Famous for its university, Coimbra is in many ways a city with a similar atmosphere to Oxford. When I arrived, I felt an instant familiarity with the city. Its cobbled streets, historic buildings, and many students milling around the city centre made me reminisce about a busy Oxford in term time. Coimbra is regarded by many in Portugal as the university city, which is certainly true, however Coimbra is also a very important city in Portugal’s history and well worth a visit.
After an early start leaving Lisbon Oriente coach station for Coimbra, I arrived just after 11am. Travelling by coach in Portugal often takes the same amount of time as the train and is much less expensive. As I reached the city centre, I was greeted by the beautiful Praça Oito de Maio, featuring a fountain in the centre, the old city to one side and the Igreja de Santa Cruz on the other. This square holds a particular importance not only for Coimbra, but also for Portugal as a whole. Dom Afonso Henriques, the first king of Portugal, a name seen on squares and street signs across the country, was buried in the Igreja de Santa Cruz. He led the Portuguese reconquest and established an independent kingdom of Portugal, making Coimbra its capital.
I then proceeded to wander through the winding streets of the low city, or Baixa Coimbra, and in doing so encountered some wonderful azulejos, colourful Portuguese tiles that adorn many buildings, and shops of every kind; independent shoe shops, greengrocers, and butchers’ shops, to name a few. Climbing a short flight of steps up to the wide and impressive high street, I walked past several of Coimbra’s bakeries and cake shops that boast enormous meringues and pastries in their windows, making it difficult to walk by without stepping inside.
I then headed to the colourful Pedro and Inês footbridge from which I admired the Môndego river that flows through the city. The bridge itself is composed of several multicoloured glass panels and is beautiful when the sun is shining through it.
Pedro and Inês are Portugal’s very own Romeo and Juliet story, set in the Jardim da Quinta das Lágrimas in Coimbra. I didn’t have time to see the gardens but have heard that they are well worth a visit.
It was soon lunchtime. In need of something relatively filling and inexpensive, I went into a little tasca and ate a chouriço sandwich with a cimbalino (the word for an espresso north of Lisbon). This was one of my favourite eating experiences so far in Portugal. The sandwich was tasty and warm and the tasca very traditional. It was a tiny space with orange tiled flooring and around five stools in front of what looked like a bar area in a British pub. Portuguese football scarves and postcards adorned the walls and there was a small television in the corner showing the day’s news, weather forecast and predictions for the upcoming Primeira Liga football matches. I spoke to the owner and another person eating there for some recommendations in Coimbra. As has been the case everywhere in Portugal so far, they were only too glad to help and extremely friendly.
After a good meal and conversation, I then proceeded to climb the many winding steps up the appropriately named Rua Quebra-Costas (literally ‘back-breaking street’)- yes, it really is that steep – and visited a bookshop where I bought Eça de Queirós’ novel Os Maias, which the famous realist author and former Coimbra student set in the city.
Further up the steps and the winding streets are the two cathedrals, the Sé Nova and the Sé Velha, with the famous University of Coimbra on the very top of the hill, overlooking the town and the Môndego river. Coimbra’s architecture is extremely impressive. On the way to the masterpieces that are the cathedrals and the university buildings I passed many houses and shops covered in azulejos. At the very top of the hill, the main university square, which is accessible to the public free of charge, offers a 180-degree view of the Môndego river flowing through Coimbra and the lush vegetation that follows it on either side. As in Oxford, the university buildings are old and grand, with Coimbra boasting its famous Biblioteca Joanina, an impressive library on the university square.
As the afternoon turned into evening, I noticed that a stage had been put up in the Praça do Comércio. After finding out that there would be a Fado event organised by the local council later that evening, I immediately went to get my free ticket from the town hall.
Fado ticket acquired, it was time for dinner. I went to another typical tasca just off the Praça do Comércio and enjoyed a glass of wine with a chicken dish in a tasty broth with vegetables and yet another good conversation with the owners and the other customers.
For me, studying languages is all about interacting with others in settings such as this; being in Portugal and living life in Portuguese. Speaking the language of a place truly enhances every experience. I could include a crash course for Portuguese at the end of one of these articles, perhaps in the next one.
It was now time for fado. Fado is a type of traditional Portuguese music originally from the Alfama and Mouraria areas of Lisbon. However, Coimbra has its own type of Fado, its rhythm is slower than the Lisbon Fado and is traditionally only sung by men.
Here is a song by one of Portugal’s most famous Fado singers, Amália Rodrigues, about Coimbra:
It was a warm evening and as the night fell, the live Fado music filled the dimly lit square, the classical guitar was accompanied by the traditional 12-string Portuguese guitar and the melodic singing of Fado. It was a truly wonderful hour followed by a standing ovation by all present.
My time in Coimbra was short but very enjoyable and I would certainly recommend visiting if you are in Portugal. It is a convenient stop if you are travelling between Lisbon and Porto as it is located between the cities on the motorway and train route.
All photos by the author. Cover photo: Praça Oito de Maio, Coimbra.