Coimbra, Portugal

We visited the city of Coimbra next. The name of the town during the times of Roman occupation was Aeminium. In those days, it used to be under the protection of another nearby settlement called Conimbriga, the source of the current name of the city. The city is on the Mondego River, the only river that runs fully within Portugal. Coimbra is said to be the first capital of the Kingdom of Portugal. (It is a little confusing because the same is said of Guimaraes in a Wikipedia article.)

Before crossing the river into the main section of Coimbra, we passed the Portugal dos Pequenitos theme park. This place is apparently also popular with adults. (You can see a reflection from the windshield of the bus of Helder, our driver, in this picture.)

We crossed the Mondego river on the Ponte de Santa Clara (more info here in Portuguese!).

The town center is the first landmark one sees after crossing the river.

The University of Coimbra is the oldest University in Portugal. It is one of the preeminent centers of learning in Portugal.

The university is located on the hill overlooking the river. A Moorish Palace used to exist on the hill in times past. After the reconquest by Afonso I, it became a royal palace. There also used to be a convent at this location at some point in time. The University has been in existence since the 13th century, and moved here permanently in 1537.

Because of construction going on in town, we had to take a roundabout route up the hill to the university. We passed the the city’s railway station on the way.Once up on the hill, we drove past a memorial to people who died in World War I. The memorial was in a park along an avenue called the Avenida Sá da Bandeira. I could not take a picture but you can also see it in this article regarding Portugal’s participation in WWI. Portugal joined this war late, on the side of the allies. Portugal stayed out of WWII for the most part. The country was a haven for refugees. (The movie Casablanca concludes with an escape to Lisbon.)

There was an old Roman aqueduct next to where we were dropped off for the walking tour.

We passed the statue of Denis I on our way into the central quadrangle.The king was responsible for establishing the University.

Some students were waiting for us as we walked towards the university, trying to sell pens as a fund-raising effort for the university. The pens were topped with the colors of the different departments (Faculty of Law: Red, Faculty of Medicine; Yellow, Faculty of Humanities: Dark Blue; Faculty of Sciences & Technology: Light Blue; Faculty of Pharmacy: Purple; Faculty of Economics: Red and White; Faculty of Psychology & Education Sciences: Orange; Faculty of Sports Sciences & Physical Education: Brown).

The students were dressed like they are out of a Harry Porter movie. I suspect that J.K. Rowling could have been influenced by this clothing. Mention was made about the hazing traditions of the university.

We walked to the quadrangle through the Iron Gate, or the Porta Férrea.The quadranglewas completely open except for this single statue of King John III.He was responsible for permanently moving the university to Coimbra.

We got a view of the river from one side of the quadrangle, from behind the statue.

There was no shade in the quadrangle except for that provided by the few trees that were there.

We took a tour of the library, the biblioteca Joanina.

This picture was taken before we entered the main library.No pictures were allowed inside the main library. This historical library has its origins in the 18th century during the age of enlightenment.

Bats are used at night to kill the insects in the library. The books are covered while this is happening. (Only two libraries, both in Portugal, use this system.) The architecture and construction of the library is such that it assures that the inside is temperature controlled. A copy of the Guttenberg bible is in library. Only professors and rectors have access to the books – after approval. There are also places where books can be read within the library itself. Nowadays, book are also available online.

We visited the Saint Michael’s chapel next.We observed the carpet style glazed tile in the chapel, so named because of the designs and the edging of the tile work.

There is a statue of St. Catherine on one side of the chapel and that of Mother Mary on the other.

The organ was impressive.We wanted to visit The Great Hall, called Sala dos Capelos, in the building that used to be the main part of the palace in old times, but it was closed for renovation. We took a detour through the hallways of the Law department instead.

After the visit to the university, we were dropped off at the town center so that we could have lunch on our own. This is where we landed up.

We walked around in the area of the town center after lunch. taking a random detour along a side street to climb up a hill. A cute little chapel was revealed to us near the top of the hill. I found out later that the chapel has been converted into a place for dining, with live Fado music being provided as entertainment.

After this stop, we headed back to the bus to continue with our travels. Our next stop is the pilgrimage center of Fatima.

As we were leaving Coimbra, we got to listen to the song All of this is Fado – a song made famous by Amália Rodrigues. She is apparently well known for the revival of this style of music. Fado is recognized in the UNESCO lists of Intangible Cultural Heritage. Fado has its origins in the songs of the common people. The themes in the music are said to relate to feelings of longing, nostalgia, etc. Rui compared it to the moods of the blues. During a Fado performance, the vocalist is accompanied by a regular guitar and a Portuguese 12-string guitar. We will be going to a Fado dinner event in Lisbon later in the trip.


We returned a few days ago from a visit to Portugal. We were on an organized tour exploring the country from north to south, starting from the city of Porto and ending up in Lisbon. We stopped at many interesting places along the way, learning about the country, and experiencing it. We spent hours wandering leisurely through narrow old cobblestone streets of many an old medieval town, streets that were lined with old buildings of character – with their distinctive metal railings and the occasional laundry hanging out to dry. We also visited bigger and more developed cities and experienced the difference between the new and the old. There is something fundamentally similar about the tourist experience wandering the streets of both the older and newer towns in Portugal regardless.

We visited many old churches – in different styles, monasteries with their dormitories and cloisters, palaces, and castles – all over the country. We even passed through a national park, drank many a bottle of wine with our meals, and also sampled the unique cuisine of this small country, which we were told was about the size of Maine! We learnt about their history, which perhaps bears some similarity to the history of many other countries in Europe – the movement of people, the conquests, the local kings and queens and their kingdoms, the development of nation states, the nature of their explorations of the rest of the world, etc.. We learnt about the kind of things – their stories, products, etc.. – that are a part of their culture and their economy.

The towns that we visited were typically full of tourists just like us. The towns centers and their squares were full of shops for tourists, cafes, bakeries, ice cream stands and restaurants – with outdoor seating under the large umbrellas that provided shade. There were the street entertainers. There was generally a atmosphere that I typically do not experience when visiting towns in the US. I especially enjoyed having that cold beer with my lunch, perhaps concluding the lunch with a shared dessert and a cup of espresso.

And, all along the way, there were other unique experiences and quirky stories that added additional sparkle and spice to our travels.

One has to eventually breakdown the details of these travels further, but a list of the places we visited, with a few sample pictures is perhaps a good place to start.

Porto and Gaia

Guimaraes and Braga

Bussaco Park and Palace Hotel




The Convent of Christ on the Hill

Castelo de Vide



Cascais and Sintra

Alcobaca, Nazare and Castelo de Óbidos

They have a saying in Portugal that the Portuguese go to Porto to work, Braga or Fatima to pray, Coimbra to study and Lisboa to party! They have it all covered!

It was a fun trip, and quite a different experience from that of the trip to Morocco.