Hugging the banks of a broad stretch of the sluggish Rio Mondego, handsome COIMBRA (pronounced “queem-bra”) is famed for its historic hilltop university, dating from 1290, with its awe-inspiring 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 twenty thousand students who ensure the city is well-stocked with good-value cafés, bars and restaurants, some playing Coimbra’s jaunty version of fado. It’s a worthwhile destination at any time of the year (the depths of winter perhaps excepted), though 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 Reconquista 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. 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 mid-twentieth century. During term time its students now make up around a sixth of the population.