After living in Portugal for over a year, we finally made a day-trip to the historic city of Coimbra. For this first visit, we concentrated on the sites that are on or around the campus of the University of Coimbra – a UNESCO World Heritage site since 2013..
The city of Coimbra dates back to Roman times and there are still visible remnants of the Roman city . During the 8th century, the city was captured and ruled by the Visigoths. There were a number of periods of Muslim rule, with Coimbra becoming a fortified town between 711 and 1130. Coimbra was the capital of Portugal between 1131 to 1255, before the royal court moved to Lisbon. In 1537, the University of Coimbra was established on the grounds of the royal palace and has been a dominating feature of the city since that time. It is now the fourth largest city in Portugal (behind Lisbon, Porto and Braga).
The university welcomes visitors to wander through its grounds and has established a ticket office to promote its attractions. Visitors can purchase admission tickets for the various points of interest and make their own way around, or they can pay for a guided tour. It was 12.30pm by the time we parked the bike outside the university, and the ticket office closes between 12.45-13.45, so we decided that we would eat lunch before commencing our sightseeing.
We walked down the hill and steps from the university, through narrow lanes, to the area surrounding the Sé Velha (Old Cathedral), where there are several small cafes and restaurants. Construction of this cathedral commenced in 1139, replacing an older cathedral that had stood there. There is a small admission charge (€2.50) for those who wish to enter, but I contented myself with a few photos of the exterior as we passed by. The nearby Cafe Sé Velha has an outdoor seating area, with a view along the narrow street, so we decided to eat there. The owner was friendly and helpful, and speaks at least Portuguese, English and Italian. The Prato do Dia menu offered some nice options, including a delicious plate of chanfana (roasted goat) that I would happily return for. Bev, not being a fan of goat, opted for the chicken.
We returned to the university and purchased our admission tickets. We selected the Program 1 ticket, which provides admission to the Royal Palace (Great Hall of Acts, Private Examination Room and Armory), the Chapel of St. Michael, the Baroque Library (Grand Room, Middle Floor and the Academic Prison) and the College of Jesus, which includes the Physics Laboratory (18th and 19th centuries) and the Natural History Collection (18th century). The cost was €12.50 each. There are other ticket options that can be viewed on the university website.
Several of the attractions are accessed from the large, enclosed courtyard that was once part of the royal palace. One of the notable features is the 34-metre tall University Tower, built between 1728-1733. Its clock and bell chimes were created to control the timetable of the university, signalling the start and end of classes.
Joanina Library (Biblioteca Joanina)
Entrance to the library building is via the lowest level, and visitors are controlled as they move up through the three floors in groups.
Through its history, the university operated an ‘academic prison’ to safeguard faculty and students from criminals. Commencing in 1593, the prison was located below the Great Hall of Acts but, from 1773, the prison operated on the ground floor of the library. It was closed down in 1834. Several rooms can be visited, including two cells.
The second, or intermediate floor, serves as a book depository. There are several shelves of old books arranged around the room. During the room’s history, it is believed to have been used as living quarters and also supported the guards who watched over the academic prison below.
But the upper floor is the star of the show. Joanina’s Library, also called the Baroque Library, is an amazing sight. The decor of the room is beautiful. Painted ceilings, ornate wooden bookcases with balconies, polished tables and even a piano. I wish that I could share photographs – but photographs are prohibited in this room. But to provide a glimpse of the splendour of this library, here is a link to the Portugal Confidential site that includes photos – https://portugalconfidential.com/biblioteca-joanina-grand-historic-library-in-coimbra/
Chapel of St. Michael
The Chapel of St. Michael is next to the library. As instructed by a sign, I knocked on the door and a staff member opened it, checked our tickets and allowed us inside.
The chapel was built in the 12th century and restored in the 16th century. Subsequent work in the 17th and 18th centuries resulted in the current internal decor. I particularly liked the painted ceiling and the azulejo tiles that adorn the walls. It is one of only two remaining royal chapels in Portugal. One of the key features of the chapel is its Baroque organ, that was built for a much larger church. Dating to 1737, the organ contains 2,000 pipes and is still in use. However, at the time of our visit, the organ was under renovation and covered by scaffolding and cloth.
Our next stop was at the Royal Palace, a building that dates back to the 10th century and served as the governor’s fortress during Islamic rule. It became the first royal household in 1131, for King Afonso Henriques, the first king of Portugal. The visit to the Royal Palace is divided into three segments: Armory and Yellow Room; Great Hall of Acts; and Private Exam Room.
Armory and Yellow Room (Royal Palace)
The first room that is encountered in the Royal Palace is the Armory, which was once the first line of protection for the princes. It is now used by the guards for solemn academic ceremonies.The paintings around the room illustrate biblical texts that are a metaphor for victory mediated through faith, courage, fraternity, humility, abstinence and chastity. The adjacent Yellow Room has walls lined with yellow silk and was where the Faculty of Medicine met. The paintings on the walls are of 19th century rectors of the university.
Great Hall of Acts (Royal Palace)
The Great Hall of Acts is described as the most important room in the university. It was once the Throne Room and was the residence of kings between 1143 and 1383. The proclamation of King John I took place in this room in 1385. Subsequently, it became the main hall of the university and was where the most important ceremonies took place.
Portraits of the Portuguese kings line the walls. Around the hall are doctoral benches, where those with doctoral degrees sit during academic ceremonies. There are azulejo tiles decorating the lower half of the walls and the vaulted ceiling is adorned with decorative panels. The hall is still used for the defence of doctoral theses, the awarding of doctoral insignias, and for solemn opening of classes.
Visitors cannot enter the Great Hall, but there are several places along the upper level that afford a view down into the hall.
Private Exam Room (Royal Palace)
Beyond the Great Hall of Acts is a smaller Private Exam Room that has no furnishings. The plain, dark floor stands in contrast to the intricately painted ceiling that dates back to 1701. The walls display portraits of 38 rectors, from the 16th-18th centuries, above azulejo tiles.
The room was once the king’s quarters but was later converted to serve as a room for graduates to take their exams.
Before descending from the Royal Palace, there is an opportunity to enjoy the views over the city from a narrow walkway on the upper level of the building.
Our tickets also included the Science Museum but we decided not to visit the museum and, instead, went to see the remnants of the Moorish fortifications.
Almedina Gate (Arco de Almedina)
As previously mentioned, during Islamic rule of Coimbra, the town was fortified and walled. The Almedina Gate (also called City Gate or Arch Gate) was the main gate within the city walls and was at the lowest part of the city. It was the busiest and most important point of access for both the military and the public. Originally, the gate was between two turrets. The turrets were later joined by an arch with a fortified tower above it. The arch and tower are still present.
After a brief pause to enjoy an ice-cream, we made our way back up the hill to the bike and headed home. It was en enjoyable and informative introduction to Coimbra, but I feel that we only scraped the surface of what the city has to offer. We will have to return to explore further.