We finally made time for a little road trip to explore more of our beloved Portugal. With just a two-hour drive north of Lisbon, Coimbra is our first stop.
Some say Coimbra is the Oxford or Cambridge of Portugal. I understand what they mean, having visited both now. This charming medieval town with the oldest university of Portugal, has the same romantic intellectual atmosphere. As in impressive historical college buildings and students wearing long black cloaks while hastily crossing courtyards. I would say, Coimbra is a smaller version of Oxford.
University of Coimbra, from palace to lectures
Founded in 1290, this beauty goes way back. The main Royal Court building, along the Paço das Escolas courtyard, is impressive and also feels a kind of mystical to me. Enter through the Iron Gate, walk towards the left and indulge the views before turning around and take in the complex.
The day pass Program One gives access to palace and colleges. It really is a joy to wander through the small corridors and find a surprising view or gallery around the corner. Portuguese tiles included. For the culmination of antique tiles, do visit the Portal of S. Michael’s Chapel. Both tiles and organ resembles baroque galore.
Since 2013, the patio of colleges is a UNESCO world heritage site. They vary in architectural style, with those built during the totalitarian regime in the 20th century as low point.
From de Paço des Escolas we take a detour via the botanical garden to the Science Museum and National History Collection.
Science Museum and Natural History Gallery
The Science Museum is housed a neoclassical building and the original examination room with antique equipment leads to room of Light and Matter. This interactive exhibit explores human knowledge about light and matter and its relationship to the development of science. Just playing a little Newton. This is not only nice with (grand) children but also to take a trip back to highschool. Most of it still is a mystery to me. Although I do understand that light is life.
The opposite building, the Jesus College, houses both the cabinet of physics and the National History Gallery. Endless rooms with collections of animals, stones and minerals brought back from Africa, Goa and Brazil in the 19th century. To observe a whale skeleton from up close, and walk around it, is fascinating.
Coimbra’s baroque Joanina library
The Joanina Library is known as one of the most beautiful libraries of the world. This 3 floor building houses almost 60.000 books, a rare bibliographic collection from 16th – 18th century. Still available for (guided) consultation if you are in need of research.
Conservation of old books is rather complicated with natural enemies like humidity and insects that feed on paper. For both threats there is a solution. The baroque library Joanina, a sealed intellectual fortress, is only accessible via a large teak door in the General Library. Small steps and protective thick walls allow a constant temperature of around 20 °C in the opulent room. A colony of bats does the rest, they spend the night eating insects. In quite a luxurious habitat, I might say.
A maximum of 6o visitors allowed per visit, so make sure to book a slot when purchasing Coimbra University access tickets. We first wander freely through the academic prison (!?) on the ground floor and the general library on the second. Then the guide ceremonially opens the large door and escorts us to ornamental gold, impressive oak reading tables, books and a large portrait of monarch D. João V.
Oh, photographing is not permitted on the top floor. And that really triggers the rebel in me. Shooting from the hip. Mea culpa.
Where to stay in Coimbra?
Location, location, location. The front door of Sapientia Boutique hotel is literally 20 meters from the famous Joanina library and Coimbra University. So, the perfect 4* operating base to explore the friendly town. Open for almost a year now, this modern style renovated 18th century mansion is a refined and quiet place.
The central courtyard patio, rooftop with 360 view and the light rooms and apartments all radiate the same minimalistic yet historical style. Love it when old and new enhance each other.
We stay in apartment 301 (103?), a true local hideaway. It feels as if we live here. Details throughout the hotel have something to do with books. Either it be lamps, wall art or a reception desk front.
The extended breakfast buffet is worth noting. Seeds, nuts, fresh fruits and more, a feast for a healthy food snob like moi.
Where to eat in Coimbra? Notes!
Now this is a more than pleasant culinary surprise. Located just outside the old center – in Baixa, about 20 minutes walk from Sapientia – hidden on the corner of a small street you’ll find Notes Bar & Kitchen.
The friendly staff (men only?) sets the tone for the nice atmosphere. It reminds me of the farm-to-table restaurants in Aarhus, Denmark. Same open atmosphere, meat locker in sight (in case you’re not a vegetarian) and incredible good food. Local dishes and ingredients with a creative twist. Enough choice for a pescetarian like me. Mr. B. still talks about his slow cooked egg (52 ºC) with textures of Iberic ham and fennel mousse with truffle.
We enjoyed a lovely lunch with a variety of starters. All between 6 and 10 euros. Try that in Paris or Londen. Or Aarhus.
We’ve spent two nights and three days in Coimbra. Next stop on our road trip is the Silver Coast, with its reputation of great golf courses along the Atlantic Ocean. A Portuguese staycation with many faces.