We fell in love with the beautiful medieval town of Coimbra. We could have left after seeing the old university and the old cathedral, but the three days we spent walking around the old town brought us to the same places repeatedly, each time from a different route. Each new view revealed charms and beauty we had not noticed before. Walking around Coimbra, exploring its lovely nooks and crannies, one sees how European history is reconstructed. The Roman settlement of Coimbra is showcased in the impressive Cryptoporticus on display below the wonderful Machado de Castro museum. The completely different Arco de Almedina (photo on the left) and the Moorish town which grew behind it for three and a half centuries, starting in the 8th century onwards has no plaques and guides to help you. The Portuguese capital which was established in the mid 12th century is the core of the tourist area. Our relaxed pace also allowed us to explore the other aspects of life here: the food, the music, the cafes and the wine of the Dao region.
Two of the churches are worth mentioning. One is the romanesque Santa Tiago, dominating the market place in the baixa. Stone pillars hold up wooden roof beams. When you look at the roof from outside, you see that it is made with the ancient imbrex and tegula tiles. The external pillars are beautifully carved, almost baroque. Inside, the church is bare except for a beautiful altarpiece. However, the star of the Baixa is Igreja de Santa Cruz (photo above). Built in 1131 CE, the tombs of the first two kings of Portugal, Afonso Henrique and Sancho I, lie on two sides of the altar. The azulejo-lined interior was remodelled in the 16th century, when Portugal was flush with spice funds. It is possible to loiter around the cafes, restaurants and shops which line the charming square on which this church stands.
On a lovely sunny day we walked across the bridge over the Mondego river. The wonderful view of the old town was not the main reason for the walk. We wanted to see the convent of Santa Clara. Before the levees were built, the river would regularly flood the convent which was founded in 1330 CE by queen Isabel, who remains the patron saint of Coimbra. Eventually, the convent was silted over and the new convent was built over it in 1677 CE. The queen’s grave was moved to the new convent. The old convent has now been excavated, and one can visit the convents (photo above, with the old town in the background). It is interesting to see the two levels together for the first time in history.
We almost skipped the Machado de Castro museum. It was a good thing we eventually went there, because this could be one of the most remarkable collections we saw. Below the museum is the Roman cryptoporticus. Apparently, when the Romans arrived in the first century CE, they decided to build a forum on the slopes of the hill. The incredible feat of engineering required them to extend a table over the slope, on immense pillars. The table was the forum, and the levels below it contained cells with multiple uses. This lies below the courtyard of the museum. The museum contains a wonderful collection of religious sculptures (the featured photo is an example), terra-cotta, furniture, jewellery, ceramics, paintings and textiles. We lost ourselves here for an entire long morning, before walking down to the square in front of Igreja Santa Cruz for lunch.
We loved the people: the wonderfully kind old waiter at the cafe Santa Cruz, the people at Fado ao Centro, and the lovely bar across from it, the helpful students, the people at Ze Manel. Among the things we did not visit are the very highly rated Museum of the Sciences in the old university and the botanical gardens. One has to leave something for when we come back.