I had a few questions milling around in my head on the journey to Sintra to collect the motorhome. What is the rest of Portugal like and do we want to live there? What are the people like and will they like us? What will we find in Porto – a port? some port? the point? But the biggest question was ‘will we lose the 1500 euro security deposit on our huge grown-up rental motorhome?’ Six days later, by the time we returned the van, I realised I had mostly been asking the wrong questions…
We had to listen to a long winded video with fly-through animations about how to operate our motorhome. It went on and on with happy holiday music. It got tedious. By the time it got to how to change the gas bottle I was already bored by how to empty the toilet. How hard could it be? Little did we know that it would take over two more hours to be shown around the tiny ‘home’ and to examine scratches, test every window and practice opening and closing the special fridge. It was basically like the dutch barge I used to live in with Daisy, but with wheels and fake wood effect surfaces instead of turquoise and gold walls. It was cumbersome and less than nippy when we finally got on the road. I was glad Scott was driving.
We slept that night in a sideways howling Atlantic gale shuddering the van and whistling around our ears. But we woke up to a freshly sun-tinted beach with brown and purple shadows lying across grassy dunes. I pulled back the net curtain and peered through the plastic window at the unchanging ancient morning of adventure. This is what must have made the Portuguese want to set off across the great windswept unknown ocean.
Afew hours later I woke up in the motorhome bed again (it’s not allowed so don’t do it), as we a lurched around a roundabout. We were attempting to park up to look at Coimbra, a university town I had never heard of, and suddenly there were two policeman gesticulating and shouting at us . I caught the word ‘grave’ (graaav) which I assumed meant ‘grave’. We pulled over. Apparently, somehow, we had been in the wrong lane facing oncoming traffic. Scott kept his cool (had he done this before in the old Manchester days…?) as they did good cop bad cop at us repeating the word ‘grave’. We apologised in our best English tourist accent and allowed them to direct us to a safe bus park for ‘vans like ours’ where we parked with all the other well-behaved campervans and motorhomes.
We follow the steep cobbled streets. But they are not quaint. When I go to Venice it is magical, but it is also fossilized into a town-sized museum. It is like a memory. The surface with the inner life gone – probably away from the tourists like me. This is real, with graffiti and dogs and fag ends – this has derelict buildings showing their tired faces to the students and dogs. Here is a squat church in a stone square, and still the streets wind higher to what I can only imagine is a collection of cobbled, high buildings. Up and up. It reminds me of somewhere, these wiggly, uneven streets, but I can’t place it. Incredibly, a bus squeezes past us. We see signs with blocked Latin script on them and pass a nondescript little road called Confucius Drive (rough translation). We realise we must be getting near the university. A man with a clever face walks past us, crossing the road ahead. Another sign. I watch him as he walks away. He is a curve in space, with a cigarette hanging, and dark-stoned light glances around him in silhouette. He is followed by a dog. We climb up some steps, which are unexpectedly the last ones, and slip into dazzling light. We both gasp in surprise. It is like when you emerge into the soaring stained-glass of the Sainte Chapelle in Paris. There is a colossal white paved quad stretching away from us. A towering Henry 8th statue with a ruff glares down at us, owning the sky, with a precipitous drop away over the town behind him. The other three sides of the square are surrounded by ancient august buildlings with elaborate carvings. This is Coimbra University – like a university from a fantasy, high up, in the sky. Like the university we all thought we would go to one day to learn Latin and Classics. Where we would lounge around reading metaphysical poetry to each other for fun. Ornate, monumental doorways speak of dark ideas and ancient alchemy. I cannot imagine what they lead to. Dusty scholars’ offices? immense tiered lecture halls? A gateway to the underworld? I stare around me and across the wide hilltop expanse and three black-caped, sunglasses-wearing, smiling young men are coming towards me, waving and calling ‘Ola!’ They are slick and made of sunlight and shade and wear their sweeping robes like they confer mystical skills. One has a neat dark beard, one a toothy smile and the third just laughs knowingly. They are a moment caught in time. But they stride past me across the quad, swirling their black capes. I realise I must be in Hogwarts University. That was why it felt familiar yet strange. And in that moment, all I wanted to do was become a student here and learn how the universe operates – I was certain they knew. After all, they were at university…I made a mental note to force my daughter Daisy to do a PHD in Quantum Physics here, and to let me live in her room and watch out the window.
All the photographs I took of the strangest university, mysteriously disappeared from my camera. I have only the ones before and after. Here is a photo from the internet of how I imagine Daisy’s graduation from Coimbra University will be when they are singing the university song… and another of three alternative students…
We wanted to sleep in the wild…so we followed a special camper app to the walled National Forest of Bucaco, to drive up a winding road under hideously loud scraping trees (we both made screeching faces but didn’t stop). We didn’t once pay for camping in Portugal – it had country-sized Manc skills. It was dark when we stopped and we were alone near a wall with an archway in it. Cold clouds weaved around and we ventured into the brooding forest to explore. Our torches made no impression in the gloom and I could hardly see my hands. It felt very very secret in there. I had read there was an old gothic palace hidden in the middle and that the whole forest used to be an ancient monastic retreat. Maybe tomorrow…
We scurried back into the warmth of the fake teak motorhome interior and put all the lights on. Scott made me a pink gin and tonic as I was trying new things. Would pink gin be very different from not-pink? I sat reading my book drinking my pink gin in the surprisingly varied lighting of the motorhome. It had mood lighting, activity lighting, bedside lighting and kitchen lighting. All in a space about 2 by 5 metres with no walls. I could tell Scott was loving it – the tiny bathroom and the way the drivers seat swung round to be a comfy armchair-cum-dining chair-cum- driving chair. I had always sneered at motorhome travellers – what was wrong with a beaten up camper and no shower? But I kind of got it in Portugal, and was glad of the small bathroom, safe from the midnight trees.
We went for an early morning walk in the forest – it was rather less frightening but still mysterious and deathly quiet. The morning leaves breathing in green – like they knew something we didn’t. A motley brown dog followed us. He may have belonged to a motorhome that had arrived during the night. He may have been the one following the clever man in Coimbra; a stowaway. Or he may have been another stray Scott had picked up – I think they smell him. He is always saying how deeply he is connected to nature and how much crows love him. This dog refused point blank to leave us – he out-stared us. So we plunged deep into the foliage and dared him to follow. We found ancient buildings that must have been built as follies or places for monks to hang out in. There was sacred mineral water, which bubbled up here into the moss. It was chilly and quiet, so we walked fast, and then we came out from the trees, to see the palace suddenly appear whitely in the early sun. It had intricate decorations, gargoyles and angels. I felt like we were in an Agatha Christie novel. Who were the only two guests in the palace hotel? Why was that dog following us? Why did I come on holiday in the dead of winter with no gloves?
We turned back through the watchful forest to set off for Porto, followed by the silent brown dog.