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Exploring Coimbra: A Journey Through the Charms of the City of Students

Updated: 21 hours ago

Welcome to Coimbra, a city that breathes history, culture and tradition into every one of its cobbled streets. Situated on the steep slopes of the Mondego river, this former capital of Portugal is much more than just a university town - it's a treasure trove of fascinating experiences and architectural beauty. In this article, we'll delve into Coimbra's rich heritage, from its majestic universities to its charming historic corners, offering an immersive insight into the secrets this city has to offer. Come with us on this exciting journey through Coimbra's charms.


Coimbra | MoonShadow Tours

Coimbra... "tem mais encanto..."

Everyone in Portugal starts humming this song as soon as you mention Coimbra. This city in the centre of Portugal has a lot of charm and a lot to discover. You can't talk about Coimbra without mentioning the University, the first in the country, and an impossible romance later described in verse by Luis de Camoes. These are some of the topics we're going to talk about in this article.


Coimbra lies between the cities of Oporto and Lisbon and was once the capital of Portugal. It is historically a university city because of the University of Coimbra.

In recent history, the University's student population has played an important role in actively defending the values of freedom and democracy against the dictatorship of the Estado Novo. One of the oldest cities in the country, it was the capital of Portugal before Lisbon, until 1255, and is home to the first National Pantheon, the Monastery of Santa Cruz.

Coimbra is crossed by the Mondego river, which flows east-west from the Serra da Estrela mountain range. It is considered to be one of Portugal's most important cities, due to the infrastructures, organisations and companies located there, as well as its historical importance and privileged geographical position in the centre of mainland Portugal, between the cities of Lisbon and Porto.

In terms of services offered, it is above all in education and health-related technologies that the city is most recognised.


The municipal holiday takes place on 4 July, in memory of Queen Isabel of Aragon, the city's patron saint, popularly known simply as the Holy Queen.

The city of Coimbra is a cradle of traditions and a gigantic memorial to our history that can be discovered at every turn. Centuries-old streets, ancient buildings, pompous gardens and centuries-old customs are the reasons that brought us to this magnificent city.



Coimbra: The birthplace of education and Portuguese history


Coimbra, a Portuguese city rooted in history and imbued with a rich cultural heritage, is a treasure trove of experiences and discoveries for travellers looking to immerse themselves in Portugal's glorious past. From medieval times to the present day, Coimbra has been an epicentre of learning, art and spirituality. In this article, we'll explore some of the city's most significant historical landmarks, from the founding of its university by King Dinis to the architectural treasures bequeathed by royalty.




The University of Coimbra: A Royal Legacy of Knowledge


The history of the University of Coimbra dates back to the 13th century, when King Dinis, known as "the Farmer King" due to his love of agriculture and developing the country, founded the university in 1290. This renowned institution not only moulded Portugal's intellectual future, but also left a deep mark on European history as one of the oldest universities in the world still in operation.

The Paço das Escolas, where you can see the magnificent buildings that surround it. This space, before belonging to the University of Coimbra, was Portugal's first Royal Palace, where the first kings of Portugal lived.


One of the oldest in Europe and one of the largest in Portugal, it was founded in 1290 as the Portuguese General Study by King Dinis in Lisbon, and after various installations in both cities, it settled definitively in the city of Mondego river in 1537.

The creation of the university by King Dinis reflects his wish to promote learning and education in Portugal. He recognised the importance of knowledge for the country's progress and therefore established the university as a centre of academic excellence. Under his protection, Coimbra became a meeting point for scholars from all over Europe, thus contributing to the dissemination of knowledge and culture.


 

Fun Fact: The city's student population is around 37,000, partly in non-polytechnic public higher education, partly in polytechnic public higher education and partly in private higher education. On 22 June 2013, the University of Coimbra was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

 

Cultured and curious about literature and science, he encouraged the translation of many important works into Portuguese, including the treatises of Alfonso X the Wise. In this way, his court was one of the greatest literary centres of the Iberian Peninsula.


D. Dinis of Portugal, The Farmer and The King-Trooper, was King of Portugal and the Algarve from 1279 until his death. He was the eldest son of King Afonso III of Portugal and his second wife Beatriz of Castile.

estátua de D. Dinis
Statue of King Dinis, founder of the University of Coimbra

He was a great lover of the arts and letters. As a famous troubadour, he developed the Cantigas de Amigo and satire, contributing to the development of troubadour poetry in the Iberian Peninsula. He is thought to have been the first truly literate Portuguese monarch, having always signed with his full name.

He was the sixth king of Portugal, ascending the throne at the age of 17. During his 46-year reign, he was one of the main people responsible for the creation of national identity and the dawn of Portugal's awareness as a nation-state: in 1297, after his father had completed the Reconquista, he defined Portugal's borders in the Treaty of Alcanizes. With this treaty, Portugal had the oldest borders in Europe.


In addition, King Dinis played a key role in the creation of the Leiria Pine Forest. This vast pine forest, established in the 13th century, not only served as a royal hunting reserve, but also played a crucial role in the environmental preservation and economic development of the region. King Dinis' visionary approach to sustainable land management left a lasting legacy that is still admired today.


 

Fun Facts: When the campaign for the Portuguese Discoveries began, it was the trees of the Pinhal de Leiria that provided the wood for the construction of the caravels and ships that took the sailors to explore the oceans.

 

Leiria Pine Forest

D. Dinis redistributed land, promoted agriculture and founded several rural communities, trying to get not only the peasants and religious communities, but also the whole country interested in this activity. He facilitated the distribution of property and divided uncultivated land into groups of twenty or thirty couples, distributing each one to a family. Each couple paid a fee or pension to the king, the municipality or the donor of the land.

He had the elm trees dried to be used for cultivation and used the wood from the Leiria pine forest to build houses, warehouses and fleets. At the same time, he protected this pine forest, as it shielded the farmland from the advance of the coastal sands.



The Order of Christ: Spiritual and Heritage Connection


The link between King Dinis and the Order of Christ, one of the most influential religious and military orders in Portuguese history, has become deeply rooted in our country. Founded in the 12th century, the Order of Christ played a crucial role in Portugal's maritime expansion during the Age of Discovery, providing spiritual, logistical and financial support for the voyages of exploration.

The monastery of Santa Cruz, located in the heart of Coimbra, is a tangible testimony to this connection. Founded at the beginning of the 12th century by the Order of Santa Cruz, a religious order that was a precursor to the Order of Christ, the monastery has played a fundamental role in the spiritual and cultural life of the city over the centuries. Its imposing Gothic walls and arches echo the whispers of the past, inviting visitors to immerse themselves in Coimbra's rich religious history.


 

Fun Facts: Santa Cruz was the cradle of the first medieval studies in Portugal, which would strengthen the emerging royal power through its educational action. It was within its walls that one of the most universal figures of Western culture in the 12th-13th centuries, St Anthony, furthered his theological studies and the vast knowledge of the Holy Scriptures evident in his sermons.

 

Mosteiro de Santa Cruz
Monastery of Santa Cruz

One of the city's most sumptuous buildings, the Monastery of Santa Cruz. Its foundation dates back to 1131 and what makes it so emblematic is the fact that it is the burial place of Portugal's first two kings, D. Afonso Henriques and D. Sancho.

Although the building dates back to the 12th century, traces of the Romanesque period are already quite small, since the need to expand greatly altered the original structure, namely the alteration made in the 16th century by King Manuel I. These marks are clearly visible in the Manueline portico and the side towers on the church's façade. A place that is a true example of the architectural excellence of our religious heritage.



Protecting the Order of the Temple

On 13 October 1307, Philip of France arrested a large number of the Knights Templar. In order to gain the support of the Church, he found a way to elevate someone he trusted to the papal office: Pope Clement V, who became the first Pope to sit in Avignon, in order to be more manoeuvrable and available to help Philip, and who would create a dispute over who was the true Pope. Clement ordered all the kingdoms where Templars resided to confiscate their property and condemn each of their members to death.

In 1319, Dinis obtained from Pope John XXII a bull creating the Order of Christ, to which all the assets and several of the members of the extinct Templar Order were transferred. The Castle of Castro Marim was designated as its headquarters, thus creating the first Portuguese military order, which even supported the Portuguese knights of the Order of Santiago in their dispute to separate from their Castilian master. The Order of Santiago would eventually form a Portuguese branch.




The Architectural Treasures of Royalty: The Joanine Library


One of Coimbra's undisputed highlights is the Joanina Library, an architectural jewel from the Baroque period built in the 18th century during the reign of King João V. This magnificent library, adorned with gilded details, carved wooden shelves and an impressive collection of rare books, is a tribute to royal patronage and the love of learning.


The Joanina holds around 70,000 volumes, most of which are on the main floor. It houses the University's main Old Book collections (documents up to 1800).

King João V, known for his patronage of the arts and culture, commissioned the construction of the Biblioteca Joanina to house the vast collection of manuscripts and literary works accumulated over the centuries by the University of Coimbra. Today, visitors can marvel at the breathtaking beauty of this unique space and explore its literary gems in an atmosphere of pure opulence and erudition.


 

Tip: The visit to the University costs €10 and includes access to the Joanina Library, the Chapel of St Michael, the Chapel Room, the Private Examination Room and the Arms Room. The ticket must be purchased from the University Shop at the Paço das Escolas. The ticket will include a timetable for entry to the Joanina Library, as it only opens every 20 minutes with a controlled number of visitors.

 


It is made up of three rooms that communicate with each other through arches identical to the portal and entirely lined with bookshelves, decorated with Chinese motifs (in the first room in contrast gold on a green background, in the second, gold on a red background and in the last gold on a black background).

Its entire architecture involves a portrait of King João V which, placed on the wall at the top of the building, in the last room, acts as a "vanishing point" for the library of the University of Coimbra, also called Casa da Livraria in other times. The Joanina's central nave makes its structure resemble that of a chapel, where the portrait of King João V takes the place of the altar. The gilded frame of the canvas imitates a curtain, which opens to show the king in a "splendid allegorical composition".



Exploring the Charms of Coimbra: Unmissable Places to Visit


In addition to the historical landmarks mentioned, Coimbra offers a wealth of points of interest for travellers. The Sé Velha, a majestic Romanesque cathedral from the 12th century, is an impressive example of medieval sacred architecture and a place of great spiritual significance.


Sé velha de Coimbra
Sé Velha of Coimbra

One of the city's main buildings, the Sé Velha. Romanesque in style and dating back to the 12th century, this church was built by order of King Afonso Henriques and the work was designed by Master Roberto, who was also responsible for the construction of the Lisbon Cathedral, hence the clear similarities between the two.

Coimbra's Old Cathedral is an imposing building with simple lines that resemble a castle, and there is even a tower that stands out from the rest of the building. Inside, as well as visiting the church, you can also visit the cloisters, which even have a small garden in the centre.


 

Tip: Coimbra's Old Cathedral can be visited every day from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. except Thursday (from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.). The ticket price is €2.5

 

Quinta das Lágrimas, immortalised in the tragic romance of Pedro and Inês, is another place that captivates the imagination of visitors. The lush gardens and romantic remains of this idyllic setting provide an immersive and emotional experience.


Quinta das Lágrimas

Quinta das Lágrimas

Quinta das Lágrimas is a must-visit destination for lovers of history and romance. This enchanting site is immortalised in the tragic tale of Pedro and Inês, two lovers whose forbidden love left its mark on Portugal's history. Visitors can explore the lush gardens that witnessed the couple's passionate sighs, while learning about the tragic love story that inspired generations. In addition, the quinta offers a serene and tranquil atmosphere, perfect for contemplation and relaxation, making it an unmissable stop for those wishing to immerse themselves in Coimbra's rich history and culture.


Love story between Pedro and Inês de Castro

Pedro, son of King Afonso IV (King of Portugal), was married to Constança, who could not do without the care of her Castilian aunt, Inês de Castro. As fate would have it, Pedro and Inês fell in love and arranged secret meetings in the gardens of Quinta das Lágrimas. When their secret relationship was discovered, it caused enormous embarrassment at court. To solve this problem, King Afonso IV ordered Inês to be exiled to a castle on the Castilian border.

Inês was the daughter of a nobleman from Galicia, and the king feared that Pedro would be influenced by his beloved's family to choose a son of hers as his heir.



After some time, Constança died in childbirth and the widowed Pedro brought Inês back to live with him in the Paços de Santa Clara. This attitude caused great excitement at court and enormous instability, and the displeasure of the people was evident. Even so, oblivious to the criticism, Pedro and Inês had three children.

To put an end to the love affair, King Afonso IV tried to arrange another marriage for Pedro, but his passion for Inês was unwavering and he always refused. So King Afonso IV had Inês executed. According to legend, Inês was murdered in the Fonte dos Amores, where Inês' blood and Pedro's tears still flow.

This story was told in the book Os Lusíadas written by Luís de Camões.


"After

this prosperous victory,

Afonso returned to Lusitania,

To achieve peace with such glory

As much as he was able to win in the hard war,

The sad and dino affair of memory,

That men unearth from the grave,

Happened to the miserable and petty girl

Who, after being killed, was Queen."


Translated from the original poem in Portuguese


 

Fun Facts: When Pedro ascended the throne, on the day of his coronation he ordered Inês body to be placed on the throne and crowned, forcing everyone present to kiss the queen's hand. Inês de Castro's body and Pedro's are both in the Alcobaça monastery..

 

Finally, a visit to the Monastery of Santa Cruz, already mentioned in this article, completes the journey through Coimbra's history. This monastery, with its ornate chapels and serene cloisters, offers a unique insight into the religious devotion and sacred art that characterise the city.

In short, Coimbra is much more than just a city - it's a living testimony to Portugal's rich heritage and culture. From its historic university to its regal architecture and emblematic sites, Coimbra continues to enchant and inspire visitors from all over the world, inviting them to explore its charms and discover its fascinating stories.



Ready to visit the city? Visit our website and book a private tour with a local guide who will tell you all about the city of Coimbra.



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