Old Coimbra sits on a hill on the right bank of the River Mondego, with the university crowding its summit. The main buildings of the Old University, dating from the sixteenth century, are set around a courtyard dominated by a Baroque clock tower and a statue of Joao III that looks remarkably like Henry VIII. The chapel is covered with azulejos – traditional glazed and painted tiles – and intricate decoration, but takes second spot to the Library, a Baroque fantasy presented to the faculty by João V in the early eighteenth century.
Below the university, a good first stop is the Museu Machado de Castro, just down from the unprepossessing Se Nova (New Cathedral). Named after an eighteenth-century sculptor, the museum is housed in the former archbishop’s palace, which would be worth visiting in its own right even if it were empty. At present it’s filled with sculpture, paintings, furniture and ceramics. The Se Velha (Old Cathedral), halfway down the hill, is one of the most important Romanesque buildings in Portugal, little altered and seemingly unbowed by the years. Solid and square on the outside, it’s also stolid and simple within, with its decoration confined to a few giant conch shells and some unobtrusive azulejos. The Gothic tombs and low-arched cloister are equally restrained.
Restraint and simplicity certainly aren’t the chief qualities of the Igreja de Santa Cruz, at the bottom of the hill past the city gates. Although it was founded before the Old Cathedral, nothing remains that has not been substantially remodeled. In the early sixteenth century Coimbra was the site of a major sculptural school; the new tombs for Portugal’s first kings, Afonso Henriques and Sancho I, and the elaborately carved pulpit are among its very finest works. The Manueline theme is at its clearest in the airy arches of the Cloister of Silence, its walls decorated with bas-relief scenes from the life of Christ.
It was in Santa Cruz that Dom Pedro had his court pay homage to the corpse of Ines de Castro, which had lain in the now ruined Convento de Santa Clara-a-Velha across the river alongside the convent’s founder, Saint-Queen Isabel. The tombs have long since been moved away, Inês’s to Alcobaça and Isabel’s to the Convento de Santa Clara-a-Nova higher up the hill. Two features make the climb worthwhile: the silver tomb itself and the vast cloister financed by João V, whose devotion to nuns went beyond the bounds of spiritual comfort.
The university, founded in 1290 and finally established here in 1537 after a series of moves back and forth to Lisbon, was the only one existing in Portugal until the beginning of this century. For a provincial town it has remarkable riches, and it’s an enjoyable place to be, too – lively when the students are in town, sleepy during the holidays. The best time of all to be here is in May, when the students celebrate the end of the academic year in the Queima das Fitas, tearing or burning their gowns and faculty ribbons. This is when you’re most likely to hear the Coimbra fado, distinguished from the Lisbon version by its mournful pace and complex lyrics.