Hugging the banks of a broad stretch of the Rio Mondego, handsome COIMBRA (pronounced queem-bra) is famed for its historic hilltop university, dating from 1290, with its stunning Baroque library. Coimbra was capital of a fledgling Portugal from 1143 to 1255 and, for a relatively small town, retains an impressive number of historical monuments, including ancient convents and two cathedrals. Its old town, curving round the hilltop where the university is located, oozes both history and a vibrancy resulting from the presence of around 20,000 students who ensure the city is well-stocked with good-value cafés, bars and restaurants, some playing the city’s jaunty version of fado. Though a worthwhile destination at any time of the year, the best time to visit is May, when students celebrate the end of their studies with a series of festivities – come in August when the students have gone and locals are on holiday, and you’ll find the town strangely quiet.
There was a settlement here in Roman times and the remains of the Roman Cryptoporticus are on display in the town’s excellent Museu Machado de Castro. The Moors occupied the city from 711, using it as a trading centre for almost three hundred years – today’s Arco de Almedina gateway marks the entrance to a former Moorish medina. In 1143, shortly after the Christian Reconquest of 1064, Coimbra became the country’s capital thanks to its position between the Christian north and Moorish south. During this time, the Sé Velha was built, along with the Convento de Santa Cruz. With Portugal expanding south, Lisbon became the capital in 1255, though Coimbra took on the role of cultural capital with the founding of its university in 1290, one of the world’s first universities. For a time the university, too, moved to Lisbon before returning to be permanently housed in Coimbra’s former royal palace in 1537. The Biblioteca Joanina was added in the eighteenth century and the university was further expanded by the New State in the twentieth century. Its students now make up around a sixth of the town’s population.Read More
Coimbra’s biggest bash of the year is the Queima das Fitas (wqueimadasfitas.org) in May, when the ritual academic “burning of the ribbons” is accompanied by the mother of all parties in a week-long, alcohol-fuelled series of gigs, dances and parties. The coloured ribbons worn by students represent the various faculties, and the week’s main parade sees decorated faculty floats followed by black-caped students winding down the hill from the university; every night the focus shifts to the riverside arena where big names in music rock the city until the small hours.
Coimbra fado is distinguished from the Lisbon variety by the fact that it uses a slightly different guitar and is sung exclusively by males, usually in the traditional dark cape of the university. Themes are often translations of famous poems, and in general it is slightly more upbeat than the Lisbon variation. It’s performed year-round in the city’s fado clubs, but you’ll find it far more atmospheric if you catch an open-air performance in the old town in summer. The student celebrations in May are a good bet for impromptu fado sessions, and this is also the best time for big-name gigs. Fado ao Centro is a good place to get a taster of the music.