By Jim Ferri
When I reached the top of the stairs that connected two streets in the old city, I was drawn to the sound of music.
Within minutes I came upon a group of young female students singing to a small group of passerby’s, a few of whom dropped a euro or two onto the cape they had spread out on the cobbled street. All dressed in black, the women were from the University of Coimbra, Portugal’s premier university in the city of the same name.
Located about halfway between Lisbon and Porto, few travelers are drawn to Coimbra since they set their sights only on beautiful Lisbon, the beaches of the Algarve or the wine country about Porto in the north. I, on the other hand, traveled to Coimbra because I had heard of the beauty and history of the city, and quickly found myself smitten with the place.
I arrived by train from Lisbon early in the day and immediately took a taxi to the historic Quinta das Lágrimas hotel. Although I wanted to visit the hotel’s beautiful gardens (where it’s reputed Dona Inês de Castro, posthumously crowned Queen of Portugal in the 14th century, had her dalliances and reputedly was murdered) since I only had two days in Coimbra I dropped my bags in my room and set off to the old town, about a 20-minute walk across the river.
Wanting to make the most of my time I went straight to the local tourist office and asked about the yellow hop-on hop-off bus I had seen on the way from the station. It was right across the little square next to the office, I was told, and would be leaving in two minutes. I ran out the door, only to see it pull away ahead of schedule.
In retrospect, the missed bus was fortuitous since it gave me time to discover a really charming place. In fact, after only about 20 minutes I found myself thinking about what a great little town Coimbra was turning out to be, a miniature “best of” Lisbon all rolled into one relatively compact area.
My walk of discovery began when I crossed the plaza near the tourist office and found numerous cafes, restaurants and pastry shops, all filled with people enjoying their morning coffee. The street was tiled with designs reminiscent of Lisbon’s grand avenues, but without the crowds of tourists. Large old-style street lamps hung from the buildings.
I continued on, strolling up little cobbled lanes absorbing the color and the culture of the neighborhood. I wandered and watched as life went on all around me… a locksmith making keys in a little store across from a dress shop that was cuddled up next to a hair saloon near a little café restaurant. Laundry hung from lines above the street, shopkeepers chatted with shoppers, waiters readied their tables for the lunchtime crush. I became absorbed with it all.
Santa Cruz Monastery
I walked over to Santa Cruz Monastery, a national monument and the resting place of two of Portugal’s early kings. Inside I found worshipers sitting quietly on ancient pews, and a beautiful church with walls covered with blue tiles.
I stayed for a few minutes before going back out onto the Praca 8 de Maio, the square in front of the church where a dancing fountain contrasted with the solemnity inside the church. I wandered down the adjacent Rua da Moeda into an area of medieval alleyways not even seven-feet wide, and quickly got lost in a warren of little lanes lined with every type of shop imaginable. Inside them local women were shopping; outside older men sauntered about, hands behind their backs, watching the day go by. With music from street musicians wafting through the narrow streets I felt I had wandered into another century.
Convent of Santa Clara
Late that afternoon I visited another church after I crossed back over the river and walked up the hill to the Convent of Santa Clara.
Like the crowning of Dona Inês de Castro, the convent is another of those anomalies one finds in Portugal. After the last nun died in 1886, the law at the time allowed the government to take over the convent, and they turned it into Army barracks. Five or six years ago, however, the Army moved out and the church and government is now trying to sell the convent. In the meantime it remains the final resting place of the former Portuguese Queen St. Isabel who founded the convent and dedicated her life to the poor.
I was told her hand is a sacred relic that has survived to this day and can be viewed by the public. The curator in the small museum shop assured me that although the hand is certainly intact it cannot be viewed until 2016 since the Bishop only allows it to be seen in years marked by some significant event. The last viewing, he told me, took place in 2012 on the 400th anniversary of the year her body was moved from the coffin in the rear of the church to its current place above the altar.
The tiny church itself is beautiful, with an altar and huge wall panels covered with golf leaf. Behind two huge iron gates in the rear of the church lies her old sarcophagus with a life-size statue of the saint on top of it. Every year on July 8, Isabel’s feast day, 10 local men carry the statue about the city.
A Perfect Little Taverna
After leaving the convent and taking the longish walk back towards the old city I came across a little taverna where the owner was standing outside, motioning for me to come into his small restaurant as another couple exited. With the thought of having a late lunch I accepted his invitation and found myself in a cozy little place, barely 15 X 15-foot in size with blue tiled walls.
The menu offered mostly fish and pork and although it had been translated into several different languages, including English, I wondered whether I was going to get what was described, which was cutlets with rice and chips. After a brief conversation in broken English he brought the meat out for me to look at, which turned out to be thinly sliced pork cutlets on the bone.
The meal and a beer, along with extra French fries the owner later brought to my table, totaled only €10, less than I’d pay elsewhere in Europe. Like most other things I found in this beautiful, atmospheric city, it came as a welcome surprise.
If you go:
Quinta das Lágrimas Hotel
Rua António Augusto Gonçalves
3041-901 Coimbra, Portugal
Tel: +351 239 802 380
Tel: (888) 438-RAIL (7245)