Birds fly south in Autumn / Winter, people find their break - from short days / beige-brown landscapes / mud / rain-sleet / perceived cold - by flying south too, often as far as the Southern Hemisphere. Pauline came back from Melbourne last week from visiting family, and I flew south to Coimbra for work. Work often takes me to interesting places, although granted, most places in Europe are interesting if you look a little longer and dig beneath the surface. Coimbra easy to like. I was here three years ago, and from the Institute of Archaeology, a building from the seventh century they say, I could see the River Mondego below, wider than the Thames at the barrier, parkland to the far bank, and I longed to be swimming. This time I plan to swim – once something is planned, it is easier to do. Life can be spent regretting that one didn’t swim in the river, or one can just swim in the river.
The next morning, work at a distance (urgent emails – aren’t they all?) intervenes in the morning and I don’t get out until mid-morning. Very politely (I hope, politely enough) I message Daniela for a rain-check on the Joanina Library. ‘For next time’, I offer, as I am on the plane out that evening. I know I risk unbalancing what was balanced by the end of the previous evening. ‘It is important to have something to come back for” I add. With good grace, Daniela messages back and lets me swim – “For next time. For sure”. So with balance restored I walk steadily down hill and across crooked cobbles to the Mondego River – from a distance it is broad, fast flowing, with many ripples and eddies. Down the hill, on more uneven cobbles, looking down and up, then down and up, walking alertly, I come to the main road, which I cross and then I am on the narrow floodplain, following a path to the footbridge, a recent addition to the cityscape – narrow and elegant. From the footbridge I get a better sense of the river – this will be more a treadmill swim than a swim to anywhere. I go to a jetty, which offers an easy way in. The ramp doesn’t seem to be in everyday use and could do with a clean-up, but I have experienced much worse at places along the Thames. Getting in is like stepping upin temperature and back in time. Back to September, when the water had the slight chill that tells of the end of Summer and reminds of the drop in temperature to come. The water was easy to get into, very pleasant, inviting, until pushing out and onto the Mondego treadmill. I swam around to take in the very beautiful surroundings, monasteries on the hill, University on the peak, I am already pushed about fifty meters downstream of where I started. Head down, crawl – feel the water (swirling and twisting), speed up, catch up, count the strokes. I did a mental kilometre – a thousand strokes I counted, and then a few more. One stroke is about a meter swum, more or less. Slightly less these days. Swim-counting isn’t the most restful way of swimming, but I need the swim. The sun is shining like it should be Summertime, and the ancient city of Coimbra, its University and its Missions/Monastries climbs above me, overseeing my counting-swimming, long enough to earn my cake. Getting out, I took time to dry myself, preferring the touch of the sun, I talked briefly with the lone-soul tourist walking along the bank and taking photographs, then sat in the sun and delayed getting dressed. The flask of tea and the pastry helped to slow down the transition from water to land. ‘Tea and cake will give me more time in the sun’. I wasn’t cold, far from it. Eyes to the sun, eyes scanning the dappling rippling water, up to the city-scape, I mused about the difference between cake and pastry.