After spending a few days in Porto, the university town of Coimbra felt positively small to me. Just about everything is within easy walking distance, which certainly isn’t a bad thing. Probably the most impressive thing in Coimbra is its university, which dates back to the 13th century and is one of the oldest in the world. The architecture of the old campus is spectacular, with several grand buildings and a clock tower adorning a huge open square. Some of the buildings are accessible to the public while others aren’t.
Undoubtedly the most impressive building on campus is the old library, or Biblioteca Joanina. It just oozes history, with the walls and ceilings elaborately decorated in wood, gold leaf, and lacquer. Unfortunately, photography was not allowed inside the library. The nearby clock tower was also fun to climb and offers great views of the city. I found it interesting to walk around campus and observe the students still decked out in their traditional academic robes. Lastly, I got to “spy” on one student presenting his doctoral thesis in the enormous Grand Examination Room.
Another highlight of Coimbra is the fado. Fado is a traditional Portuguese style of music that is both sweet and melancholy. And Coimbra is arguably the best place in Portugal to watch a performance. There is a great little club called Fado ao Centro where I caught a show one evening. The atmosphere was cozy, and the singer and guitar players were all really excellent. If you ever find yourself in Coimbra or Lisbon, you definitely shouldn’t miss checking out a fado performance.
Less than an hour outside of Coimbra are the ruins of Conimbriga, the best preserved Roman settlement in Portugal. I was pleasantly surprised to find myself as one of the only visitors there. Like many other Roman cities, Conimbriga contains an aqueduct, bath house, forum, shops, and houses. The whole site takes about an hour and a half to explore. The highlight of Conimbriga has to be the House of the Fountains, which is a large house formerly belonging to an aristocrat. The floors of the house are elaborately decorated with huge mosaics, which are all really well preserved.
After a couple of days in Coimbra and the surrounding area, I took a train ride south to the World Heritage town of Evora, which is located in central Portugal a couple of hours east of Lisbon. Even smaller than Coimbra, Evora is a quaint, atmospheric town with lots of cobblestone streets. It is also known for its share of Roman ruins such as the baths and the well-preserved Temple of Diana in the center of town. However, one of the highlights for me was the Capela dos Ossos, a small chapel made almost entirely out of human bones! I found it really interesting to check out the artistically arranged bones and ponder the nature of human mortality (who knows, someday our bones could end up as part of a chapel too!)
Finally, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the spectacular megalithic monuments just a short distance outside of Evora. These include Almendres Cromlech, which is one of the oldest stone circles in Europe at nearly 8000 years old (that’s 4000 years older than Stonehenge!) If you look closely, you can see all different kinds of ancient carvings in the stones, which archaeologists can only guess as to their meaning. Nearby is the great Dolmen of Zambujeiro, which is one of the largest in the world (at around 30 feet tall). Unfortunately, it was badly damaged when an amateur archaeologist used dynamite to blow up the roof, and is now in danger of collapse (it is currently being held up by supports). If you don’t have your own wheels, the best way to see these monuments is through a guided half-day tour. I took one through Ebora Megalithica, which had a great tour guide who was really interesting and informative (and who is an archaeologist himself).
Up next is my visit to the Portuguese capital and great city of Lisbon.