Stratified history and extravagant architecture make Coimbra a jewel to wander in
The city of Coimbra. Photograph: Getty Images
Main building of Coimbra University. Photograph: Getty Images
After an almost two-hour journey from Lisbon, the train arrives at a modest provincial station that suggests nothing of the instantly enthralling city it serves. The Portuguese city of Coimbra is home to one of Europe’s oldest universities and a young population. Dramatically and beautifully situated on steep hills that ascend from the banks of the River Mondego, a first view of the city presents a picturesque profile – a stage-set of row upon row of old houses that advance towards the beckoning pinnacle where the university stands towering above the city’s old town.
The university’s status as one of Europe’s oldest education institutions – it was founded in the 13th century – surely earned it its recent designation as a Unesco world heritage site, an honour extended to the city, making Coimbra the 15th Portuguese site on the world heritage list.
Coimbra’s central role in the evolution of the kingdom of Portugal endowed it with layers of a past that make it a storehouse of the country’s history. A map of the city shows the dominance of the university, a reminder of its intellectual and cultural status among Portuguese cities. Within its boundaries lie many of the attractions that a visitor should not miss. It occupies the site of Portugal’s first royal palace and the dwelling place of successive rulers from the 12th to 15th centuries.
Like so much of the rest of the Iberian peninsula, its history and architecture was determined by Moorish conquest and local references (such as the Arabic Almedina) still bear the traces of those influences.
As its elevated location and what has been described as its “monumental character” suggest, the university crowns a plateau that was in its early history the site of a military fortification created after the Moors captured the city in 987. Later, in the Middle Ages, Coimbra became the capital of Portugal when the country’s first king, Afonso Henriques, set up court in the palace that was later handed over to house the university in the 1500s.
This whole precinct – like the lower sections of the city – is rich with well preserved remnants of an historic past. From the old city, it is a hard climb via the constantly ascending walkways to the university buildings (an easier public transport alternative to this pedestrian route misses much of Coimbra’s charm and quaintness as well as the distinctive decorations used by students to mark out their territories).
Either way, the reward on arrival is an all-embracing panoramic view of the city from the imposing university esplanade, the Pátio das Escolas that acts as a balcony onto the city. Chief among the cluster of ancient buildings is the library – the Biblioteca Joanina – regarded as a masterpiece of the Baroque. Other landmarks worth noting include the 18th century bell tower, visible over a wide area and a symbol of both the university and city; the Porta Férrea, the richly embellished main entrance to the university and its courtyard where the opulent Renaissance-style St Michael’s Chapel is also located. An entrance fee gains access to these buildings, as well some of the university’s ceremonial and sumptuously-decorated rooms and halls.