Coimbra, Portugal ~ The Medieval City on the Hill

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A visit to Coimbra, Portugal is a step back in time, as you walk the many steps and inclines of the city on the hill. The historic University in this town is a Unesco World Heritage site and its many cathedrals and historic buildings can occupy the pilgrimage traveler for a long while. 

“University can teach you skill and give you opportunity, but it can't teach you sense, nor give you understanding. Sense and understanding are produced within one's soul.”  ~ C. JoyBell C.

Our half day tour of the city of Coimbra was a sight-seeing wonder. Exploring old European cities is a soul tending activity for me, for sure! One could easily spend many days here, and in some ways I wish we had. If not for our Camino schedule, we would have lingered much longer. 

I have highlighted the attractions that we were able to see, and regret some of the famous ones that we did not. Gives me a reason to return, I guess!

Here is a Google map of Coimbra where I placed my personal photos from this article, so you can orient yourself prior to your own visit. I hope you enjoy it!

Walking into the town of Coimbra, Portugal on day nine of our Camino, was special indeed. Seeing the medieval city on a hill from views on the south bank of the Rio Mondego and the hills above, one can truly appreciate the location of this city. It is easy to see why this site was chosen in times when defense was everything. 

Coimbra City View from the Mondego RiverCoimbra City View from the Mondego River

In the Largo da Portagem, the square on the north side of the Mondego River is the statue below, a former 19th century president of Portugal and the focal point of the square.

Monument to Joaquim António de Aguiar, Coimbra, PortugalMonument to Joaquim António de Aguiar

Surrounding the square on the northwest are wonderful buildings with very interesting features, in the hotel on the left and the bank in the center. 

Largo da Portagem - Main Coimbra SquareLargo da Portagem - Main Coimbra Square

On the southeast side, the square is lined with cafés, inviting you to lull here for awhile. We did just that with our Aussie mates, at happy hour, over appetizers and the luscious Portuguese wine. It is a glorious way to nourish the body and the soul!

Largo da Portagem Street Cafés, Coimbra, PortugalLargo da Portagem Street Cafés

From the Portagem Square, we found the street below, the Rua Ferreira Borgos, to start our tour of the medieval section. It was on this street that I found a pharmacy to buy an ankle support for my mysterious swollen ankle from the days prior. 

Lots of shopping and more cafés can be found on this street. We did manage to linger over a Pastel de Nata (famous Portuguese custard tart) and a café leite, later in the afternoon along this street in the Café Nata Lisboa.  Eating Nata is my idea of supreme soul tending! The café's tagline is "The world needs more Nata," and I wholeheartedly agree! 

Rua Ferreira Borges, CoimbraRua Ferreira Borges, Coimbra

We left the shopping street, turning right to walk onward up a step incline on the Rua do Arco Almedina to the famous old tower of the original Moorish town walls, the Torre da Almedina. Medina means town in Arabic, and these walls were first built in the 9th century, but what you see today was reconstructed in the 12th. 

These side-by-side pair of turrets includes the arch on the right, the Arco da Almedina. You can see the tourist shops that line the way. If you have time, there is a museum and an interpretive center inside this Tower, which we did not see. 

Torre da Almedina, Coimbra, PortugalTorre da Almedina
Torre da Almedina, Coimbra, PortugalArco da Almedina, Coimbra, Portugal

Instead, we climbed higher on the Rua do Arco Almedina, up many steps and toward the old cathedral. Wear good walking shoes to visit Coimbra, Portugal!

Rua do Arco AlmedinaRua do Arco Almedina

But first we took a side street to the north, the Rua Sobre Ribas. Lots of interesting architectural features down this narrow old medieval street. 

Manuline Threshold on the Rua Sobre RibasManuline Threshold on the Rua Sobre Ribas
Narrow Streets of the Rua Sobre Ribas, Coimbra, PortugalNarrow Streets of the Rua Sobre Ribas

We walked only a few hundred meters, to this point, the Torre de Anto, yet another famous tower that was part of the town wall. This medieval tower is not the white one you see, but the tan one on the left side of the photo. 

Torre de Anto, Coimbra PortugalTorre de Anto, Coimbra, Portugal

We retraced our steps back to the Rua Quebras Costas, and once again were faced with steep stairs toward the old cathedral. 

Stairclimbing on the Rua Quebra CostasStair Climbing on the Rua Quebra Costas

After the stairs, the square holding the Old Cathedral, the Sé Velha, opens up gloriously in front of you!

According to the Sé Velha information boards, this Old Cathedral of Coimbra is built in a very rare Reconquista Style of architecture, a Romanesque style with Arabic influences. The cathedral was started in 1162 through the financing of the first king of Portugal, Afonso Henriques, and the first service was held here in 1184.

Sé Velha ~ Coimbra Portugal ~ Rare Reconquista StyleSé Velha ~ Coimbra, Portugal ~ Rare Reconquista Style, 12th Century

Moving to the exterior north side, is the obvious Porta Especiosa, translated to be the Special or Beautiful Door, of later Portuguese Renaissance style, added in the 16th century. 

Sé Velha ~ Coimbra, Northern Façade and Porta EspeciosaSé Velha ~ Coimbra, Northern Façade and Porta Especiosa

There is a beautiful Our Lady with Child medallion above the door, seen best on the photo on the right. 

The Renaissence Door on the Northern Façade of the Sé Velha Coimbra, PortugalThe Renaissance Door on the Northern Façade, 16th C. ~ Sé Velha Coimbra
Close-Up of the Renaissance Door ~ Sé Velha Coimbra, PortugalClose-Up of the Renaissance Door ~ Sé Velha Coimbra, Portugal

And on the eastern side, the altar apses can be seen, below. The many steps on the left side of the photo, leads you higher up the hill to the New Cathedral or Sé Nova, and eventually to the University complex. 

Sé Velha Coimbra, Eastern FaçadeSé Velha Coimbra, Eastern Façade

The Old Cathedral is a museum and we spent quite a bit of time here. There is so much to see. Here is just a glimpse of the interior of it. (Click here for their official website. You will have to translate it into English.) 

Altar to Fátima, Sé Velha Coimbra, PortugalAltar to Fátima, Sé Velha Coimbra
Portrait of the Queen, Saint Isabel in the Sé Velha, CoimbraPortrait of the Queen, Saint Isabel
Sé Velha Coimbra, Main AltarSé Velha Coimbra, Main Altar
Sé Velha Coimbra, Side Altar, Chapel of the Holy SacramentSé Velha Coimbra, Side Altar, Chapel of the Holy Sacrament
Statue to Fátima, Sé Velha, Coimbra PortugalStatue to Fátima
16th C. Edged Múdejar Tile from Seville16th C. Edged Múdejar Tile from Seville

Then next, the pilgrimage traveler must spend some time in the Gothic cloister, built many centuries after the cathedral. 

Gothic Style Cloister, 13th CenturyGothic Style Cloister, 13th Century

Despite all the folks strolling about here, its centuries of holy energy and the concomitant hush that will also impact your soul in the present moment. Again, I wished I could have stayed and watched the changing light and shadows play against the vaulted passageways. 

Gothic Style Cloister, 13th Century, Sé Velha, Coimbra PortugalGothic Style Cloister, 13th Century, Sé Velha, Coimbra, Portugal
Sé Velha Cloister, Coimbra PortugalSé Velha Cloister
Sé Velha Cloister, Coimbra PortugalGothic Style Cloister, 13th Century, Sé Velha, Coimbra, Portugal

Then it was time to go. Around the rear and eastern end of the Sé Velha, one climbs more stairs and steep inclines to reach the top of the hill or the "Alta de Coimbra" to see the New Cathedral of Coimbra, or the Sé Nova de Coimbra, Portugal. This is the current bishopric seat of the city. 

17th Century, Baroque, Sé Nova de Coimbra, Portugal17th Century, Baroque, Sé Nova de Coimbra

The New Cathedral is not a museum, and while it may be more impressive in structure than the old, in my opinion, it was less appealing. Finished in the 17th century, it is a place of grandeur. 

There is no official website for the Sé Nova, you can read more about it from Wikipedia, by clicking here. 

Climbing to the uppermost part of Coimbra, just before the New Cathedral Square, you actually see the Museu Nacional Machado de Castro first, left photo, below. We had insufficient time to see this National Museum, but it has many impressive exhibits. You may wish to create time in your schedule to see it. 

Museu Nacional Machado de Castro, Coimbra, PortugalMuseu Nacional Machado de Castro, Coimbra, Portugal
Soaring Reach of the New Cathedral of Coimbra, PortugalSoaring Reach of the New Cathedral of Coimbra

The interior of the Sé Nova de Coimbra is grandiose indeed with gilded wood carvings everywhere. The altars were completed in the 17th and 18th centuries, according to Wikipedia and are of the said, " National Portuguese Altar style."

Main Altar, Sé Nova de Coimbra, PortugalMain Altar, Sé Nova de Coimbra
Side Altar, Sé Nova de Coimbra, PortugalSide Altar, Sé Nova de Coimbra

I did not end up spending much time here, as the setting was less intimate, and the day was waning quickly. In fact, Rich didn't even go inside with me, he was already weary of touring. We needed to move on to the University buildings if we were to see them at all. 

Onward to the crest of the hill along the Rua São Pedro, one comes to the Porta Férrea, the grand entrance to the famous University of Coimbra square, the Paço das Escolas (Palace of the Schools), shown in the photo below.

Porta Férrea, University of Coimbra, PortugalPorta Férrea, University of Coimbra

Inside the main university square, it is just breathtaking. The clock tower, around which the univerity life centers, is the first thing you see when entering at the Porta Férrea, above.

The University Clock Tower in the Paço das Escolas, University of CoimbraThe University Clock Tower in the Paço das Escolas

Adjacent to the clock tower is this old royal palace, that was converted to university buildings, housing administrative services and various faculties. 

Main Building in the Paço das Escolas, Housing Administrative Services and FacultiesMain Building in the Paço das Escolas, Housing Administrative Services and Faculties

Looking to the West, is the grand statue of King João III, the person responsible for making the university's permanent home in Coimbra, Portugal. 

View of the Paço das Escolas and the statue King João III, University of CoimbraView of the Paço das Escolas and the statue of King João III

The Joanina Library, seen to the right in the photo above, and below, is a gorgeous building, at the far end of the main university square. 

Biblioteca Joanina, Coimbra, PortugalBiblioteca Joanina

Looking back to the main buildings, from the Minerva Stairs area, is shown in the photo below. 

Paço das Escolas, Coimbra PortugalPaço das Escolas, Coimbra, Portugal

Instead of waiting in long lines to go up the university clock tower, we basked in the views from the western end square, near the Escadas de Minerva, or Minerva's Stairs. 

View Westward from the Escadas de Minerva, University of CoimbraView Westward from the Escadas de Minerva

We did not enter any of the buildings of the square, we were just toured out for the day, and it was pricey and the lines were long with tour groups. 

Instead we walked down the long main street to the East, the Largo Porta Férrea. Turning back, the view is lovely, of the main entrance and clock tower. 

Largo Porta Férrea, University of CoimbraLargo Porta Férrea

All the sidewalks and plazas here are lined with beautifully designed granite setts, like shown in the photo below. These are not true cobblestones, but everyone calls them that!

Rua Estudos, Granite Setts (Cobblestone), University of Coimbra Campus in PortugalRua Estudos, Granite Setts (Cobblestone)

And at the end of the Largo Porta Férrea, is the statue of the founder of the university himself, King D. Dinis. 

Statue of King D. Dinis, Founder of the University of CoimbraStatue of King D. Dinis, Founder of the University of Coimbra

We suddenly realized that we had not yet seen the church dedicated to Santiago in Coimbra. Quickly heading back down the long hill, we found the small and inconspicuous church, below. 

Igreja de São Tiago, Church of Santiago, Coimbra, PortugalIgreja de São Tiago, Church of Santiago

The simplicity of this old church is stunning. We were unable to stay long, if we were to meet our friends for the evening.

While a temple was originally built here in the 10th century, what you now see is a 12th century Romanesque church. 

Interior of Igreja de São Tiago, Coimbra, PortugalInterior of Igreja de São Tiago, Coimbra, Portugal
Igreja de São Tiago, along the Portuguese Camino, in CoimbraIgreja de São Tiago

This concludes our tour of Coimbra, Portugal! May your own journey there nourish your soul with discovery, knowledge and understanding as you, the pilgrimage traveler, open your heart to a new way of being!

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