“Coimbra is more enchanting when it’s time to bid farewell.” So wrote the author and composer Fernando Machado Soares in his “Balada da Despedida” (Ballad of Farewell), which he also set to music, to express the magic of the city that every visitor can feel. This leading exponent of the song of Coimbra, known as the Coimbra Fado, was not thinking about the tourists who visit the city but about the students and all of those who have built their academic careers out of the many traditions that have made Coimbra University more than just a seat of education and knowledge, but also a unique life experience.
But the city continues to offer unique experiences to all visitors. The reasons for a visit may have to do with what the famous Fado composer wrote about – the university and student life. The visitor may wish to see in person what led UNESCO to classify the university as a World Heritage site in June 2013. One of the most beautiful examples of Baroque architecture in Portugal, is the tower, which reveals clear Italian influences, and is one of the Coimbra’s landmarks. It is, after all, located at the highest point of the city, on top of the University Hill, known locally as the “Alta”.
Likewise classified as a World Heritage site, the Alta area has its hallmark in Rua da Sofia. Deriving its name from the Greek word “sophia”, which means wisdom, this street has contributed to establishing the city as a cultural and academic centre. Its layout dates back to the mid-16th century, though its width is unprecedented for the period. It was probably one of the widest thoroughfares in Europe when it was built, anticipating the role it would play in the city. It was in this street where the first colleges were built. As a noble thoroughfare for centuries, its dynamism was always closely linked to university life. However, that distance has been overcome and trade and commerce have now earned their rightful place. Today, it is teeming with life and it is one of the city’s nerve centres. It rivals the downtown area known as the Baixa, with its medieval narrow streets, courtyards, stairs and arches that extend down to the Mondego river. In the Baixa, trade and handicrafts have always made the rules of the day, in contrast to the Alta area, where nobles, clergy, illustrious figures and students live. The Baixa is not only the centre of the urban life, but is also the historic centre of Coimbra. After a visit to the University, a walk down to the river is an opportunity to visit monuments such as Santa Cruz Monastery, the Old Cathedral (Sé Velha) and the Almedina Arch and Tower. Or, to do some shopping in the city’s most important shopping thoroughfare, Rua de Ferreira Borges. Or to plunge into the typical hustle and bustle of the Dom Pedro V municipal market. While on your way, don’t be surprised if you frequently come across young people all dressed in black – in their traditional academic attire. You may find them at the student celebrations giving renditions of the Coimbra Fado, which one can often hear in the retreats of the Jardim da Seraia or in the many nocturnal venues which keep this tradition alive. Yes, Coimbra certainly has its charms. And not only in the hour of farewell.
WHERE YOUR FEET SHOULD TAKE YOU
Visiting Coimbra means allowing yourself to get lost in the discovery of a city that has an abundance of architectural and cultural attractions to offer. Here are some of the sights you should not miss along the way:
- JOANINE LIBRARY
Unique in Portugal and famous for the 300,000 books it houses, to the São Miguel (St. Michael’s) Chapel, which combines the Manueline and Neo-classical styles in its design, and to the Tower with its clock that marks the time for study and the time for the pursuits of youth.
- THE OLD CATHEDRAL
The Old Cathedral dates back to the 12th century. It is built in a romanesque style but also reveals Moorish influences and other Renaissance additions.
- ALMEDINA TOWER
The tower rises above the arch of the same name. In the 11th century, it guarded the entrance on the city’s walls. Today, it is home to an interpretation centre telling the history of medieval Coimbra.
- SANTA CRUZ MONASTERY
Originally a Romanesque design, the monastery also features a manueline cloister that is well worth a visit. One of Portugal’s national pantheons, the monastery is the final resting place of the first kings of Portugal, Dom Afonso Henriques and Dom Sancho I.
- SANTA CLARA-A-VELHA CONVENT
Lapped by the waters of the Mondego, the monastery received the patronage of Queen Isabel, known as the Holy Queen. It remained a nunnery of the Order of the Poor Clares until the mid-17th century, when the convent was transferred to a safer, more elevated site (today known as Santa Clara-a-Nova Convent).
- BOTANIC GARDEN
Laid out in the 18th century as an integral part of the university, the garden features an exuberant collection of plant life from around the world.
- CHOUPAL NATIONAL WOOD
The wood is an invitation to discover what inspired the poets and writers of the Coimbra fado.
- QUINTA DAS LÁGRIMAS GARDENS
A park with medieval and neo-gothic ruins which took its name from the tragic love story of Dom Pedro, a prince and heir to the throne, and Dona Inês, a noblewoman who was rejected by the court and was murdered there. It is a story that has been eternalised in the gardens’ Fountain of Love (Fonte dos Amores).