Coimbra is halfway between Lisbon and Porto Portugal. it is the former national capital and site of Portugal’s oldest university. It is also the birthplace of 6 kings.
The city’s old town is pretty. While most of the old buildings that line its main commercial and surroundings streets appear to have little of architectural note, the town offers some interesting stops to explore.
Se Velha (Old Cathedral)
The city’s old Romanesque cathedral was built in 1024 to commemorate the country’s defeat of the Moors. Its Gothic cloister and gilt altar looks more like a fortress than a church other than for its elaborately carved detail around the altar.
Se Nova (New Cathedral)
The Jesuits built Coimbra’s “new” cathedral in the 16th century. The Baroque-style cathedral has a barrel-vault-supported dome.
The Monastery of the Holy Cross (Mosteiro da Santa Cruz)
This Manueline-style church houses the crypts of Portugal’s first two Kings (from the 12th century and since designated a National Pantheon).
Its monastery was once the most important and influential in the country. It has an elaborate sacristy with ivory inlaid vestment drawers, a treasury with the scull of Portugal’s first saint, a sanctuary with more relics surrounded by a series of pyramids and beautifully carved choir stalls.
And if you haven’t had your fill of monasteries, you can visit Santa Clara-a-Nova and Santa Clara-a-Velha Monastery.
The university is one of the oldest universities in the world. It was founded under a different name (“General Study”) in Lisbon in 1290. It was moved to King Alfonso’s palace in Coimbra in 1290. Most of its original hilltop buildings were replaced in the 1940s. But some of its grandest structures remain. We explored some of the original palace buildings including:
Porta Ferrea gate which was built in 1634.
Via Latrina, a colonnade and walkway constructed in the 17th century.
Capela de Sao Miguel, the university chapel which was built in the 12th century and has had a number of 18th century enhancements. It has a beautiful gilt alter and wall tiles. Its 1737 organ with over 2,000 pipes is beautiful but somewhat oversized for its location.
The academic prison is located in an arched ceiling basement beneath the famed Joanina Library. Two narrow cells and a winding staircase remain of the primitive structure where students were imprisoned when they violated the university’s laws, such as failure to return a book.
Joanina Library is a Baroque library built in the early 18th century. Its 2-meter-thick walls maintain a constant temperature and preserve precious volumes that range from the 12th century, to a Guttenberg Bible and thousands of rare books and documents from the 16th-18th centuries. Its initial collection was so precious that the library was open only a few hours a day and some its most precious books were chained to the shelves. Access was strictly limited to those with verified needs to access the materials.
The library, however, is known even more for its beauty than its rare collection. Constructed of exotic tropical woods and painted with Portuguese empire motifs, the upstairs Noble Library is divided into three rooms with framed with two-story bookcases, covered with beautifully painted ceilings, elaborate wood carvings and furnished with large oak, inlaid tables. Absolutely beautiful but photos were not allowed in the Noble Library.
This botanical garden in the city has 50 acres containing 1,200 plants.
Portugal dos Pequenitos
Portugal dos Pequenitos was built around 1940. It contains scale versions of some of the most important buildings in Portugal and its former colonies. While interesting, other things have a higher priority for us.
Museu Nacional Machado de Castero
The museum displays some of the country’s most noteworthy sculptures and paintings from the 12th through 20th centuries.
Solar do Bacalhau specializes in salt cod which, as demonstrated at the front of the restaurant, it makes itself. It starts by brining fresh cod and then hanging it in coolers to dry. While it is supposed to be the best restaurant in the city, you couldn’t prove it by us.
We began with a nice caprese salad (tomato, mozzarella, basil, olive oil and balsamic) and then shared two entrees. We had to try their claim to fame….cod. Although we normally like cod, we found the salt cod loin (the best cut of the fish) to be tough and tasteless, with a slight salty taste. However, we did enjoy the Alheira (bird) sausage that coated the fish.
We didn’t have much better luck with the grilled black-foot pork with pineapple and shrimp. It was tough and dry, although the sautéed chef potatoes were tasty. We finished with two relatively good desserts. The local version of Pastel (pastry shell filled with sweet egg yolk) was good but we preferred the original Belen version. The Queijadinha (cheese, sugar and egg in puff pastry). We also enjoyed two Dao wines: a bottle of 2022 Luis Pato Vinhas Velhas Vinho Branca (a blend of Bical, Cercial and Servigliano grapes) and a glass of Ribrtro Santo Colherta Tinto. The service, meanwhile, was professional, attentive and very accommodating.
An Interesting Hotel
After reading about it, we couldn’t resist staying at the Pharmacia Guest House. This beautiful historic building was in a perfect location for exploring the historic area. Our comfortable room was right by the main walkway which could be noisy but they did have rooms further off the square. But what made this place even more interesting, was its lobby that is filled with old bottles and a beautiful ceiling.