When I travel I am always looking for that one place that will beckon me to stop moving and stay a little longer. It’s usually a small town, void of ‘hop-on hop-off’ buses or Michelin-rated restaurants, just something about the people that makes you slow down and pause. In Italy it was a place called Bevagna, in Mexico it was Mazunte and in Portugal it was Coimbra.
The country’s former capital is home to the oldest university and has a mind-blowing library with an outstanding rare books collection, including several versions of The Bible form the 14th century. One of the biggest “enemies” of the books is, apart from the humidity and temperature differences, the moths that feed on paper. The bookcases are made of oakwood which, apart from being extremely dense (making it difficult for the bugs to penetrate), has a scent that repels them. The books have yet another ally in this daily fight for conservation: the interior of this book temple houses a colony of bats which spend the night eating any insect that appears, thus freeing the books from their attack.
The Machado de Castro Museum was stunningly beautiful and while I usually tire quickly of religious art these pieces were so breathtaking that they seemed to transport you to another time, they beckoned silence and awe. The museum is built over a Roman crypt that you can visit- cool underground tunnels and arches.
During my stay I had the privilege of participating in a private cooking workshop at the Escola de Hotelaria e Turismo. I inquired at my hotel and the owner went above and beyond in making this happen. I arrived at the school and was welcomed by the administrator and introduced to Chef Emanuel and his students Raquel and Rita. Chef explained the dishes we would be preparing; duck rice, octopus, bacaloa (cod), pork, Portuguese gazpacho, lemon rice pudding… just to name a few. We worked in the commercial kitchen of the cooking school- all gleaming stainless steel and lots of space. The duck rice was phenomenal- rice that is cooked with duck stock and served with shredded roasted duck meat. The tender octopus was served with oven-roasted smashed potatoes and topped with a few splashes of olive oil and sea salt. The rice pudding dessert was the perfect amount of sweetness and the creaminess contrasted perfectly with the bright lemon flavor. All served with delicious wine of course. Beyond the food, I loved the chance to talk with Raquel and Rita and to learn more about their lives in this region and what they hoped to do once they finished school.
Hands down this was the highlight of my journey!
Where to stay in Coimbra: http://www.theluggagehostel.com/en/Utilities/Homepage.aspx