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davidx Coimbra - A travel report by David
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Coimbra,  Portugal - flag Portugal -  Coimbra
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davidx's travel reports

Coimbra and thereabouts

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For some time I have regarded Central Portugal as the great unknown. This 4 night break to Coimbra was a start at getting to know it. This report covers the city and three trips out.

Coimbra across the River Mondego
Coimbra across the River Mondego
Coimbra has one of the oldest of Europe's universities and is portrayed in Porto's adage, extolling its own pretentions to be Portugal's work capital, as a place of study.

This calls for three comments. First, whereas there is much else that is pleasant at Coimbra, it is the University, situated at the top of the steep city, that makes it special. Second, sadly the really ancient buildings were destroyed by earthquake so that what can now be seen effectively starts with the 17th and 18th centuries. This in itself is highly unusual and more than justifies a visit. Thirdly, it is a large part of the city's appeal that the University is a thriving institution and that students are to be seen everywhere.

I should emphasize that, when I call Coimbra steep, I mean STEEP! I don't remember anywhere with so many flights of steep stone steps. Yes, I did reach the top on foot once – but I could not have managed all those steps. Perhaps it only seems that I went via Lisbon – and it was still steep.

The top is so attractive that I went another three times but not on foot. There is a bus that ascends by a very long route but the most impressive way is by a very high lift from near the market, followed by a long funicular. I am sorry that my attempts to get an impression with my camera were completely unsuccessful.

Coimbra is on the rail line from Lisbon to Porto. There are different types of train with startlingly different fares and the inter-regional is good and fast enough for anybody. These stop at Coimbra B and there is a five minute shuttle free to Coimbra A in the centre of the city. There is also a station called Coimbra Parque for some local services, notably that to Lousa.

One train a day goes through the town, starting at Coimbra B, via Coimbra A and Parque, to Lousa and Serpins. I had a mad hankering to use it – but not quite mad enough for the 05.00 rise that would have been necessary.

Favourite spots:
Biblioteca Joanina
Biblioteca Joanina
In the city my favourite has to be the top of the town, notable for superb views as well as for the wonderful buildings, some 18th century and some modern, of the university. Two of the most spectacular sights are rightly banned for photography so cannot be shown here.

One is the interior of Biblioteca Joanina, the early 18th century library building of the University, with masses of ancient books on bookcases made of exotic woods and as beautifully painted a ceiling as you are likely to see.

The other is the interior of a small university chapel, richly ornamented in a style I don't often go for but here it seems exquisite. NO talking at all is permitted here but I was lucky enough to arrive during an organ recital.

Both these buildings are in the main square of the University, a vast traffic free area containing the university tower as well and entered through an arch from another large square.

What's really great:
In the Botanical Gardens
In the Botanical Gardens
I am something of a sucker for both botanical gardens and aqueducts so the precence of one with the other just outside could be virtually certain to please – and it did. The map made it look as if the gardens were much larger and it was a slight disappointment to me that they only cover a small part of a large green area on the map.

They are near the top and the lift or bus is to be recommended. Even when descending on foot down a STEEP cobbled route to the Turismo, I should have taken a horrible fall if I had not managed to run into a red van.

The new cathedral does nothing for me but the old one, a fortified building is both striking and interesting.

Bussaco Palace Hotel
Bussaco Palace Hotel
Another trip out was to the Forest of Buçaco (or Bussaco). Jorge has put a travel tip about the Palace Hotel there and I can't improve on it. Sadly they don't allow visits for meals or drinks out of concern for 'the security and comfort of their guests.' Pity – I have never been in an enchanted palace and placed in the forest as it is, that is what it must be.
There are wonderful trees throughout the forest which is on the Unesco World Heritage list and lodges and forest huts. Up a road at the end of the forest, there is a minor road up to a memorial to the battle of Buçaco. Here Wellington's forces defeated those of Napoleon under Masena

Old Cathedral cloisters
Old Cathedral cloisters
I stayed at the Comfort Inn Almedina, reached by turning left twice outside Coimbra A station and then a ten minute walk. It is not attractive from outside but is conveniently placed – the bus station being not too far away in the opposite direction to Coimbra A – on the Avenida Fernão de Magalhães.
Rooms are substantial, bathroom facilities are good (except for the all too common absence of an extractor fan), the breakfast is excellent, internet access is reasonably priced and, perhaps most important, the reception staff speak good English and are patient at dealing with enquiries.

For a very old child
For a very old child
As usual I was moving about so much during my days that I took little interest in facilities after about 23.00. Hence I shall talk without shame about Portugal dos Pequenitos (for the children). Jorge obviously must recognise me as a big kid because he recommended it! The truth is, of course, that it is of great interest to adults as well. It would be better called Portugal and Portuguese territories in miniature, if that were not so cumbersome - because that's what it is. Miniature buildings portray many of the great sights of Portugal itself and there is a section for each area of the former empire.

Within a number of the miniature houses there was some very good miniature furniture.

From just outside, there is an excellent view of Coimbra across the river Mondego on its hill.

Castle - first view
Castle - first view
I went out of the city three times. One was a train journey to Lousa, where a journey on the regional railway from Coimbra Parque for almost an hour each way cost only €2.10. Even allowing for my going half fare as an ancient, that has to be a steal.

It's a lovely ride into unspoiled country. I wasn't bothered about the little town but I wanted to walk to the small castle on the edge of the Serra de Lousa. I lie – I wanted to walk in the Serra itself, wonderful forested hills – but I don't go where I can't be seen for health reasons and the walk to the castle gave splendid views up to the Serra. The castle itself, with a tiny chapel on the other side of the road, presents a great picture as you pass a corner in the road a few kilometers outside Lousa.

In the University's heartland
In the University's heartland
I usually reckon to try a number of different restaurants and for my first three nights I did just that. The first was good but not memorable. The second was neither very good nor memorable but the third was good enough for me to return on my last night. This was Calado & Calado in the Rua da Sota. Their cabbage soup is terrific – it doesn't sound much but it's almost a meal in itself. The first night I followed it with delicious hake. There was a quartet of Canadian women there, one of whom had a huge skewer of squid and prawns. They were sharing the different dishes between them and this one seemed to be getting exorbitant praise. Having ordered it myself on my last night, I am more than happy to withdraw the word 'exorbitant.'

Other recommendations:
Conimbriga mosaic
Conimbriga mosaic
My last trip out was to the Roman archaeological site of Conimbriga. This is extensive and spectacular but was largely ruined for me by what I still consider an absurd action. The information signs were apparently not at all good so the reasonable decision was made to replace them with good modern ones. There is just one of these telling visitors that there will be others of the same kind telling visitors what they are seeing. Meanwhile, it explains, it has been necessary to remove the old signs because they were defective! Hence there are truly extensive foundatios without any indication of what they are.
Perhaps there is some logic to this but it's beyond me!

Published on Wednesday October 15th, 2008

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Wed, Dec 03 2008 - 03:13 AM rating by bineba

Portugal is still a blank spot on the map of Europe for me, but I have been thinking about going and reading your report makes me want o go.

Thu, Nov 06 2008 - 04:33 AM rating by rangutan

Great report with excellent illustrations. A very high **** :-)

Tue, Oct 21 2008 - 10:50 AM rating by mistybleu

A real enjoyable read, thanks for sharing

Thu, Oct 16 2008 - 03:54 PM rating by robynallen

Love this report. Well written. Can you please tell me more on why the places mentioned at the top of town can not to be photographed? Thanks

Wed, Oct 15 2008 - 11:59 PM rating by louis

You posted great report. I love Portugal so it was a pleasure to read about the region that I know so little. And the pictures are beautiful.
Best Regards

Wed, Oct 15 2008 - 01:08 PM rating by aufgehts


This was a pleasure to read. I love how you are able to interject yourself and humor into the report instead of just stating the facts. I suppose it was a good thing that you ran into that red van? ;) Hope you are not too bruised!

Warm regards,

Wed, Oct 15 2008 - 10:56 AM rating by krisek

David, beautifully narrated, as always and full of practical information. Thank you so much for taking time to share your experience. I have not been to Coimbra, so central Portugal is a big unknown to me, too.

Wed, Oct 15 2008 - 08:52 AM rating by jorgesanchez

Muito obrigadinho pelo report.
Voce escribio perfeitamente.

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