Travelogue Iberia 7: Coimbra

COIMBRA
18 September 2013

Coimbra, 119km south of Porto, has been a settlement since Roman times and was the capital of Portugal in the Middle Ages. Archaeological structures and relics still remain – and are open to view – in Conimbriga (18km southwest of Coimbra) and buildings from its era as capital in the 1100s still stand in the city. In the 1200s Coimbra got its university – the first in Portugal and one of the first in Europe – for which it is best known today, making it the “Oxford of Portugal”.

Coimbra is in Beira Litoral (litoral meaning coastal) province and is the third biggest town in Portugal after Lisbon and Porto. Between its lengthy history and modern university life, there is a good blend of sight-seeing and (economical) entertainment to be had.

Because the centre of the old city is the warren of narrow cobbled streets you’d expect, it’s really only feasible to explore on foot, although there is a hop-on-hop-off tourist bus that makes circumnavigation of the perimeter a bit easier since the city is built on a steep hill – university on the hilltop with the tangle of old town around and below it, spilling all the way down to the river.

We managed to avoid this congestion, staying minutes out of old town, but still on the main Avenida Fernao de Magalhaes, which turned out to be mercifully simple in getting into and out of the city via the main onramp/offramp roundabout. I’d booked us at the Comfort Inn Almedina, which turned out to be nothing like the pictures, but perfectly adequate anyway in City Lodge style.

Planning a walking tour route was easy (using the tourist map from the hotel front desk) since the main sights did a snail’s shell spiral from where we were, up the hill and through the old town, spitting us out at the river, leaving just the monasteries on the other side of the river… and hopefully a curry dinner since the tourist map recommended an ‘Indiano’ restaurant on the riverside.

We whipped around all the requisite squares, statues, monuments and churches (hastening to breakneck speed to pass the dreary Fado folk singers) with the highlight being lunching on a bifade, which is a cheese and pork sandwich on fresh soft Portuguese roll (they probably just call them “rolls” here though) with a creamy mustard and dill sauce. 

With renewed humour, we slowed the pace a bit and (almost) visited a museum, took some pics at the Arco de Almedina (the city’s Moorish gateway) and sourced a fridge magnet and a Coimbra soccer shirt for Christian on the main pedestrianised shopping streets, Rua Visconde da Luz and Rua Ferreira Borges. This brought us out at the Largo da Portagem, with the city behind us, the riverfront Avenida Emidio Navarro stretching out right and left of us and the Rio Mondego and Ponte de Santa Clara bridge in front of us .

River Rio Mondego’s source is in the Serra da Estrela (Portugal’s highest mountain range and main geophysical landmark), making it the longest exclusively Portuguese river, since most of the others source in Spain. And of course, the main bridge is named after my saint, Santa Clara, who Pedro in Porto told us gained acclaim for forming the Clarist nuns (the female version of Francis of Assisi’s Franciscan monks). Reassuringly since she’s so high profile with so much named after her, the rolling Portuguese accent lifts the ‘a’ in Clara so it is pronounced correctly. 

Across the river cluster 3 former convents, most prominently Mosteiro de Santa Clara-a-Velha. Commissioned by Queen Elizabeth in 1314, the monastery housed a convent of Clarist nuns. The waters of the nearby river Mondego gradually encroached and it was eventually abandoned on 1677. Archaeological works and extensive excavations in 1995 enabled the semi-submerged cloister to be retrieved. You can pay to walk around the site, but we didn’t bother since you get a perfect view from the outside. 

Considering all the sights done, we took some time-out and had a little sit on the riverbank walls with a beautiful view and shaded by the gorgeous rows of trees that line the pedestrian avenue alongside the river. There are lots of benches provided and it looks like a popular meeting place for lovestruck couples and small cliques of students to hang out. Nice to note that it’s appreciated and kept neat, tidy and almost graffiti-free.

Wanting to drop off our shopping before embarking on sundowners and dinner, we took a trot past Guls Indiano restaurante since it was en route and found, to our immense dismay, that the place looked locked up tight. There was a notice in the window, presumably explaining the situation, but since the only bit in the long Portuguese message that was fathomable was the words “force majeure”, so prospects looked bleak. 

We’d been quite sold on the idea of a curry so, when back at the hotel we did a quick Google search, which turned up 2 other leads for Indian restaurants. We weren’t optimistic since they didn’t feature on the tourist map (which meant they likely either didn’t exist or weren’t good enough to mention). Either way, their positions and the route between made for as good a sundowner trail as any, so we decided to go with it.

First hope was quickly dashed as the supposed site was on one of the little cross streets a couple of blocks up from the hotel. Luckily though, mid-September is Magic Festival time in Coimbra and there was a big show happening on the square, which distracted us for a bit.

We again climbed the hill up toward the University as this is where the biggest cluster of pubs and cafés (predictably) was and were horrified when we found our second stop, Tapas Bar, only opens at midnight!  … but there is another Tapas Bar branch further up the hill and around the corner that is open normal hours, so we went there instead and had a lovely time. 

Our walk from there to the second curry house took us past the Botanical Gardens, which we’d discounted from our sightseeing initially, but which I’m now grateful to have seen, with its beautiful manicured terraces and imposing Great Expectations pillars and wrought-iron grids.
 
Needless to say, the curryhouse had been replaced by a kebab shop, so there was little else left to do than concede defeat and walk the length along the river front from where we were on the extreme East side to the Plan B options (recommended by the trusty Lonely Planet guide) sitting slightly west of centre… which took us right past Guls… which was open!
 
We had a really delicious feast of onion baji to entrée our chicken makhani, lamb kahari, pilau rice, garlic and sesame naans. Everything very good, although quite different from what we’re used to getting at home (or what we had in India for that matter) and portions half the size (although still more than enough).

What a delightful, if not a little unconventional, farewell to the Portuguese leg of our trip!