Last Updated on January 23, 2023
Estimated reading time: 7 minutes
By Jim Ferri
I was walking about historic Coimbra, north of Lisbon, discovering the many things to do there. Suddenly I was drawn to the sound of music.
I soon came upon several female students singing to a group of passerby’s. The women were from the University of Coimbra, and a few dropped a euro or two onto the cape spread out on the cobbled street. .
There are many great places to visit in Portugal. Located about halfway between Lisbon and Porto, Coimbra is one of them. Relatively few travelers, however, go there since they set their sights only on Lisbon, the beaches of the Algarve or the wine country about Porto.
I, on the other hand, traveled to Coimbra because I heard of the beauty and history of the city, and found myself smitten with the place. It’s a good place for a day trip from Lisbon or Porto. Spend two days if you can.
I wanted to visit, among other things, the hotel’s beautiful gardens. It’s where Dona Inês de Castro, posthumously crowned Queen of Portugal in the 14th century, had her dalliances. It’s also the place of her murder.
But since I only had two days in Coimbra I left my hotel and headed to the old town. It’s only about a 20-minute walk across the river, but on my mind were the many sights and things I wanted to do in Coimbra.
Old Coimbra, Where There’s Many Things to Do
Wanting to make the most of my time I went straight to the local tourist office. I asked about the yellow hop-on hop-off bus I had seen on the way from the station. It’s 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. Missing it gave me time to discover a really charming area of the city. In fact, after only about 20 minutes I found myself thinking about what a great little town Coimbra was turning out to be. It’s a miniature “best of” Lisbon, with many things to see all in one relatively compact area.
My walk of discovery began when I crossed the plaza near the tourist office and found numerous cafes and pastry shops. They were all filled with people enjoying their morning coffee, very much like Lisbon. The tiled streets with designs are 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 continued my walk, observing life going on all around me… a locksmith making keys in a little store across from a dress shop that is up next to a hair saloon near a little café restaurant. Laundry hanging above the street, shopkeepers chatting with shoppers, waiters readying their tables for the lunchtime crush. I became absorbed with it all.
Santa Cruz Monastery
While walking around the city, I went 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. Walking down the adjacent Rua da Moeda, I found medieval alleyways not even seven-feet wide. I quickly became lost in a warren of little lanes lined with every type of shop imaginable.
Inside 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
That afternoon 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 can be viewed by the public. The curator in the small museum shop assured me the hand is certainly intact, but said it cannot be viewed. The Bishop, he said, only allows it to be seen only in years marked by some significant event. The last viewing, he told me, took place 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 Good Thing to Do in Coimbra: Find a Little Taverna
After leaving the convent and taking the longish walk back towards the old city I came across a little taverna. It was just one of a multitude in the city as a quick check online will show. The owner was standing outside, motioning for me to come into his small restaurant as another couple exited. Thinking 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. I decided to order cutlets with rice and chips. But since the menu had been translated into several languages, I wondered whether I was going to get what was described. 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. As I later walked back to the Quinta das Lágrimas, I thought that like many other things I found in this atmospheric city, the meal 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)