A cultural journey through Coimbra, the former Portuguese capital

The old city rises from the banks of the Mondego River to the lofty heights of its hilltop university, Coimbra’s beating heart. Ascend its cobbled streets to find history, art and architecture peeping around every corner.

By Nora Wallaya
Published 16 Oct 2020, 08:00 BST

Explore Coimbra's labyrinthine streets to uncover heritage that’s hailed as a cornerstone of Portugal’s cultural landscape.

Photograph by Getty Images

There’s no use telling you how to pronounce Coimbra. You’ll hear it passing the lips of the locals — be they bus drivers, baristas, shopkeepers or fado singers — for this is a pocket-sized old city that’s eminently proud of its academic, royal and religious legacy. Wander the labyrinthine streets, from the medieval cathedral to the seminary, to uncover the UNESCO-recognised heritage that’s hailed as a cornerstone of Portugal’s cultural landscape. (It’s pronounced queem-bra, by the way.)

Sé Velha, the Old Cathedral

Its fierce granite exterior nods to the period in which it was built — the 12th century, during the reign of Portugal’s first king, Afonso I, when a threat of Moorish invasion saw planners incorporate fortifications into churches. Sé Velha is among the last-remaining examples of Portuguese-Romanesque architecture in the country, with pillars decorated with flora and fauna motifs instead of biblical figures — the stonework is said to have been cut by Mozarabic artists not accustomed to depicting human iconography.

University of Coimbra

Crowning the city’s hilltop, the UNESCO-listed, 13th-century University of Coimbra is one of Europe’s oldest, and the oldest in the Portuguese-speaking world. It’s packed with treasures, including the opulent Capelo de São Miguel with its wall-to-wall azulejos, baroque organ and crimson rococo side altars. In the courtyard, see its famed clock-and-bell tower — an icon of the city whose tolls summon black-cloaked students to class. Inside the main building is the lavish Great Hall of Acts, a plush ceremonial space decked in red velvet and hung with portraits of Portuguese kings. A few streets away is the Museu da Ciência, formerly the university's chemical laboratory, where you can pore over a 250,000-strong collection of curious scientific instruments.

Johannine Library

This 18th-century baroque library is the university’s crowning glory. It’s spread over three floors, but the star of the show is the Noble Room, an exquisite vision of chinoiserie bookshelves, gilded coving and trompe-l'œil ceiling paintings. It houses some 60,000 volumes — a priceless collection spanning geography, medicine, law and philosophy — preserved by both strict entry regulations, and by a resident 250-year-old bat colony that picks off paper-nipping insects at night.

Discover an exquisite vision of chinoiserie bookshelves, gilded coving and trompe-l'œil ceiling paintings at the Johannine Library, University of Coimbra.

Photograph by Alamy

Seminário Maior de Coimbra

The lesser-visited seminary houses an important collection of 18th-century Italian art, and a museum dedicated to Portuguese priest and artist Nunes Pereira, whose intricate iconographic woodcuts are locally adored (before he died, he lived and worked in the seminary). There’s a classroom decorated with duck-egg blue azulejos, an historic library housing some 9,000 books, a chapel and episcopal lodgings to explore.

Botanical Garden

Tumbling down from the university to the Mondego River, the leafy trails of the Botanic Garden offer sanctuary from the midday blaze. Spreading over 32 acres, the garden is in fact an outdoor classroom for students of medicine and natural sciences at the university. The large 19th-century glasshouse is one of Portugal's oldest iron structures — check out the carnivorous plants, orchids and other tropical species housed there, and don’t miss the towering bamboo forest.

Monastery of Santa Clara-a-Velha

Cross the Mondego to this romantic ruin, a ghostly sight on the river’s western bank. The old monastery and its nuns’ quarters originate from the 14th century, but, suffering frequent flooding, were finally abandoned in the 17th century. For more than 300 years, the lower levels remained submerged, but in 1995 an extensive restoration began, reversing centuries of damage and revealing remarkably intact stonework and tiling. The visitor centre recalls its story, and exhibits relics unearthed during the restoration.

Don’t miss: You may have heard the melancholic tones of Lisbon’s fado music, but Coimbra’s style, born from the city’s literary heritage, celebrates love. The city has no shortage of venues where you can catch a performance, but Diligencia is loved by the locals. Dive into this dark, intimate bar for an atmospheric taste of Coimbra culture.

Published in the Sept/Oct 2020 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)

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