Jo’s Monday walk : Cultured in Coimbra

Central to the University of Coimbra lies a vast square, looking down from which you have the city at your feet.  To reach it you have a steady climb, up through winding streets.  On a fine day, a magnificent view will be your reward.  Sadly, our skies were grey and misted with a fine drizzle, but we were celebrating a birthday and determined to enjoy it.  A 45 minute train ride had brought us here, from Aveiro, out on the coast.

In Roman times Coimbra was known as Aeminium.  An aqueduct and traces of mosaic discovered in this area date back 2,000 years.  The first Muslim occupation of the Iberian peninsula took place between 711 and 715, and Coimbra surrendered in 714.  Many of the street names survive from that period, and the alcáçova, or fortified palace, where the governor of the city lived, formed the basis of the Royal Palace of the first kings of Portugal.  During this time the high part of town was walled and fortified.  Coimbra was reconquered by the Christians permanently in 1064, becoming the capital of the first Portuguese dynasty, in the ever complicated history of this country, in 1131.  It remained so until 1255, when the seat of power was transferred to Lisbon.

It was almost by chance that we came upon the Sé, or Old Cathedral, in Largo da Sé Velha.  Built in the Romanesque style, on the site of a temple dedicated to Santa Maria, from the outside the cathedral resembles a small fortress.  Steep steps lead to the main portal, beyond which a hush descends.  My eyes alighted on huge seashells, the like of which I had never seen.  Labels proclaim them Tridacma shells, from the Indian Ocean.  The alcoves on either side of the nave feature compelling spotlit portraits, while the walls gleam with 16th century edged Múdejar tiles from Seville.

The Gothic cloister, begun around 1218, is the oldest in Portugal.  Unintentionally it’s a green space for small children at play.  Leaving the cathedral, it’s an upwards slog to the University complex.  Robed nuns paid us scant attention, going  about their business within the solid walls.

If I knew anything at all about Coimbra it was that the University was beautiful, and had been designated a UNESCO World Heritage site in 2013.  Founded in Lisbon by King Dinis, in 1290, it alternated between the two cities till it was definitively established in Coimbra in 1537.  It is one of the oldest in Europe, and was the only one in the Portuguese-speaking world until 1911.  The life of the city revolves around the state-run university.

We purchased a composite ticket for the Palace and the Joanine Library.  The latter had to be viewed on a specific time slot so we headed first to St. Michael’s Chapel, where we gaped upwards at the painted, arched ceiling and astounding baroque organ.  Just time for a coffee before descending the Minerva stairs to patiently await our turn.

Finally we were shepherded into cool chambers with dense walls and arched ceilings, not quite sure at what tomes we were looking.  This was just a preliminary.  The gasps came later.  With over 200,000 books, mostly in Latin and pre-18th century, the Joanine Library (named for King Joáo V) is recognised as the most sumptuous university library ever made.  The 72 shelves, arranged over 2 floors in 3 rooms, are minutely decorated with Chinese motives.  I had thought the library in Trinity College, Dublin amazing, but this one defied description.  Nor were we allowed to take photos, conservation being necessarily important.  The books have an unusual ally- a colony of bats who entertain themselves at night by feasting on wayward insects.  This was one of those occasions when I was glad I’d purchased a full colour souvenir brochure.  As I explained last week, I’ve lost all except one of my photos from this visit to Coimbra.  I’ve used my husband’s photos throughout this post, but I managed to find a video to give you a brief glimpse inside the library.  It barely does it justice.

Still awed at what we’d seen, we continued around the Palace and out onto the balcony for misty views down to the river.  During the Middle Ages Coimbra was divided into an upper city, where the clergy and aristocracy lived, and a lower city for merchants, artisans and labourers, down beside the River Mondego.  Since 1772, the Botanical Garden has wrapped a green cloak around the skirts of the city, combining the beauty of nature with education and research.

A cobbled path leads from the rear of the gardens down to the riverside, where fountains play majestically across the water, reminding me of Geneva.  A footbridge spans the river, and playing fields line its banks.  We crossed to the far shore to look back at the city, before returning to the station.  Take a more comprehensive look at Coimbra, with Julie Dawn Fox.  She lives not far away, and has many suggestions for walking throughout Portugal, too.  And incidentally, if you can’t face the climb, there is a bus that will take you up to the University grounds.

walking logo

Not so many walks this week.  People are busy with Christmas preparations.  I hope to have another Jo’s Monday walk next week but I’ll understand if you can’t join me.  Even though I promise to bring cake!


Janet made me smile with this title and I’ve been singing it ever since!

Monday walk…like an Egyptian

Drake always makes me smile!  You will love this burst of heat and colour :

Genuine authenticity

Much more subtle colour from Georgina, tempting me across the border into Spain :

Autumn Walks in the Sierra Aracena

A nice bit of variety, and some daily exercise, with Yvette :

Photos from Daily Walks (2020 Countdown 13 of 31)

And a truly beautiful bit of night photography from Becky :

Christmas at the Botanics

While Cathy finally completes her journey :

(Camino day 47) Pedrouzo to Santiago

Wishing you all a great week!  We have a rainy forecast here so there will be some delighted skipping in puddles.



  1. Thanks for this tour of Coimbra, Jo. I debated making a stopover here on the way to Porto by train from Lisbon, but eventually it lost out. A shame about the weather.

    I’m unclear about something; is the bat colony able to fly into the library?

    1. It’s a fine city, and quite distinctive, Draco. Worth a day or two and I’m sure you’d enjoy it. Oddly enough, the bats live in the library. There was no sign of them, and I found it strange, too, but the guide assured us of their presence. When the lights go out, presumably… ? 🙂 🙂

  2. Always happy to wander through a cloister. I have heard of Coimbra, maybe the university. I had to take a second look at that sky though! Most unusual for your walks. We have another storm forecast tomorrow night – 70 mph winds due to hit us. I’m becoming awfully tired of all this weather 😩

    1. We’d have been at the beach at Costa Nova (the place with the stripey houses) if the weather hadn’t changed so dramatically. Mick threw me a curve ball by saying he’d rather go to Coimbra, and he was right. I was anxious about making it back to watch Rafa at Wimbledon, but we did, and it was a good day out. 🙂 🙂 A wet and windy week here too, except for today. We might have to cross a stream with a fair bit of water in it on our last walk of the year. Not looking forward to that 😦

    1. It’s such a rarity here this year, Anabel! That bit of mizzle in Coimbra back in July seems a long time ago. Yesterday we were out walking and one of the locals was dancing down the street, she was so happy with a bit of rain. The reservoirs are near empty! Thunder and lightning and a good pour down this morning. 🙂 🙂 But you would have loved the library!

  3. Oh, my, you just went from glory to glory here, didn’t you?? I’m sure you needed the relative simplicity of the garden by the time you go there but even that looks magnificent, but in nature’s way, not man’s. I’m as usual coming down on the nature side of things with a walk in some French fields (harvested, I hasten to add). Have a wonder-filled week, Jo. I was disappointed to read that the library wasn’t named for you, but I shall soldier on. 🙂


  4. We had to choose between Coimbra and Óbidos on our last trip, Jo, but Coimbra and its university look magnificent. I’m so sorry you lost your photos from this trip, but at least you have Mick’s! Thanks for sharing the video, and thanks too for the link. 🙂

    1. We loved Obidos, Cathy. Much smaller and with lots of character. I think you could spend a couple of days here quite easily but there are many other places to see. 😍💕 Thanks hon.

      1. I loved Óbidos too, Jo. It was possibly one of my favorite places in Portugal on this last trip. I am always looking out for places you discover, and I’m sure Coimbra would have been delightful. So much to see and do in this wide wonderful world. 🙂

  5. We have seen our fare share of UNESCO World Heritage Sites in Portugal but never been to Coimbra, it looks like a historic city with lots to see and do. Thanks for sharing and happy trails. Aiva

    1. You didn’t know Georgina? What a bonus 😊. English weather here today. Thunder and lightning with pouring rain ☔🌧️. No Internet connection so I’m using Mobile data. How the other half live 🤣

  6. An amazing place, it’s such a shame that you lost your photos. I’d love to see that organ ‘in the flesh’ and that painted ceiling is just beautiful 🙂

    1. We didn’t see it in the best of circumstances, Andrew, because I had a beach day planned but I could definitely see the potential. English weather here today 😊☔🌧️💕

      1. We spent three days in Coimbra and loved our time there.

        We are booking flights to Lisbon for next June. I know what you mean about so many places to see. Where will you go next?

      2. Marvao looks good (I Googled it). I was unimpressed with the Douro, a lot of driving and not a lot of river. Some friends of ours went on a Douro cruise this year and said that they liked it.

        Close to Douro I did like Guimarães and Bom Jesus. I didn’t make it into Braga.

  7. This walk is absolutely dripping with culture and history isn’t it? My Jo would be all over it as she loves cathedrals, cloisters, and chambers. In fact that sounds like an upmarket comedy on BBC2 doesn’t it? ‘Cathedrals, Cloisters, and Chambers’. Perhaps the amusing adventures of three public school posh-boy solicitors? I can see it now ……….

    1. Yes, I think the BBC would run with that one, Jonno. You just need a script 🙂 🙂 I think it would be a great place for your Jo. We weren’t lucky with the weather but it hardly mattered.

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