It may be way off the usual tourist trail but that's all the more reason to love Portugal’s ancient capital of Coimbra and its beautiful surrounding countryside
Mention holidays in Portugal and most people will instantly conjure up images of the clean sandy beaches of the Algarve. But never having been one to follow the crowd, I prefer to seek out the less obvious destinations, where there are fewer tourists, but still much to see. One of my favourite escapes, just an hour from either Porto or Lisbon airports, is the area in and around the historic city of Coimbra.
Coimbra makes an excellent base for touring the surrounding area. Sitting astride the serene Mondego River, the city was Portugal’s capital in the 12th and 13th centuries. The university established at that time sits proudly overlooking the narrow streets and leafy waterfront promenades, like a wise old owl surveying its kingdom. The main shopping zone, around the pedestrianised Baixa, offers enticing alleyways and ancient steps, which lead you up to the fascinating old town. The Arco Almedina, a tall arch cut into the medieval city wall, is like a time portal leading you up the steep lanes and back to the historic area around the university.
To get a real feeling of the age of this city, I head towards the University itself. It’s open to visitors, although to explore it properly will take you the best part of a day. The Iron Gate and the Via Latina colonnade are amongst the highlights, but don’t miss the wonderful King John V Library, with the ‘Academic Prison’ below it. This medieval prison dates from the days when, in Portugal, destroying a book could bring you the maximum punishment!
If you’re after a relaxing walk, head across to the Quinta das Lagrimas. This delightful palace was once owned by a friend of the Duke of Wellington, and was where the Duke first based himself when he arrived to see off the French in the Peninsular Wars. The quinta – now a popular four-star golf, gourmet and spa hotel - is steeped in legend, with the fabled ‘Fountain of Tears’, from the 650-year-old story of Pedro and Ines, in its impressive grounds. It’s a place I always enjoy walking, no matter what the season, and from the lake, next to the giant 200-year-old sequoia that Wellington planted, there are wonderful panoramic views of the old city. The hotel and restaurant are also excellent, and for a small premium you can stay in one of the rooms in the old palace, or even the converted circular pigeon loft that now boasts a beautiful four-poster bed.
The area to the north of Coimbra rises steeply, as the foothills to the mountains begin. The hills heading inland are densely forested, with lush green vegetation. To the west, the vast vineyards, where the famous port wines are produced, are the major feature. In the heart of this area is the small town of Curia, and the lavish Art Nouveau Curia Palace Hotel. Modern luxury and a first-class relaxation area mix comfortably with the classic Thirties-style foyer and restaurant. Even the original gated lift and plug-in switchboard are still here. It felt like I was on the set of an old Humphrey Bogart film!
A few miles away there’s another hidden delight, which I discovered quite by chance. Visiting a small military museum on the hillside at Bussaco, there is a beautiful woodland walk that starts next to the monument on the summit. Benedictine monks had established a retreat deep in the woods as far back as the 6th century. Later generations, with support from the Pope, began to develop a large forest, with an amazing variety of trees from around the world. Today, it’s estimated that more than 700 different species can be seen, with cascades, wildlife ponds, and tiny cottage retreats hidden amongst the greenery.
The original monastery was replaced by the Palacio do Bussaco, a stunning royal retreat completed around the end of the 19th century. It’s now a five-star hotel, but still retains its regal elegance and period charm. The formal gardens, like the forest, are open for the public to enjoy, and the original Carmelite chapel, although surrounded on three sides by the palace, can still be visited for a small fee. I was lucky enough to be given a tour of the hotel, including the royal suite that has been used by heads of state from around the world. If you have a choice, and the funds of course, this is the place to stay. It is luxurious, grand, and stately, but without being overbearing. Although it's not open to the public, a kind request in the right ear will get you a chance to climb the spiral staircase to the top of the palace’s tower. The 360-degree panoramic views are breathtaking, and it takes a few minutes to take it all in. Once you do, you’ll be in no doubt why you chose this area to visit!
TAP Air Portugal has direct flights from the UK to either Porto or Lisbon.