Past and Present Merge in Coimbra

We’ve made it to the university town of Coimbra, a city that cascades mercilessly downhill to the Rio Mondego. Back in the medieval era this was the capital of all Portugal; it’s perch on the rather intimidating hill making it very easy to defend.

Coimbra. The university sits atop the hill, with the clock tower. It’s a steep climb; be prepared. Photo by R.

Today it is known for its university and fado (Portuguese blues music). It’s also a good jumping off point for some excellent ruins.

We’ll start with the university. The Velha Universidade is the most prestigious university in all of Portugal (think Harvard in the U.S. or Oxford in the U.K.). The students here are still required to wear long black robes to classes. The student manual, detailing all the rules and rituals that must be followed, is about 50 pages long. It’s a lot of tradition to uphold, but they’re all very happy to be there. We passed by a large group of students, mostly men, all in their black robes, singing – loudly – as they marched down the street. Their voices were strong and confident. They were masters of their domain, full of life and possibility. It reminded me of my university years.

By far the highlight of the university is the library – the Biblioteca Joanina. Built in the early 1700s this place is a wonderland of Baroque architecture and scrumptious old books. They don’t allow pictures in the library, so I’ve had to get creative:

The library of the Velha Universidade. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
This is a picture from the brochure. It’s remarkable. I wanted to touch ALL of the books.
An up close look at some of the books in the library. Photo by R.

The ticket to the library also grants access to the chapel and to the Graduate’s Hall (the Sala dos Capelos), where doctoral students are required to defend their theses. We happened to be there when one such student was giving his defense. For obvious reasons tourists were not allowed in the room, but it was still exciting to see it from a window high above the action.

As if the effort of defending your thesis weren’t intimidating enough, they make ’em do it in this room. Photo by T.
A closer view of the proceedings. Photo by R.

Our visit to the university only took a couple of hours and then we set off to see some old ruins. First up was the Old Convent of Santa Clara. Founded sometime in the 1280s as a part of the Poor Clares order, it was dissolved in 1311 after fierce opposition by another monastic order. It was not clear from the orientation video just what the big fight was about, only that it was “violent.” The convent’s website alludes to sexism as the cause (the boys didn’t want the girls around), but if I had to hazard a guess…eh, it was probably about money.

The ruins of the convent. The main church is at left, the cloister is center, and Coimbra is in the background. Photo by T.

Twenty years later, in 1330, the Queen of Portugal, Isabella (Elizabeth in English), refounded the convent. She was inspired by the piousness and charity of the Poor Clares, and to this day she revered as a saint in Portugal. We’ll get to why that is in just a bit.

The original convent sits on the banks of the Rio Mondego, and it was to this river that the first building finally succumbed. Constant flooding made it impossible to stay there. It remained flooded for 300 years until recent excavations returned it to the light.

View from within the cloister. They still have trouble with flooding. That’s R there on the right, to give some perspective to the size of the place. Photo by T.

Lest we over romanticize life in the convent, the excavations turned up some pretty disturbing stuff. This was the middle ages, after all. They found instruments used to bleed people, as well as self-mortification instruments like celices and whips. All of this an more is on display at the museum that accompanies the ticket to see the convent.

Interior of the convent, from the high choir. Photo by R.

Our obvious next stop was the new convent – where the Poor Clares moved their order after they finally abandoned their original building to the river. The New Convent of Santa Clara is a much more ornate structure. The reason we wanted to visit the new cathedral, apart from just seeing where the story of the Poor Clares ended up, was to see the tomb of Queen Isabella.

Her story is pretty great. She lived most of her young life as a quasi-adherent to the Poor Clares. While she sustained her duties as the queen, legends have her sneaking out of the castle at night in disguise to give food to the poor. Her husband, King Denis, eventually discovered this and forbade her from continuing. Still she found a way to go out behind her husband’s back and give food to the poor.

One night, as Isabella was preparing to sneak out with her regular rations of bread, the king found her and asked her what she was carrying. “Roses, my lord,” she said. That may have been the end of it except that the king was no dummy. It was the middle of winter. No way was she carrying roses. He demanded that she show him, and she obediently unfolded her dress. There, miraculously, were roses. This, Miracle of the Roses, is what she is most known for, and everywhere there is a sculpture of Isabella there are rose bushes surrounding it.

After King Denis died, she joined the Poor Clares and spent the rest of her life in the convent. At the new convent you can see the tomb she had designed for herself, as well as the new tomb she’s currently enshrined in.

Queen Isabella’s original tomb, in which her likeness appears in her Poor Clares habit, but also with her queen’s crown. The tomb sits at the back of the main church in the new convent. Photo via.
Queen Isabella’s new resting place, in the silver casket. It’s a bit ostentatious for a woman dedicated to serving the poor. But what do I know? Just outside this church you can also see some of her clothes. Photo by T.

There are a bunch of other things to see and do in Coimbra. The Museu Nacional de Machado de Castro is a must see. It’s built on top of the old Roman Forum – and you can see and walk around in some of those ruins.

It’s also worth going to see some fado. This is blues music, Portuguese style, and originated as love songs that boys would sing to the girls they were in love with, most often in the middle of the night under the girl’s window. It would be a matter of sheer luck to catch a true fado song happening on the street. There are sometimes free performances at Cafe Santa Cruz. Mostly you have to pay a few Euro to get into a show. There are a number of places in town. We went to Fado ao Centro and were delighted.

If you’re thinking about coming to Coimbra, do it. Just make sure you bring good walking shoes.


  1. Awesome pictures and narratives! It’s almost like being there. I sure enjoy your blogs! Thank you for taking the time to write them.


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