'Bridges over quiet waters'
The Weekend Australian Travel & Indulgence 4 March 2017

Cruising Coimbra’s River of Poets offers time for quiet reflection

by Kerrin O'Sullivan

The moment I hear the evocative name the locals use for their river, O Rio dos Poetas, it sounds so romantic that I just have to book a 50-minute boat trip along this so-called River of Poets, the Mondego. It courses through historic Coimbra in central Portugal, the country’s former capital,the birthplace of six kings and the seat of the oldest university.

The late-afternoon light glints golden on the river as we descend stone steps to board O Basofias, a motorised barge built in France specifically to sail the Mondego. “Bem vindo a bordo!” crackles the skipper’s welcome over the PA. With a whiff of diesel and a honk that sounds oddly like a clown’s hooter, we are away. Little waves from our wake slap the quay and Portuguese songs of love and longing ebb from a speaker.

We chug alongside the banks of Baixa de Coimbra, the city’s historic centre, and now a vibrant warren of winding, cobbled lanes filled with churches, cafeterias and a perplexing array of shoe shops. We pass the genteel Hotel Astoria, all faded 1920s grandeur. Then we chug beside Coimbra’s lovely railway station, with its terracotta-tiled roof and giant clockface, and a backstreet cafe where we ate last night, delighting in its rustic menu. Black pork? Wild boar with beans? Spoiled for choice, we opted for a stew of young goat in red wine.

Afterwards, in search of wine and song, we’d wandered through the Arco de Almedina, the 12th-century gateway to the old city, wheezing our way up a steep stepped passage (aptly translated as Backbreaker Street), which opens up into a maze of narrow alleys. The reward for our cramping calves? An atmospheric fado club in a smoky 14th-century stone chapel, and sweetly melancholy folk songs sung a capella by black-caped students.

Through the barge’s windows, we gaze up towards Alta where the historic upper town forms a crescent around Alcacova hill, and where a Roman aqueduct still stands. Two cathedrals, Se Velha and Se Nova, lie in the shadow of the prestigious university perched on the top of the hill. Also up there is the Baroque Biblioteca Joanina, Portugal’s oldest library and famous not only for its three storeys of ancient tomes but for the colony of bats that live in the walls and protect the collection by emerging nightly to feast on paper-eating insects, the papyrophagi.

Our boat carves a rippled V on the river’s surface and at Ponte Acude, where the weir doubles as the spawning habitat for the Lamprey eel we spied earlier on ice at Coimbra’s covered market, we turn about. On the opposite bank, high above the Mondego, the monastery of Santa Clara comes into view; this designated National Monument also houses the magnificent gothic tomb of Queen Isabel, circa 1330.

We slide under the Pedro e Ines footbridge, named for one of Portugal’s greatest love stories and designed to give the visual effect of two displaced halves. My guidebook fills in the gaps — Pedro, Crown Prince of Portugal, was to wed Queen Constance of Castile, but instead fell in love with Ines de Castro, the queen’s lady-in-waiting, and embarked on a clandestine relationship that bore four illegitimate children. When King Afonso IV sent assassins to kill Ines in 1355, she was stabbed to death on the riverbank. Like the bridge’s illusory failure to join as one, the star-crossed lovers were fated never to be together.

I close my guidebook, the story lost in the peace of the river, in rippling eddies of silken water. As we disembark back at Coimbra it dawns that since the captain’s welcome, there has been no commentary during our cruise, only that soundtrack of Portuguese love songs. How poetic.

© 2017 Kerrin O’Sullivan