If a regular reader, you may recall a certain friend and mentor in Portuguese matters, ‘Tia Filomena’, who – as I pen this piece on the way home from a wonderful weekend in Coimbra – just fixed me up with a classic Bacalhau a Brás, the perfect send-off after a superb weekend in the heart of Portugal.
I am on a regional train, on the tracks of the Linha do Oeste, which will wing me home from this country’s academic capital, an interesting contrast to the coach that delivered me Friday afternoon. Both modes of transport have their attractions and advantages, but it’s a bonus to be stretching out a little as I put fingers to laptop, reflecting on the deep and vibrant character of Coimbra.
I’m the Englishman, and Bobby O’Reilly the Irishman, in case you hadn’t guessed, and it was always going to be risky meeting him in Murphy’s Irish Bar on the opening night of the filming that we do every month, showcasing the love we have for this country and its culture at a different monthly location.
Surprised by his choice of an ‘imperial’ (or should it be a ‘fino’ in this neck of the drinking woods?), I later came to understand that he was using me as a guinea pig, before he would commit his Irish lips to the ‘mother’s milk’, so far away from home. Suffice to say, he baulked at the prompt delivery of my velvety beverage, leaving me to enjoy it in my own, more forgiving, and delighted way.
As much as I enjoyed a dark and rich start to this particular Good Morning Portugal! Discovery Weekend, the search for the ‘Best Guinness in Portugal’ continued for ‘himself’, as a soundchecking drummer at these student-oriented premises had us running for quieter cover.
Down the hill and towards the city’s Mercado and presently festive lanes, we chanced upon a traditional restaurant, tucked behind the Jardim da Manga, where we and our first culture-seeking comrades tucked into some reassuringly reliable classics of the Portuguese table; for me grilled sea bass with obligatory and spot-hitting cabbage and boiled potatoes.
What I thought was a leite-creme (selected from an abundant and crowd-pleasing dessert tray), but wasn’t, later went down beautifully with coffee and dessert wine. Enjoying great conversation with ‘GuMPers’ (Good Morning Portugal! community members) Amy and Greg, whilst also catching some footy action on the cafe screen, we had truly arrived.
Relaxed and in position for a varied and enriching schedule, it occurred to me that I should perhaps check in to my hotel, the cutting-edge concept accommodation that boasts no TV or windows – Zero Lodge.
With reception momentarily unstaffed, Senhor O’Reilly and I headed up an impressive red spiral staircase for the buzzing roof-top restaurant and bar that crowns this venue, Bixos, where guests can savour a Mondego River view … and take a drink, as we thought it rude not to do.
He hadn’t succumbed to the earlier Guinness temptation, but I suspected, quite rightly, that an Irish whiskey might be another level of irresistibility for Bobby, and two tumblers of Four Roses were soon in our hands, as we nodded approvingly at the popular and niche-creating spot in which we now found ourselves.
Conversation turned to my choice of hotel, where again I discover that the Irishman is seeing me as a guinea pig, keen to see how I might fare sleeping in a ‘box’ in the way we have heard about in Japan or a post-apocalyptic scenario. It’s at this point that I too am not so confident about my choice of accommodation, but it’s now too late and I try once more to check-in.
Gifted with a cold beer and digital key fob, I am pointed first into an Escher-esque chamber of ramps that lead to the modular cabins stacked both sides of these visually stunning ‘common parts’. A heavy wooden door, a first clue about the room’s excellent soundproofing, swings towards me to reveal an entirely timber cabin, albeit rendered in a most modern way. Floor, walls and ceiling are all a calming dark stain finish, contrasting smartly with brilliant white linen, and accented by hidden strip and helpful spot lighting.
The door closes with a reassuring, snug swish, taking just enough of the ambient soundscape away without causing sensory deprivation. It’s simple without being stark, and beckons me, pleasantly fragranced with Irish alcohol and cigar fumes from the terrace, where my weekend co-pilot and co-star have enjoyed a very pleasant first evening.
Regaining consciousness next morning, the ‘box’ has clearly made for a good night’s ‘kip’, a word my father often used to describe deep sleep, and I am ready, albeit still slightly bemused by this very different approach to accommodation, to step out into Coimbra’s Baixa in search of breakfast, colleagues and culture.
The December cold and grey do their best to mask this city’s aged splendour but fail. My love of this place goes back a few years and easily transcends the temporarily dull climate hanging over the municipal Mercado that I am about to enter.
Hidden, just out of sight and beyond the drab, a distinctly Portuguese buzz greets me that transforms a subdued Saturday morning into an all-of-life-is-there sense of community, with added tinsel and baubles.
I meet my colleagues and plan the day of filming and mingling ahead, over comforting milky coffees and torradas (not toast!) drenched in butter (not margarine!). Brunch gives way to an interview with João Porto, reception manager back at Zero. A lovely man from the far north of Portugal, he shares with us the backstory and future plans of the ‘box lodge’ genre, which I, and the Irishman, are certain has a future at the very least in millennial and digital nomad hospitality.
With the first of our video footage in the virtual can, we go from Zero to Seven, Sete to be more precise, a superb number 7-themed restaurant, back in the Baixa. Highlights here for me, complementing the excellent company of GuMPers, are a leitão (suckling pig) pie with a pineapple chutney, and a pannacotta to finish, with its Moscatel wing-man.
With no time to waste, we next hot-foot it to a late, and somewhat risqué addition to our itinerary – Coimbra’s Museum of Erotic Art. Now I’m no prude, have a pre-existing British tendency for the smutty, and live near Caldas ‘novelty ceramic’ da Rainha, so I would claim: hard to shock. But I suspect there is no adequate preparation for this unique experience, where it’s hard to imagine more phalluses could be crammed into one place, that leaves everything AND nothing to the imagination, and includes some of Madonna’s used underwear for display purposes only. I hope.
This is the creation of, among others, one Jorge Fernandes who claims the “still prejudiced mentality of nationals means that the exhibition is visited especially by foreigners”, which in this case was true. There’s much more to say, and furthermore process (perhaps with the help of a therapist), about this experience, but I must, and kind of want to, move on.
With hasty and flustered additions made to the guest book, we catch an Uber across the bridge and head to the Santa Clara side of the Mondego to meet our principal interviewees of the day – João Calha and Marco Contente of the Epicura craft brewery. It’s here that an Englishman, an Irishman, and two Portuguese men walk into a bar, one actually owned by the local lads who are rightly proud of what they’ve created here.
Lights, camera, ACTION! are followed by a rousing “cheers, tchin-tchin and saúde!” as the Epicura founders tell us their origin story and introduce us to a room full of craft beer makers, fans and advocates, at the start of a heart-warming and belly-filling afternoon. It’s here that the science of beer meets the art of Portuguese hospitality and in what better city than this ancient European academic epicentre that has hosted the meeting of hearts and minds for many centuries?
American and Indian pale ales meet British porter influences here among Epicura’s current and passionately brewed eight offerings with an additional four guest ales.
What a delightful afternoon this was, that I hope you will see on a screen near you one day, where a local amateur brewer also showed up to share his distinctive ‘grape-beer’, alongside the professional brews that deserve global notoriety, should such fermentations travel well.
If they don’t, you can always come to them, and maybe join us as we return to Coimbra in January ‘24 at the invitation of Gustavo Rocha of the city’s Strong Beers Festival, who was also present, equally hospitable and charmingly welcoming. It must have taken me, Bobby and our film-maker Andy Cline all of a few seconds to respond, in eager anticipation of sampling more Epicura, and the output of fellow brewers including other craft legends Candal, Acor, Dois Corvos, Lovecraft and Maldita.
We could have stayed all day here in the welcoming bosom of Coimbra brewing, but the distant cry of Fado back up and beyond the Almedina gate was beckoning us across the river, and into the city’s highland heart for the nation’s soul music, Conimbricense-style, different to that of Lisbon Fado.
This was an aforementioned Filomena fixture, the kind only she can pull off with her impressive national network and outstanding passion for Portuguese culture. Here, at Fado ao Centro, we were enthralled by a private show with the sublimely gifted Dr. Farinha along with a virtuoso troupe of singers and stringed-instrument players. They wowed a new and different formation of Good Morning Portugal! GuMPers, drawn like culture-seeking iron filings to this powerful and deeply romantic magnet of an event, from way beyond town with Port wine to follow and an informal Q&A in the cobbled, high-walled yard of the Fado House.
This day had more memories and delights packed into it than the erotic museum had ‘graphic depictions’, and that’s a lot. I have too little space to elaborate further on the Korean sugary corndog moment or tell you about Sunday’s fabulous land train ride and its whistle-stop intro to Coimbra up and down town.
I will rely on the footage captured to share with you all the glory that was seen, enjoyed and lovingly recalled on this train journey home.
With Coimbra on my mind, I urge, actually demand – if I may – that you include it on your own Portuguese to-visit list – you will not be disappointed. In fact, I will actually go further and extend the invitation issued to us and suggest you come to January’s Strong Beers Festival, where we can wish you a ‘Happy New Beer’ in person, and do this all again!