down the spiral staircase. A few minutes later another waitress approached with both her arms smothered in ink. It was unusual to see a Portuguese woman with so many tattoos. She smiled then in English asked if we had any questions. With her guidance and patience we placed our order.
The only other person to make it up the spiral stairs that night was the owner. He chatted in Portuguese with the table next to us for some time then turned our way and spit out a paragraph. I answered with a few Portuguese words followed by a stretch of English, then some pantomime and finished by raising my wine glass to the sky and flashing a toothy grin. The owner stood slack jawed for a moment, probably thinking he had just met that famous American, Forest Gump. Thankfully the young man at the table across from us stepped in to translate my jibber jabber. Within minutes we were all talking and laughing including the two older women, and the young man translated for all of us.
The translator was Brazilian who had been a student at Coimbra University a couple years ago.
“My grandmother always dreamed of seeing Portugal so I brought her and her friend here to show them the country and my old school.”
The owner was the same age as grandma, symmetric in height and width and bought the restaurant to have an audience for his stories, or so it seemed. He was also a proud alumnus of Coimbra University and told us how crazy the students are during the Queima das Fitas,“Burning of the Ribbons”. The festival begins on a Friday in May at the end of spring term. In a black cauldron seniors burn colored ribbons that denote their area of study. Then a parade erupts full of floats and students in their collegiate uniform. For women that’s a white blouse with black shoes, skirt and tie. For men it’s a black suit and tie with a white shirt and both drape themselves with a heavy black wool cape, just like Harry Potter did at Hogwarts. The parade lasts for hours, music groups play throughout the city day and night and juniors sell beer to raise money for their parade next year. Seniors standout like peacocks in their bright top hats and walking canes which match the color of their ribbons. They hug friends, kiss sweethearts, take selfies and enthusiastically support the junior class’s fund raising project. And the “Burning of the Ribbons” is not just for the twenty thousands students of Coimbra University, people throughout Europe come to join the eight day party.
The owner also described an event that sounded similar to the running of the bulls in Pamplona, Spain. It involved students doing dumb things on bulls with sharp horns and ambulances racing through town carrying the best and brightest, bloodied and broken. But despite the chaos the students cause each year he was happy to have them as neighbors. In fact according to him it was a group of Coimbra students that were essential in chasing Napoleon’s army out of Portugal. Our translator balked at that claim initially but it was late so he softened his response to just rolling his eyes as he converted the words from Portuguese to English.
The story telling lasted an hour or so then we all followed the owner down the spiral staircase. The first floor was silent, the customers had disappeared and the cooks, waitresses and dishwasher were all lined up behind the counter eager to disappear also. But they looked happy not upset, even the waitress that snapped “No English” had a sparkle. As we waited for the translator to pay his bill the woman with the tattoos asked where we were from and why we were in Coimbra.
“We live on the west coast of America and came to hike the Camino.”
With that her face lite up. “Oh! I walk Camino two years ago. Very special in my heart. It is the best thing I do in may life. I love being with all the people.”
Sue and the waitress continue to talk while I moved forward. I handed the owner our ticket, pulled twenty Euros from my pocket then reached for my wallet.
That’s when the owner shook his head and waved his left hand as if to push me away. “No”, he said. “Twenty OK. No mais.”
He was as firm about under charging us as he was about Coimbra students driving Napoleon from Portugal. As I pushed open the door to leave I turned and said, “Thanks for a great dinner.” The owner and his staff responded with waves and a “Bom Caminho”. That’s what I remember.