Time defines our existence. Time is resilient as it accumulates and never collapses. Time is resistant as it only allows us to move forward. Time is generous as there is no restriction on how we should use it. Time is solitary as a moment, when we are at a standstill. Time is a psychologist who witnesses our pain and heals our soul. Time is a reliable and trustworthy consultant as it shows us the truth. Time is being.
I choose to have a respite at the beginning of each year, somewhere between the Chinese New Year and Valentine’s Day, going through the cleansing (mind and soul) process through a thermal spa experience, just to heal. Why thermal? Well, because it is natural and effective. This yearly ritual is both restrained and liberated, purifying and nourishing, serene and exciting; it is a way to hit the balance again after going through certain mundane matters.
Meandering between bloom and gloom during the spring season, in between Lisbon and Central Northwest region, being barely able to catch a fleeting sunlight during this period, I must say, was indeed a result of a discerning skill and a thrilling experience in itself. Adding to that was the fact that I was taking a train instead of a car this time because the unpredictable characters of what this country conjures could mean something unimaginable might happen any time on the road — at least, I would not want to run into fox on my very own, but then that is what makes the journey uncanny.
In general, taking trains in Portugal is nothing complicated and a comfortable experience. Unfortunately, the train network covering Northwest and Central regions is not that sophisticated, and you would not easily get to the Spa venue by train directly. For some of the locations, it would take you another hour of drive from the nearest train station, where you would not be able to find any single taxi either, unless you pre-book it. Alternatively, you may arrange a pick-up service provided by the Spa, which can ironically cost you more than a domestic flight ticket. If you have a few things in your agenda just like me: going solo, avoiding rain, and being an amateur on planning a fixed trip, it would be wise to prepare a more ingenious plan ahead, so to speak, to make a pleasant trip (and the Spa journey) possible.
It was quite sunny the morning I arrived in Lisbon, and the weather report indicated that it would turn rainy the days after. In the Northwest and Central region, the condition was in reverse. Therefore, I decided to go straight to Coimbra by train and stay one night in the historical and prestigious University City where I have never been to, before heading to the Spa I booked. The train journey to Coimbra was smooth and pleasant, and the accommodation that I chose to stay was right next to the train station, in a very old mansion. The room they put me in has a balcony view facing the main street, where the sunlight came in during the day. Otherwise, it was rather colourless and dark. The location of this mansion is strategic for a 24-hour stay, in a sense that, it is a block away from Mondego River, 3 minutes away from a big supermarket, 5 minutes away from the old town, and the University campus is less than 15 minutes walking distance from it. Everything important is within reach, and the train to my Spa will depart from the same station the next morning.
Founded in 1290, the University of Coimbra is one of the oldest in Europe; it is a classified World Heritage site by UNESCO. The way leading up to the University campus is not an easy way. Though it is a 15 minutes short walk, the steep slopes and the hundreds of staircases reminds me of the journey to Machu Picchu. Just to imagine-I had landed in Lisbon that morning after 14 hours flight time and now sometime around three in the afternoon, I was climbing one of the steepest flights in the world upon which I had never expected. During this rather physically heavy journey, I felt like my meditation journey began even before starting the Spa, on a virtue reflecting that the one who endures discovers treasure.
After this steep walk, I was reaching the vantage point, overlooking the city; strange thing happened — time seems intersecting in here. While I was being in one of the oldest higher education institutions in the world where the scenes of Harry Potter kept flashing back on my mind, it is where an adventurous journey of knowledge that never stops. This University represents a succession of 730 years of accumulated instances; 730 is a magic number not only represents the history of the University, but also the celebrating proof heralding the fact that it is always being at the cutting edge of the academic category. In the Global University Impact Rankings, which analyses the fulfilment of all the U.N. SDGs, the University of Coimbra is the best Portuguese institution and the only one in the world top 100, occupying the 62nd position among 766 institutions across the world. It was out of King Dinis’ decision to sign Scientiae Thesaurus Mirabilis to mark the beginning of it, and now a living miracle we witness in the 21st century. Time relays time. Time seems rather unreal here.
I went to the visitor’s office to get my pass. One of the representatives over there explained the navigation detail to me. As soon as he was finished, I told him it would not be possible for me to finish the tour just in 2 hours as the campus was quite big. He, on the other hand, assured me that I could come again tomorrow and finish the rest if I would like to, using the same pass — how flexible and futuristic thought that is.
The highlight of the whole tour, to me, must be that magnificent and beautiful library —Bibliotheca Joanina. Built in the 18th century, the library is of Baroque style. Simply appreciating it from a design perspective is a pleasure — it is a thoughtful piece. In the library, there are three great rooms divided by the arches designed by the Portuguese artists. The walls are covered by 2-story bookshelves framed in painted exotic wood (I saw the oriental symbols in some of them, and once again, reminding me of the worldliness of the Portuguese), where the ceiling was blended with decorative art. The exterior walls of the library are around 2.11 meters thick, and the door is made of teak. This allows the temperature to remain between 18 to 20 degree Celsius, which is a good temperature and humidity for keeping the good condition of the books; in this library, you can find rare and age of the documents and books dated from 16th century, whose majority represents the best collection from Europe at the time. The library hosts 250,000 volumes across different fields: medicine, history, geography, philosophy, history, humanistic studies, science, civil and canon law, and theology; the most organic (and innovative way) back then, was actually about the bats. Joanina Library is one of the world’s two libraries, which uses bats to protect the books from insects. Time gives an edge to intellectual honesty.
I was finding an alternative way to go back to the old town, which turned out to be a bit more spiral and less steep. Back in the old streets, I visited a local eatery (Pastelaria) where it was full of people — a sign for good food. I tried one of the traditional local pastries — Pastel de Tentugal — that the waiter recommended, and settled the order and payment all on digital means. Time collaborates.
Walking around the old town, passing through all these arches and alleys was atmospheric and fun. Just by chance, I was drawn into one of the shops along the avenue, where one of the ladies inside, who looked chic and elegant, asking me if there was anything she could help me of, and it ended up she is the mother of a friend I know back in Lisbon. His mother is the owner of this long-established shop in Coimbra (the day after, he already told me he knew his mother had met me in Coimbra, and that she said we had a very nice conversation). The truth is, I did not articulate my thoughts very well as we had to communicate in Portuguese. Time connects and travels fast.
Towards the end of that main avenue, it is where the famous Café Santa Cruz located. This café founded in 1530. According to the source, it was first open for the intention of being the “Church of the Poor”, who went there in order not to bother the monks and the aristocracy in the nearby monastery. Now, it is a café hosting different cultural events, and a café of the intellectuals. It is charming inside out — low-key, but at the same time vividly represents a living matter. Time is always alive.
On my way to the Spa place, I was thinking about something that bothered me — it was about the room that I stayed overnight in. In general, I prefer being in a dark and quiet environment while sleeping, but for some reason, I decided to keep the television on during the night. I took the television remote control and put it next to my bed. When I woke up in the morning, I felt a sheer quietness in this room. The television was off, and the remote control was placed on the desk under the television set; I tried to check the door lock, but it was untouched, and there was no way anyone could sneak in based on that kind of lock. Time is a mystery.
To be continued.
text and photos by author 何飛