For some reason – and I’m struggling to remember what it was now – I didn’t include Coimbra on the list of places I wanted to visit on our hiking trip around Central Portugal. With hindsight, it seems unimaginable that this university town midway between Lisbon and Porto held no appeal to me. In fact, when Harri suggested we abandon our original plan to walk over forty kilometres from Palheira to Figueira da Foz, I only agreed so I could rest my feet rather than any enthusiasm for visiting Coimbra. Well, I’m pleased to admit I couldn’t have been more wrong about Coimbra.
Over breakfast at the Jantesta Guest House we got chatting to four Australian hikers who really were pilgrims (it was they who told us about the inflated accommodation costs around the Fatima area when the Pope was visiting last weekend). Like us, they’d decided to take things easy today with some sightseeing; unlike us, they intended to follow the waymarked pilgrim route into Coimbra (we were following a route Harri had devised himself). It was soon clear that following the pilgrim route would have been an easier option, if only to avoid frequent intervention from the kindly locals. Most people we passed en route mistook us for pilgrims who had inadvertently strayed from the
Despite walking an unofficial route, the scenery between Palheira and Coimbra was very pretty and surprisingly rural considering we were now on the outskirts of a large city. We meandered along tracks dotted with ruined farm buildings, past agricultural fields and through expensive-looking suburbs with gated villages, while Coimbra grew ever closer.
When Afonso Henriques defeated the Moors overwhelmingly in 1139 at the Battle of Ourique and became the first king of the newly formed Kingdom of Portugal he declared Coimbra his capital city. Its status was short-lived, however, and around 1255-56 Lisbon knocked it from the top spot. Coimbra sort of got its own back nearly three centuries later in 1537 when Portugal’s first university–founded in Lisbon in 1290 – was transferred to King Afonso’s palace here. Today, the university attracts students from around the world, which goes some way towards explaining why Coimbra feels so vibrant and lively.
Coimbra’s old town was declared a World Heritage Site in 2013 and as we crossed the Rio Mondego on the impressive footbridge (it opened in 2006 and is already covered in graffiti names), it was easy to see why. The old university buildings might dominate the skyline and draw in the tourists, but equally fascinating were the rows of historic residences spilling down the hillside. I’m generally more inclined to stand gazing at natural landscapes, but the cityscape here in Coimbra had me instantly captivated.
We followed a footpath through Parque Verde do Montego, itself a relatively recent development (the low, flat banks of the river flood easily and are unsuitable for building construction hence the plentiful park lands), and headed into the city where we immediately bumped into the Australian pilgrims. Unlike us, they were staying in Coimbra overnight and they were just about to check into their accommodation so they could abandon their rucksacks for the rest of the day … lucky things.
I stopped to admire a tray of oversized meringues in the window of a padaria and got Harri to promise we’d stop off and buy some cakes before we left Coimbra. I generally hate city-centre shopping, but here on the Rua Ferreira Borges the architecture was fascinating, the independent shops full of local products like ceramics, embroidery and souvenirs (including items made of cork). I noticed a few international retail brands like Zara, but on the whole the shopping experience felt a world apart from St David’s shopping centre in Cardiff or Cribbs Causeway in Bristol.
Feeling energised by the city’s vibes, we set off up the hill in the direction of the university. Goodness, those streets were steep … any pride in our fitness levels evaporated when several local elders swept past us at top speed.
Eventually we reached the crest of the hill and staggered into a large praça, surrounded on three sides by the centuries-old faculties of the Universidade de Coimbra. From here the views were amazing. We looked down onto the Rio Mondego and across to the opposite bank, where the seventeenth century Mosteiro de Santa Clara-a-Nova is located (sadly, we didn’t have time to visit).
While we were puffing and panting our way to the top of the hill we hadn’t been aware of passing any fellow tourists, but up here in the square there were people everywhere (we later noticed a line of coaches at the roadside, presumably waiting to whisk them off to another landmark). Despite the crowds, it was hard not to be impressed with the stunning structures surrounding us. There was so much to admire: the eighteenth-century Biblioteco Joanina is a great example of baroque architecture and houses 300,000 medieval books and manuscripts from across Portugal, while the sixteenth-century Capela de São Miguel with its baroque organ remains a popular wedding venue for local Catholics.
There was a large statue of Christopher Columbus at the open end of the praça – at least that’s who I thought the stout figure was until I read the plaque below and discovered it was a Portuguese king … Dom Joao III.
We set off in search of Coimbra’s cathedral, not realising at that point that there are actually two: Sé Velha and Sé Novo. We happened upon the new building first, although staring at the ornate facade we mistakenly believed this was the old cathedral. The references to ‘new’ and ‘old’ are, of course, relative. At over four hundred years old, Sé Novo can only be considered ‘new’ when it’s compared to the much more sombre-looking Romanesque cathedral which was consecrated in 1184 and was the scene of King Sancho I’s coronation (when Coimbra was still the capital of Portugal).
Soaking up Portuguese history is a thirsty affair and it was time for a beer. Fortunately, there are plenty of cafe bars dotted around Coimbra’s many narrow streets and squares and it didn’t take us long to settle ourselves at a table on a tiny paved square crammed between towering five- and six-storey apartment buildings. While we drank beer in the sunshine and talked animatedly about which cakes we were going to buy on our way to the station, two attractive Australian girls on an adjacent table sipped bottled water and ordered meatless salads (basically a pile of lettuce leaves). Harri leaned forward and whispered to me, ‘I’d hate to go out with someone who didn’t eat proper food or drink beer’. No worries there, then.
One last whistle-stop tour of the town found us wandering down steps, through the Arco de Almedina (the original gateway to the old city and a relic of Coimbra’s Moorish town walls) and along more narrow streets full of intriguing shops. It would be easy to become disorientated and lost in Coimbra’s old city, but, you know what, I really wouldn’t mind.
All too soon it was time to head to Coimbra A railway station (the city has a second station, Coimbra B, just along the track) – Figuera da Foz and Portugal’s Silver Coast were beckoning.
We were sorry to be leaving Coimbra. This city, a place that didn’t even feature on my original wish list, had completely bowled me over. We’d had so little time here yet, as we sat there on the train heading to the coast, we knew with certainty that we’d be returning here very soon.
The Via Algarviana – an English guide to the ‘Algarve Way’ by Harri Garrod Roberts is available from online bookstores, included Amazon’s Kindle store and is priced at £2.99.
The Via Algarviana: walking 300km across the Algarve by Tracy Burton is available in paperback (£5.99) and Kindle edition (£2.99) from Amazon.