Coimbra, Portugal’s beautiful colonial university town, is located on a hill just above the river Mondego. It is one of Portugal’s major historic capitals and is a wonderful mix of centuries of culture. Coimbra’s historic center is full of ancient alleyways and the city’s claim to fame is that it houses Portugal’s oldest university, founded in 1290. The gracious town also boasts an extensive amount of Roman architecture. Coimbra used to be Portugal’s capital city from 1143-1255. Considering its fairly small size, it has a lot to offer the culture vulture visitor in terms of history, art and architecture. There is an air of importance and aristocracy running throughout the city and its people. Coimbra is known as “the city of students” and city life has always been centered around the University of Velha. Shops, galleries, and cafes line Coimbra’s streets, including an assortment of bars and wine taverns catering to the student population of the city.
The city is technically divided into two areas. The ‘baixa,’ the lower part of town houses the cities commercial zones. The ‘alta,’ upper part of Coimbra is much older and must be entered through an arched gateway in the city wall, named the Arco de Almedina. This archway was created during Arab occupation and is aptly named ‘medina’ which means “city” in Arabic. The lower part of town, is home to student residences, as well as, important cathedrals, the university, and the Casa de Sub-Ripas (a mansion with a beautiful Manueline style doorway).
Gastronomy & Wine
Coimbra is known for its love of pork. Some of its most regional dishes include ‘leitao’ (roast suckling pig), ‘feijoada’ (a bean stew including chourizo, sausage and paprika), and pork knuckle. The city and the surrounding region is one of the most gastronomically diverse in Portugal. As in other parts of Portugal, delicacies include eel stew and shellfish. Specifically, to Coimbra the ‘Chanfana’, is popular throughout the university town. This is a casserole of kid or lamb meat stewed in red wine. The local cakes, called Santa Claras are another local delicacy.
Coimbra is centered between the famous Dao and Bairrada wine regions in Portugal. The Dao region is known for its steep slopes and ideal grape growing climate. Its local grape varieties make very characteristic wines. Only in the last decade have the white varieties been revived and reds have begun to realize their potential. This new region is home to an innovative new winery called Quinta dos Carvalhais. This winery is computer controlled and located in the center of the region. The Barriada region was previously the home to Portugal’s best red table wines before the Douro and Alentejo. Its modern “international” wine styles are characterized by fruity flavors with interestingly high tannin levels.
Literally means “the old university”, the Velha Universidade was first established in 1290. The main building that remains today, dates back to the 16th century when João III declared its permanent residence in Coimbra. The buildings are set around the Patio des Escolas, a courtyard dominated by the Baroque clock tower nicknamed “A Cabra” (goat) and a statue of João III. The elaborate stairway to the right leads into the administrative quarters and the sala dos Capelos. The hall itself is hung with portraits of Portugal’s Kings. It is used for conferring degrees and has a fine wood paneled ceiling with gilded decoration in Manueline style. The highlight is the narrow catwalk around the outside walls. The central door off the courtyard leads past the cupola, a very elaborate religious foundation. The famous library, a baroque fantasy presented to the faculty by João V in the early 18th century. Its rooms telescope into each other.
The body of Ines de Castro, King Pedro’s lover, was placed on the throne for homage by the people after she died in the form of a decomposing body. In this convent lies the tomb of Ines, alongside the convent’s founder and Coimbra’s Patron Saint-Queen Isabel. Isabel’s tomb is made of solid silver and a covered walk of honeysuckle, financed by King João is still kept up today. There is also a small military museum showcasing the rich military past.
The Se Velha is an old Cathedral that is about halfway up the hill in the old town. It opened in 1162 and it is one of the most important Romanesque buildings in Portugal. It has only received slight alterations since its construction. The significant later addition of the Rennaissance “Porta Especiosa” doorway in the north wall has almost entirely crumbled away. Solid and square on the outside, the cathedral is also elegantly simple within, the decoration confined to a few giant conch shells holding holy water and some unobtrusive “azulejos” tiles from Seville around the walls. The Gothic tombs of the early bishops and low-arched cloisters can be found here.
The ancient city of Conimbriga is located 16 km southwest of Coimbra. It houses the most important Roman site in Portugal. It was a Celto-Iberian settlement, dating back to the Iron Age and later the site of Roman settlements, when Portugal was part of the Roman Empire. Conimbriga used to be a major transit point on the road to Lisbon. It has survived better than the other Roman sites, mostly because its citizens abandoned Conimbriga for Coimbra and never resettled. A wall was quickly put up through the heart of this city separating it into two. The remains of the abandoned houses and public sites are restored to working order with fountains in the squares and mosaic tiles lining the floors of the old homes. An aqueduct, forum, temple, and even public baths can be found in this ancient Roman site.
Approximately 32 Km west of Coimbra lies the magnificent castle of Montemor-o-Velho. From the Romans to the Moors, and later in the hands of Dom Alfonso IV, Montemor-o-Velho became a royal residence and the site of the fated Ines Castro. Also in this castle, João of Avis became King Dom João I. The main attraction inside the castle is the Santa Maria de Alcavova church. It has a beautiful wood ceiling, with twisted columns and Moorish decorations.