Portuguese treasure

Stratified history and extravagant architecture make Coimbra a jewel to wander in

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.

While in the upper city, or Alta, it is worth leaving adequate time to explore two of Coimbra’s most significant monuments which are nearby – the Old Gothic Cathedral (Sé Velha), dating from the 12th century and the nearby New Cathedral (Sé Nova), constructed between the 16th and 18th centuries.

Also on these heights is the Machado de Castro National museum, a national monument recently refurbished. The museum is a former bishop’s palace built on the foundations of the forum of the first century AD Roman settlement of Aeminium, the ruins of which have been incorporated into the museum experience, as have the remains of a 12th century Romanesque cloister. The museum also houses a wealth of ecclesiastical and other artefacts, notably medieval and Renaissance sculpture. Look too for the Minerva Stairs that lead to another route away from the university and back to the lower streets.

Like Lisbon, Coimbra has retained in the architecture of the Baixa (city centre), as well as in its mood and atmosphere, a sure sense of a past that its inhabitants are proud to preserve. Like Lisbon too, this is a flâneur’s city: a stroll along its shaded main pedestrian route takes the visitor down the Ferreira Borges Street, and here the wanderer should move at an easy pace so as not to miss the craftsmanship of landmarks such as the Moorish Almedina arch and the fifth century Barbacã arch, which is also a starting point for the sightseer to make the uphill trip to the university area.

This thoroughfare is bookended by the Largo da Portagem, a rendezvous point of cafés and coffee shops under the eyes of the statue of Joaquim António de Aguiar (also known as the friar killer because he was responsible for laws against Portugal’s religious orders) and, on the other end, it broadens into the 8th of May Square (Praça 8 de Maio) with its outstanding 16th century Santa Cruz Monastery which contains the tomb of King Afonso Henriques. The Santa Cruz café, next door, becomes a Fado house each evening when it hosts performances of Portugal’s much-loved traditional form of song.

Branching away from the 8th of May Square is a warren of passageways, nooks and crannies that form the Baixinha (old city centre) and where the commercial pulse of Coimbra is to be found – wine merchants, florists, jewellers and the kind of draper’s windows that once were familiar in every town in Ireland. Here, and elsewhere in the city, the visitor might stray into places that bear the ambiance of forgotten time. Like the sad refrains of those Fado songs, many of Coimbra’s placenames carry echoes of a melancholic poetry – Quinta das Lágrimas (Homestead of Tears) and Penedo da Saudade (Promontory of Longing).

While the university dominates the township on the right side of the Mondego, the left bank’s most imposing structures are two convents of the same name, Santa Clara-a-Velha on the flat riverbank and the higher Santa Clara-a-Nova. The proximity of the old convent to the river left it vulnerable to frequent flooding which has necessitated remedial work on these medieval ruins. Not far away is Portugal dos Pequenitos– a theme park of miniature versions of the country’s great monuments and traditional buildings as well as objects that illustrate its colonial past. One more attraction of note before leaving Coimbra are the botanical gardens, the largest in Portugal and dedicated to the study and protection of plants and wild life since the 18th century.

As a centre of learning with almost 20,000 students, it is no surprise that one of the city's characteristics is its youthful buzz and energy – nowhere more evident than in the nocturnal life around Praça da República (Republic Square). But this city – north of Lisbon and south of Porto – is one in which to go seeking the marks of the ages and listen for the whispers of history.

Aer Lingus has daily flights to Lisbon airport which is a short distance from Estação do Oriente train station which provides regular service to Coimbra (Station Coimbra-B). Ryanair flies to Porto. Catch a train to Coimbra from Station Campanhã – there's a metro directly from the airport – and train from Porto to Coimbra-B takes a little over an hour.

Quinta das Lágrimas, quintadaslagrimas.pt
Vila Galé, vilagale.pt
Tivoli Hotel, tivolihotels.com
Astória, almeidahotels.com
Oslo Resid, hoteloslo-coimbra.pt
Ibis, ibishotel.com

Still Is Located on Rua Alexandre Herculano in the middle of the university and student area. The decor of the restaurant's ground floor is something of a shrine to Académica, the local Primiera Liga football team, with photographs and memorabilia from the pre-professional era.
Tel: 00-351-239-826-065
Praxis A steakhouse that brews its own beers near Quinta das Lagrimas on Urbanizacao Quinta da Varzea, Lote 29, Santa Clara.
Tel: 00-351-239-440-207 praxis.pt
Dona Especiaria A small restaurant close to Sé Velha, on Rua Dr Joaquim Antonio de Aguiar.The owner, chef Gil, selects local and seasonal produce and explains his choices between courses.Tel: 00-351-922-040-194
Restaurante Italia Parque Dr Manuel Braga, Coimbra 3000
Tel: 00-351-239-838-863

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