Coimbra: A Brush with Ancient History

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Afonso Henriques chose Coimbra as his capital city in 1139, and although the honor was short-lived, the city has retained its fame as the home of Portugal’s oldest university. Located 200km north of Lisbon, it is rich in history, architecture and Roman remains. As the birthplace of six of Portugal’s kings it is a fabulous place to visit and explore.

Coimbra is set on the banks of the Mondego River with plenty of river beaches and ports nearby. Further east are the picturesque mountain towns of Lousa and Penacova and the spa towns at Luso, Bacao and Curia.

The city of Coimbra has an upper town, where the university is situated, and a lower town near the river. The Coimbra university can trace its origins back to the 13th century and now has students from all over the world. There are two student festivals during the year. The Festa das Latas welcomes new students and involves rowdy celebrations with tin cans and a special Latada parade which ends with a soaking in the river. The Quiema da Fitas or Burning the Ribbons is one of the biggest student parties in May. The ribbons are worn to denote which faculty the students belong to and are ceremonially burnt at the end of the academic year. The university buildings and architecture are an attraction in their own right at any time of year.

Things to Do in Coimbra

There are a host of things to do in Coimbra, from exploring the Roman sites to shopping, museums and nightlife. River trips, parks, gardens, playgrounds and forests offer plenty more things to do around Coimbra. The Botanical Gardens are a delight with fountains, statues and many rare plant species. The former 19th century palace of Quinta da Lágrimas is a large public park with a golf course, one of several in the area. Beach lovers should head for the river beach at Palheiros do Zorro.

Places to visit in Coimbra include the Romanesque Old Cathedral which dates back to the early days of the reign of King Alfonso Henriques and reflects the era of decadence which prevailed at that time. The “New’ Cathedral, or Sé Nova, was founded in 1541 as a Jesuit College until their expulsion from Portugal in 1759. Its ornate façade and colorfully decorated interior are quite stunning. Both buildings lie in the shadow of the hilltop university.

The University buildings are quite exceptional. Grouped around the Patio das Escolas, the belltower can be seen all over the city of Coimbra. Visitors with time to see just one of the many buildings should choose the Joao V Library which has superb frescoes and tables of rosewood and ebony etched with Chinese designs in gold. The King John Library has three rooms decorated with lacquered wood in red, green and gold which create a stunning effect. The solid bookshelves hold 300,000 volumes and it is now a museum rather than a working library.

One of the most popular things to do beyond Coimbra is a tour of the nearby archeological site of Conimbriga. It is the largest Roman settlement in Portugal with fine villas and mosaic floors. Some of the earliest layers date back to the first Iron Age, nine centuries BC. A visit to Conimbriga is a great way to brush with history and experience earlier ancient civilizations.

Local Food and Drink

Coimbra has many fine restaurants, the most famous being the small Zé Manel dos Ossos where the walls are decorated with notes of appreciation from diners. Typical Portuguese dishes include cozido à portuguesa (a type of stew), bacalhau assado na brasa (salted cod) or chafana (goat and red wine stew), all accompanied by high quality wines produced in the area.

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