Coimbra in the centre of Portugal is an interesting and attractive old University town. Take a wander through its Moorish built narrow streets, and avoid the routine of the Algarve
The old University towns of Oxford and Cambridge are popular because the lofty religious spires and ancient towers of learning in each town are attractive draws. This is also true for Coimbra, home of Portugal’s oldest University founded in 1290 (the 10th oldest in the world and just 81 years younger than Cambridge).
Top of the hill: the University Quarter
Coimbra University is based in very grand buildings at the top of a steep hill, and near the fortress looking Cathedral. Even though the heat in summer is blistering, it is worth the climb. The most impressive University building is the ancient library, the Biblioteca Joanina (3001-401 Coimbra, http://www.uc.pt/en/informacaopara/visit/contact, +351 239 859 884), although entrance at 5 Euros each makes it an expensive experience.
We chose not to pay to enter the library but enjoyed wandering around the huge University square looking at grand doorways, archways and windows and were able to wander into the courtyards of a couple of the buildings.
At the back of the University quarter is a pretty botanic garden (Calçada Martim de Freitas, 3000-393 Coimbra, http://www.uc.pt/en/jardimbotanico (+351) 239 855 233). The public part of the garden is small but the greenhouses are open for 2 Euros during working days although the Botanic gardens themselves are free. It’s a good place to get away from town bustle.
On the slopes: The Moorish Quarter
Below the University Quarter is a bewildering maze of narrow Moorish built streets. From the old town to the new it is a steep climb up steps and hill, and many of the more elderly and unfit visitors sheepishly retire hurt.
A great place to people watch and cool down is at the stylish (don’t let the red plastic seats outside fool you) Que Bra bar (Rua do Quebra Costas 45, Coimbra 3000, http://www.quebra.eu/ (+351) 239 821 661). The bar is at perhaps the steepest part of the climb with wide unsupported steps outside. It would be a good spot for someone to practice their first aid skills.
There are some other small shops selling standard tourist fare on the maze of streets, a look-out tower (sadly closed each time we passed) and a couple of small restaurants.
Flatter Ground: The Shopping Quarter and along the River Bank
At the base of the hill on the river plain stands the modern commercial centre of Coimbra. Just like old English University towns, the river is used by students for rowing, and later in the afternoon the park alongside the river is used for romancing. If you like wandering amongst semi clad young students, this is your spot on a sunny afternoon. There are a few modern bars built in industrial-type units along the way, so you can hang with the Coimbra cool kids.
In the main town, I loved the Art Gallery housed within the 1910 iron built Edificio Chiado (Rua Ferreira Borges, Coimbra 3000-180). This former department store is home to the art collection of one man, Jose Carlos Telo de Morais, and while there isn’t anything stunningly famous or expensive in the gallery, just 2 Euros allows you to discover our man had quite the eye for soft and pleasant on the eye impressionist painting. The ground floor is set out as it originally was, with haberdashery and an old fashioned department store feel.
An intoxicating mix of History, Graffiti and Fado
The University gives the focus for the town, and as we wandered round young studious types strolled around arm in arm or lingered in cafes with their eyes resting on the pages of a book.
Despite its old beauty, Coimbra is also a town of graffiti. One interesting piece of culture comes with the student house Republicas that can be spotted a mile off through the volume of graffiti in the neighbourhood, and the PACE rainbow flags hung from the windows. I bet their neighbours love them; bless their (unwashed) cotton socks!
Portugal is famous for its mournful Fado singing, and Coimbra is one of the Fado places. The best place to enjoy Fado here is at a Capella (Rue Corpo de Dues-Largo da Vitoria Capela Nossa Sr da Victoria, 3000 Coimbra http://www.acapella.com.pt/pt/?lang=_en (+351)239 833985) a tiny converted chapel with tables and chairs for about 50 people, and an extensive wine list and nibbles. You can buy a simple but good glass of vino for a couple of Euros, or splash out if you prefer. The acoustics of the building are excellent.
An evening Fado performance costs 10 Euros per person, and we found it an enjoyable experience with a number of different performers through the evening. The host and owner of a Capella will come round and chat to you, and make sure you are enjoying the show. Look out for the black shawls they use as props! While we were there, the owner sang a number of banned songs from the era of Salazar, the Portuguese dictator. The radicalism in Fado is one of the reasons it is revered by the older generation.
Getting to Coimbra from Lisbon is easy as it takes a couple of hours on the direct train. The service is cheap, regular and reliable, and best of all are the English language automated ticket booths. At Coimbra, get off at Coimbra B station, and take a free local train for the 4 minute hop into the centre of Coimbra (at Coimbra A) or pop to the taxi rank just outside the station.
We stayed at the art deco Hotel Astoria (Av. Emídio Navarro, 21 - 3000-150 Coimbra), with its lovely wood panelled public rooms and great views of the river. It is just a short stroll from the train station, and close to a number of restaurants, so it is a convenient choice. Unfortunately, the rooms are a little tired and pedestrian, but with doubles with a river view from only £65 a night, it is not a bad deal overall.
The inclusive breakfast at the Astoria is good, and it’s worth the opportunity of eating in the art deco dining room, complete with maids in traditional black uniforms with frilly white collars.
We also ate at the wonderfully ornate cafe restaurant, Cafe Santa Cruz (Praça 8 de Maio, 3000-300 Coimbra http://www.cafesantacruz.com/ [+351] 239 833 617) next to one of the old churches in a busy square in the town centre. The restaurant was formerly part of the church and the interior (dating from 1530) is wonderful, although the terrace outside is a great place to watch the world go by. The restaurant sells snacks and is surprisingly cheap considering its location. Our toasted cheese sandwich came in at a meagre three and a half Euros!
I’m not a huge fan of the rather plain Portuguese fare, but a traditional pot of goat & red wine stew has to be attempted. If you don’t mind eating your meat on the bone, you get a good meal. I enjoyed eating with the locals at the traditional, non-English speaking and basic Restaurant De Neto (Rua das Azeiteiras 8, Coimbra 3000 (+351) 239 826 786). My meal cost around 10 Euros, and we shared a very nice house bottle of Portuguese wine.
We also managed to sneak away from the standard grilled meat or fish, and had a good pizza at Restaurant Porta Romana (Rua Martins de Carvalho, Coimbra 3000 (+351) 274 239828458) just a little up a narrow street to the side of Cafe Santa Cruz, and not far from the a Capella Fado Bar.
I recommend a three night stay in Coimbra. This allows acquaintance with the town centre, and time for two easy day trips: Conimbriga (http://www.conimbriga.pt/index_en.html), one of the best preserved Roman towns on the Iberian Peninsula, and the woods of Bussaco National Park (http://www.quintadoriodao.com/eng/out/bussaco.html), a Christian refuge for the best part of 2000 years and a great spot for walking. Both sites are easily accessible by public transport, and only 10-15 miles away from Coimbra.