A BAR OF SOAP reminded me of our first visit to Portugal. I am looking at a small, round piece of soap sealed in a transparent package labelled “Hotel Oslo”, which we would never have acquired had I not been a victim of pick pocketers on a tram in Lisbon. We had only been in Portugal for about four hours when we took a ride on a picturesque old-fashioned tram (route 28) in the Portuguese capital. I was on the point of taking a picture of a sign that told passengers to beware of pick pocket thieves when I became one of their victims. Amongst the valuables that were stolen from me was my driving licence.
Losing the licence was a disaster as we were planning to hire a car to visit several country places in Portugal. Without the licence, the car hire company was unwilling and unable to lend me a vehicle, but it was good about refunding the money we had paid. We decided that we would attempt to carry out our plans using public transport.
The first place on our itinerary was to have been a farmhouse in small rural place, whose name I do not remember, east of Coimbra. We travelled by train from Lisbon to Coimbra, which has two railway stations in the centre of the city. We discovered that there was a railway line from Coimbra to a spot near our planned destination. When I say “near”, it was really about half an hour’s taxi drive from where we were to stay. After lugging our baggage through the rain about 1000 yards from the station, where the Lisbon train arrived, to the other station from which we were about to depart, we ‘phoned the accommodation to which we were heading. They told us that they did not provide food, not even breakfast, and that the nearest restaurant was about half an hour’s drive from them. As we had no car and were planning to spend three days there, we began to worry how we would survive so far away from any supply of food.
Our next train was not due to depart for another two hours. I decided to walk back to the centre of Coimbra to see whether there was a hotel where we could stay instead of heading out into the ‘wild’. I rushed through the rain and found the Hotel Oslo, which had space for us and did not seem unreasonably priced. After reserving a room, I dashed back through the rain to the rest of the family, who were waiting on the platform. These were the days before we had more than one mobile ‘phone in the family, so I had to reach them to tell them about the Oslo instead of phoning them. Using our one ‘phone, we rang the rural accommodation and explained our plight. They were helpful in that they cancelled our booking gracefully and without cost.
Although not a de-luxe hotel, the Hotel Oslo was solidly built and extremely comfortable. It was located close to most of the sights in Coimbra, a place that had not been on our original itinerary. We spent four pleasant days in this delightful university city, and we were fortunate that, by chance, we were in the city at the time when the university students were starting a new academic year. By day and by night, we encountered groups of boisterous, happy students wandering about the city dressed in traditional capes.
Had my driving licence not been stolen, I know that we would never have stayed in Coimbra and that we would have missed seeing one of the loveliest places that we have so far visited in Portugal. As people say, every cloud has a silver lining. Although I was deprived of a lot of cash, I gained the pleasure of spending time in a wonderful place and witnessing some age-old traditions that added to our fondness of a country that we have grown to love.
The Hotel Oslo was, when we visited it, an old-fashioned style of hotel even though the 20th century building that housed it did not look archaic. Some years after staying there, we spent a couple of nights in the Hotel Mandovi in Panjim, Goa (India). This hotel had been built in 1952 by the Portuguese while they ruled Goa as a colony. It was built to coincide with the Pope’s visit to the Tenth Exposition of the relics of St Francis Xavier, which are kept in Goa. They are ceremoniously displayed once every ten years, subject to the discretion of the authorities who keep them in the Basilica of Bom Jesus in Old Goa. Although the Mandovi looks much older than the Oslo, they both have high standards of service and comfort that are old-fashioned in the best sense of the term. I am not sure whether we have kept any soap from the Mandovi as a souvenir, but you never know, one day we might find we have one lurking about somewhere in our home.
I too have fond (but faded) memories of Coimbra, where I stayed for two nights in March 1963 on my bicycle tour of Spain and Portugal. From Coimbra, I rode on to Celorico da Beira, and from there back across the border into Spain.