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.
The old city of Coimbra is built on a hill, with the University of Coimbra at the top. You can see the back of the Joanine Library at the top right. It’s interesting how virtually every usable inch of the hill has been used. An interesting ride is to take the small electric bus from the University and ride down the narrow, winding little lanes to the bottom. It’s almost as good as a roller coaster.
There’s a lot that I like about this picture. I like the bright colors of the buildings and sky. I like the clothes hung out to dry on the yellow building. People actually live here. I like the rough stone wall in the bottom center, topped with a precarious looking staircase. And I like the graffiti at the bottom right of the photo.
The building in the bottom left is also interesting to me. I like the way the window arches seem to point up to the top of the hill. The statue on the top corner of the building is enigmatic. Is it just there for art’s sake or does it symbolize something?
Fado is the national music of Portugal and our first experience with the music was in a small cultural center just a stone’s throw from the Torre da Almedina, at the base of the stairs known as “the Backbreaker,” Rua Quebra Costa.
Fado ao Centro is dedicated to promoting the Coimbra style of Fado. Coimbra Fado came about when male students at the University would stand in the narrow lanes of the city and serenade their sweethearts, who would listen from the window above. This tradition has influenced the Coimbra style of Fado in several ways.
First, unlike the Lisbon version, only men can sing Coimbra Fado, and they should be students or former students of the University. The performers wear the students’ traditional black suit and cape. Second, the singer is accompanied by a Portuguese guitar and, sometimes, a classical, or Spanish guitar. In the much more liberal Lisbon style the music is sometimes accompanied by piano, drums and other instruments.
Coimbra Fado’s songs are usually love songs, though occasionally a political protest song makes its way into the play list. Finally, because of the intimacy between the singer and his beloved in the window above, clapping is not the way to show appreciation. The proper way is to clear your throat, as if trying to get someone’s attention, kind of like the young girl’s father might do when discretely telling the gentleman caller to move along. The girl would show her appreciation by turning her lights on and off several times.
The performance was wonderful. The musicians were top notch and the music is moving. There is a narrator who explains a little of the history of the music and what each song is about, and the room is full of photos and posters celebrating the artists who made Coimbra Fado famous. For those interested, you can pick up CDs recorded by Fado ao Centro as well.
The Romanesque Sé Velha de Coimbra is almost as old as Portugal itself. The construction of the cathedral was ordered and financed by Dom Afonso Henrique, the first king of Portugal. Construction took many years, but the construction was advanced enough by 1185 that the coronation of Dom Sancho I, the second king of Portugal, took place in the cathedral.
The cathedral’s construction was finished early in the 13th century, with the construction of the cloisters begun around the same time. While there have been several additions to the cathedral, it is the only Romanesque cathedrals in Portugal to survive relatively intact over the centuries.
It’s a beautiful structure, strong like a fortress. This photo is of the eastern façade, with the semicircular apse. I love the way the wispy cirrus clouds contrast with the angles and edges of the stones.
Fado is the national music of Portugal. There are two distinct styles of Fado. Lisbon Fado tends to be a little more upbeat and can be sung by both men and women. The songs can be about a variety of subjects and can be accompanied by instruments other than the traditional Portuguese guitar and classical guitar.
Coimbra fado is a different style from the Lisbon version. Coimbra Fado came about when the male students of the university would stand below a girl’s window and sing love songs to woo a young lady. Because of this local tradition, Coimbra Fado is much more restricted. Only male students or former students of Coimbra University, can perform Fado and the singers are only accompanied by the Portuguese guitar and classical guitar. The songs are mostly love songs, but occasionally protest songs are sung.
This beautiful sculpture, titled Fado de Coimbra, celebrates the city’s version of the national music. The Portuguese guitar has morphed into the form of a beautiful young woman, who is both the inspiration and the recipient of the song. It’s a beautiful way to honor the city’s version of this wonderful music.
This beautiful bronze sculpture, by artist Andre Alves, sits along Coimbra’s famed Rua Quebra Costa, a narrow lane leading to the top of the Old City and the University. The statue honors the tricana, a woman of Coimbra. She’s dressed in the traditional clothing, with a shawl and apron, and carries a pitcher, with which she would fetch water from the Mondego River. I love the way the statue sits along the rua, with her sandals kicked off, as if she’s resting before the long climb up the hill.
One of the highlights of any visit to Coimbra is the Universidade Velha, or Old University. Coimbra University is one of the oldest academic institutions in Europe and probably the most important university in Portugal. A UNESCO World Heritage Site, it is a beautiful and historic University and well worth the visit.
When we set out for Universidade Velha, we knew only that it was on top of the hill that makes up Coimbra’s Old Town. Unfortunately, we chose the hardest, albeit most picturesque way, to approach the University. We entered through the Torre da Almedina and climbed the steep series of stairs known as “the backbreaker”, Rua Quebra Costa.
Rua Quebra Costa is picturesque. We entered through the Barbican Gate and wound our way up the path toward the Torre. Just after the gate we came upon a beautiful sculpture celebrating Portugal’s national music, Fado. After passing through the Torre we found another beautiful piece of artwork, a bronze statue called “Tricana de Coimbra”.
We struggled up the steps, passing the Old Cathedral and the Museu Nacional de Machado de Castro, stopped to catch our breath at the New Cathedral, and eventually made our way to the Old University. It was a trip worth making, but only once. Next time we’ll take the bus to the University.
The Universidade Velha is centered around the Paço das Escolas, or Patio of the Colleges. This was once the Royal Palace of Alcáçova and, beginning in 1131, the home of Dom Afonso Henríques, Portugal’s first king. Almost every king of Portugal’s first dynasty was born here. Interestingly, the first Portuguese king not born in the Palace was Dom Dinis, who founded the University in Lisbon in 1290.
We entered the Paço das Escolas through the Porta Férrea, or Iron Gate. Designed by 17th century architect Antonio Tavares, the gate was the first major architectural work following the University’s acquisition of the Royal Palace in 1537. It’s an elegant structure, with figures representing the University’s major schools at that time, Law, Medicine, Theology and Canons, as well as figures honoring the two kings who figure so prominently in the University’s history, Dom Dinis and Dom João III.
There’s a second entrance to the Paço das Escolas located next to the famed Biblioteca Joanina. The Minerva Stairs were built in 1725 under the supervision of Architect Gaspar Ferreira. The stairs are still one of the main entries into the Paço das Escolas.
Once through the gate you’re struck by the beauty of the Old University. Two things stand out over all others- the bell tower and the statue of Dom João III. The statue, designed by Francisco Franco and erected in 1950, shows a dignified Dom João III looking towards the Palatial home of the University since he ordered it moved to Coimbra in 1537.
The bell tower is the patio’s most prominent landmark. Known as “the Goat”, it was erected in the first half of the 18th century and is the work of Italian architect Antonio Canevari. The bell, which calls the students to class, rings 15 minutes behind the other clock towers in Coimbra. The purpose of the delay is to keep from confusing the town’s inhabitants and the University’s students regarding the various duties signified by the bells each day.
The tower is roofless; it once doubled as an astronomical observatory. Visitors can climb the tower; I’m sure it provides phenomenal views of Coimbra, but we chose not to make the climb.
The main attraction, for many people, is the Biblioteca Joanina. One of the most beautiful libraries in the world, it was a 17th century gift to the University from Dom João V, for whom it is named. Four huge columns frame the front doors of the baroque structure, but this is not where you access the library. Tours of the library start at the bottom of the Minerva stairs, where you enter the Academic Prison. It’s the last existing medieval prison still existing in Portugal and was in use until 1832. Originally the prison for the Royal Palace, it was later used to hold students who committed disciplinary offenses. By the way, the university had its own legal code, separate from the general law of the kingdom.
After a quick tour of the academic prison we’re allowed to climb the stairs to the middle floor, called Depository 4. This is now a museum. Originally, only librarians and the Royal Prison Guard had access to the floor (the guards accessed the Academic Prison from here). Access to the books stored in Depository 4 were restricted to a select group of staff.
The highlight of the library is the magnificent “Book House”. The top level is a series of three chambers with two floors. 72 gilded book shelves hold about 60,000 priceless books, including a copy of Camões’s Lusiads from 1572 and a Latin Bible from 1492. Each room has a fantastic ceiling painting and at the far end of the third room is a beautiful painting of Dom João V. It’s so beautiful that I can’t imagine anyone actually reading in the library.
There are two colonies of bats who live in the library. Their job is to eat the insects that could harm the books. We didn’t see any of the bats, but there are plenty of places for them to sleep during the day.
I’m sure that some people stop their tour after visiting the Biblioteca Joanina, but those who do are missing out. Next door to the library is the Capela de São Miguel, an ornate Baroque and Manueline chapel built in the 16th century and remodeled in the 17th and 18th centuries.
The altarpiece dates from 1605 and in 1663 the interior was covered with tiles. There’s a magnificent baroque pipe organ, built in 1733 by Friar Manuel Gomes to replace the old one, that consists of around 2,000 pipes. The organ is still used on special occasions.
The chapel is full of outstanding religious artwork, including a painting of Our Lady of Conception, the patroness of the University, and another of Our Lady of Light, the patroness saint of students. It’s a beautiful structure. I was inspired enough to try out my limited knowledge of the Portuguese language. “A capela é muito linda,” I told the student at the door. I apparently used it correctly, because he smiled and replied in English, “Yes, it is.”
After a quick break in the cafeteria for a snack and a glass of wine, we moved on to the Royal Palace. The entry to the Royal Palace is the Via Latina, a magnificent staircase built during the late 18th century. It seems to be a popular spot for selfies or group photos, depending on whether you’re an introvert or an extrovert. We’re not really into photos of ourselves so we climbed the stairs and entered the Palace.
There are several really nice rooms in the Palace. First up was the Arms Room, which houses the weapons of the former Royal Academic Guard. The weapons are used today only for formal academic ceremonies such as the opening of the school year and the awarding of PhDs.
Next to the Arms Room is the Yellow Room. Each school has a different color. Coimbra’s School of Medicine’s color is yellow. The Yellow Room is where the School of Medicine’s faculty gather for events.
The Sala dos Capelos, or Great Hall of Acts, was originally the Palace’s Throne Room. Today it is the space where most official ceremonies are held and where PhD oral exams are conducted. It’s a magnificent space lined with portraits of all Portuguese kings except those who ruled during the sixty years when Spain ruled Portugal.
The Private Examination Room was once the room of the King of Portugal. This is the place where graduate students held their Doctoral exams. Traditionally, these were private exams and were done in secret and at night. The paintings lining the room’s walls are portraits of former rectors.
After a visit to the second-floor balcony overlooking the plaza we made our way back down to the Paço das Escolas and took in the view of the Mondego River and Coimbra from the far end of the plaza. The Universidade Velha is just a small part of the current University, but it’s a huge part of its history. There was so much more to see- the Botanical Gardens, for example- but we’ll have to do that on our next visit to Coimbra.