by David Allan-Petale
The taxi driver who picked us up at Lisbon airport at the start of our Portugal travels gave us some friendly advice. He said: ‘Go to Algarve for the beach, Lisbon for culture, Oporto for wine and Coimbra for learning.’ Indeed.
Coimbra, in the central region known as the Beiras, hosts Portugal’s oldest university that gleams in the bright sun like a lighthouse. But it wasn’t the university’s ancient law, medicine or literature faculties that drew us to Coimbra… it’s also famous for its food.
To work up an appetite, so our tasting palates were in fine order, we explored the city starting with the university at the summit of the very steep Alcavova hill.
The sun was beating down on our pasty London complexions so we decided to use the hill’s gravity on the way down to our advantage and slipped into the Jardim Botanico, an oasis of plants, trees and flowers from across the world. The largest garden of its kind in Portugal, it seemed neglected and overgrown in parts although that’s its charm.
Night fell and our tummies were rumbling. We pulled out our map and got hopelessly lost in the tight alleys and streets looking for that special place to eat. We asked a few locals for directions and finally found ourselves at be taska, a small Portuguese restaurant with a blackboard for a menu and 10 seats. Carmen and I are always searching for places where we can eat genuine local food and try something unusual. As we discovered, a ‘taska’ is a small lounge bar that serves tapas style dishes with ingredients sourced from the region’s farms.
The time was 8pm – early for dinner by local standards – but the owners sat us down and explained the menu. We ordered a roasted chorizo, blood sausage with caramelised onions, pigs’ trotters in coriander sauce, fava beans in lard, roasted pimentos and a jug of sangria to wash it all down. Dessert was a flourless chocolate cake – very heaven!
Needless to say, the suspension on our hire car was groaning as we drove back to our guest house! We had seen so many amazing things that day and eaten such a delicious feast we were weary and didn’t see the exit on the highway was shut. Carmen is a fearless navigator though, and using a fair bit of dead reckoning she directed us back to Casa Morias in the village of Fornos, usually just ten minutes drive from the city…which this time round took one hour.
I needed a drink after all that stressful driving. Thankfully Casa Morais is owned by a family who make their own spirits and have a big selection of their hooch laid out for guests to sample. I tried a few and must say they were delicious, just the thing to take the edge off.
Our room was a delight with lots of storage space and a well appointed, modern bathroom. The house itself has two TV rooms and several reading rooms where guests can relax. There is also a garden and a breakfast nook where the owners serve a very generous morning meal. There’s no wi-fi in the rooms but there are lots of pamphlets and guidebooks showing what you can do in the area.
On our last night in Coimbra we went across the road to local restaurant Santos, which serves the region’s speciality – suckling pig (leitao). We ordered a plate to share with chips, a salad and a bottle of lip-smacking red wine. Dissecting this delicacy was the perfect way to graduate from Coimbra – Portugal’s city of learning.
Special thanks to Casa Morais for hosting us for two nights at a discounted rate.