There are so many things to see and do at the Velha Universidade in Coimbra that the Minerva Stairs are often overlooked. One of two entrances to Pátio das Escolas, the huge courtyard at the center of the Old University, the Minerva Stairs opened in 1724, the stairway is named after the Roman goddess of wisdom, whose image tops the gate.
The entrance to the self-guided tour of the Joanine Library is located at the bottom of the stairs, so if you take the tour, be sure to turn around and check out the beautiful staircase you just descended.
For many years, the Portuguese royal family lived in Coimbra. The first king, Afonso I, is buried in the Santa Cruz Monastery, and the city was the home of the Portuguese House of Burgundy. Their home was the beautiful Royal Palace of Coimbra, now the Old University of Coimbra.
The University is one of the oldest universities in the world. Originally established in Lisbon in 1290, the university was originally moved to Coimbra in 1308. The university was moved between Lisbon and Coimbra several times before moving permanently to Coimbra in 1537, where it was permanently installed in the Royal Palace.
There are several beautiful spaces in the palace that harken back to the days when the Royal family lived here. The Great Hall of Acts was once the Throne Room of the Royal Palace and the room where, in 1385, King John I was proclaimed king of Portugal.
Portraits of the kings of Portugal line the walls of the Great Hall. Interestingly, there are a few exceptions. The three Hapsburg kings- Phillip I, Phillip II and Phillip III- are not to be found here. From 1581 until 1640, these three kings, Spanish by birth, ruled Portugal. The Hapsburg rule ended when John II, Duke of Braganza, claimed the throne as the great great grandson of King Manuel I. The rule of the Hapsburg dynasty is still, after many centuries, still a sore point with many Portuguese.
Another great space in the palace is the Private Examination Room. This was originally the king’s private chamber and sleeping quarters. As a part of the University, the room was where doctoral candidates underwent a private oral examination. Portraits of the University’s rectors line the room.
The Arms Room houses the weapons of the Royal Academic Guard. Today, the weapons are used only during formal ceremonies such as the formal beginning of classes and the investiture of a new rector.
There are plenty of other great spaces to explore at the University beyond the walls of the Royal Palace. The Joanine Library and Saint Michael’s Chapel are not to be missed. The University is a great place and well worth the time you’ll spend exploring.
Much has been made of Portugal’s influence on J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter books. Rowling was living in Porto when she began working on her wonderful series of books, so it’s no wonder that Livraria Lello, the beautiful bookstore in Porto, inspired Diagon Alley’s premier bookstore, Flourish and Blotts, as well as Hogwart’s wonderful moving staircases.
Another potential Portuguese influence on the Harry Potter series may be the legendary Afonso Henriques, the first king of Portugal. Born in Guimarães in 1106, Afonso Henriques was the son of Henri of Burgundy, a French noble, and Teresa of León, the daughter of King Alfonso VI of León and Castile where Portugal was, at the time, a county. While Afonso Henriques was not a wizard, his French and Galician parentage could make him Portugal’s “half-blood Prince”.
Afonso Henriques took the first step towards Portuguese independence in 1128, when his army defeated Galician forces, led by his mother and her lover, Count Fernando Peres de Trava, in the battle of São Mamede. Afonso’s fight to make Portugal an independent kingdom reached an important point in 1140 at the battle of Valdevez, when Portuguese forces defeated the army of Alfonso VII of León. The victory led to Alfonso VII recognizing Portugal as a kingdom with the Treaty of Zamora.
The victory over Alfonso VII’s army was an important step towards independence, but it wasn’t until 1179 that Portugal was recognized as an independent kingdom, and Afonso as king, when Pope Alexander III issued a papal bull recognizing the kingdom.
Afonso Henriques, now Afonso I, made Coimbra his residence, where he funded the construction of the Santa Cruz Monastery and the Sé Velha, or old cathedral, and is buried in the Santa Cruz Monastery. Afonso Henriques died in 1185, after leading Portugal for 46 years as the country’s first king.
Understandably, Afonso Henriques is a Portuguese hero and his legend has not dimmed in the 900 years since his birth. Portugal’s first king is honored with statues and paintings throughout the country. He has also been the subject of several postage stamps, including this heroic likeness from 1940, which commemorates the 800th anniversary of Portuguese Independence.
The Great Hall of Acts is arguably the most important space at the University of Coimbra. Once the Throne Room when the University was the Royal Palace, this room was where all the Portuguese kings of the First Dynasty lived and was where John I was proclaimed King of Portugal in 1385.
Today, the room is where Doctoral candidates face their PhD. thesis defense, a formal oral examination required to obtain the degree of Doctor. Other ceremonies taking place in the Great Hall of Acts are the Official Opening of the School Year, the Investiture of the Rector, and the awarding of honorary degrees.
The large paintings hung around the room are portraits of the kings of Portugal, beginning with Dom Afonso Henriques, the first king of Portugal. Interestingly, there’s a 60 year gap in the chronology. The kings who ruled during the Iberian Union, Philip II, Philip III and Philip IV, are not included in the room. During this period, Portugal was under Spanish control and, 400 years later, this is still a sore spot with the Portuguese people. Hence, the omission of the three kings.
There are many beautiful spaces in the old University. A tour of Coimbra University is a required stop on any visit to Coimbra. It’s well worth the time.
The University of Coimbra is one of the oldest universities in the world. Once the royal palace, the Velha Universidade, or Old University, is the oldest part of the school and is a beautiful place. We were able to tour the university, starting with the Joanine Library, and working our way through the buildings. If you visit Coimbra, the Old University is a required stop on your journey.
This photo is from the wide Paço das Escolas, the main square of the Old University. On the left is the famous bell tower and straight ahead is the Via Latina, which is the entrance to the part of the University that was the royal palace. As beautiful as the exterior is, the interior is stunning. The Joanine Library, the Capela de São Miquel, and the Sala dos Capelos are just three of the many beautiful spaces in the Old University.
I tend to be a bit odd when visiting places. It’s not always the usual touristy things that catch my eye. Sometimes it’s interesting patterns or spaces that intrigue me. This staircase is an example.
There’s so much about this space that I like. I love the curve of the ceiling at the top of the stairs. I like the way the light comes through the window at the top and highlights the roughness of the walls. I like the way the stairs curve to the right as they rise. And I like the contrast between the simplicity of the walls against the colorful patterns of the azulejos.
And all of this from just a simple staircase at the University of Coimbra.
Located across from the Santa Clara Bridge, Largo da Portagem is the main square in Coimbra and a central gathering place. The name comes from the fact that in the old days, goods coming into Coimbra from the south were taxed in the square.
The beautiful little square features the beautiful monument to Joaquim António de Aguiar, an 18th century politician and Coimbra native. Interestingly, he was best known for signing into law an order that dissolved all church-run monasteries, convents and colleges, effectively extinguishing the great power that the church held in Portugal, turning the power over to the government instead.
The Barbacan Gate, at the base of the Torre de Almedina, is pretty much all that remains of the castle walls that once surrounded Coimbra. Between the 8th and 11th centuries, Moors and Christians took turns conquering and occupying Coimbra until, in 1064, King Ferdinand I of León and Castile took the city from the Moors for the final time.
In 1139, Dom Afonso Henriques, Portugal’s first king, chose Coimbra as the capital of the new kingdom. Six Portuguese kings were born in Coimbra, and the city remained the seat of Portuguese power until 1260, when Dom Afonso III chose Lisbon as his capital.
The need for castle walls to protect the city are gone. The walls were long ago integrated into the surrounding buildings, leaving the Barbacan Gate and the Torre de Almedina as the last evidence of the castle that, for centuries, protected the city from invaders.
Today, the Barbacan Gate serves as the entrance to the traditional, and most famous, way to access the Old City and Coimbra University. After passing through the gate, you climb the many stairs of Rua Quebra Costa, known as “the Backbreaker” for a long, arduous walk to the top of the hill.
Just inside the gate, at the bottom of Rua Quebra Costa, there’s a quiet little cafe, where it’s fun to sit outside with a beer or a glass of wine, and people-watch. It’s one of my favorite spots in Coimbra, with the Fado de Coimbra sculpture just inside the gate, and the Tricana de Coimbra, another sculpture, a few yards farther along. It’s a nice way to escape the hustle and bustle of downtown Coimbra.
Known as “the backbreaker,” Rua Quebra Costa is a steep lane, really more a staircase, that winds its way from Torre de Almedina to the the old city and the University of Coimbra. along the way, you pass Fado ao Centro, the Cathedral and the Machado de Castro National Museum before reaching the university at the top. Rua Quebra Costa is quite photogenic. I especially love the Tricana de Coimbra sculpture that sits on a wall near the bottom of the lane.
Rua Quebra Costa is not a road to take if you’re in a hurry. Take your time and enjoy the sights.
The venerable University of Coimbra is not the oldest school in the city. The Mosteiro de Santa Cruz predates the university by over a century. The monastery was a highly respected school during medieval times.
Saint Theotonius was the monastery’s first prior and Saint Anthony of Padua studied theology and Latin at the monastery. The first two kings of Portugal, Afonso Henriques and Sancho I, are buried in the church.
Because of its historical importance, the Mosteiro de Santa Cruz is a Portuguese National Landmark.