The city of Coimbra

Coimbra is a Portuguese city, and Coimbra’s district capital from the centre region of Portugal. It is the biggest city from the centre region with a population of 102 202 (2011), in the urban perimeter. As the largest urban core, it is a reference point in the region of Beiras, with over two million habitants. Historically, Coimbra is the city of students, thanks to its university, one of the largest in Portugal, founded in 1290 by the king Dinis.

Coimbra has an area of 319,4 km2 with a population of 143 396 (2011), divided in 18 parishes. The main geographical feature of this territory is the Mondego River that passes through the city and the county, from East to West, which source is in Serra da Estrela (the highest mountain range in continental Portugal).

The city is considered one of the most important in the country, due to the establishment of infrastructures, organizations, and companies, as well as its historical significance and privileged geographical position in the centre of continental Portugal, located between the cities of Lisbon and Oporto.

The city is well-known for its university and health services. There are about 37 thousand students enrolled, some of them in public and in private universities, and others in polytechnic institutes.              

Points of interest

University of Coimbra

The University of Coimbra is the oldest Portuguese university and for centuries the only university in Portugal – to talk about the history of the Portuguese University is, generally speaking, to talk about the University of Coimbra.

Founded in 1290 by King Dinis in Lisbon, it was permanently settled in Coimbra in 1537, by order of King D. John III, after a period of migration between these two cities. Initially it was planned to work in the Sofia Street, near the Monastery of Santa Cruz, which was opened specifically to accommodate it. However, it was in the Royal Palace of the “Alcaçova”, later known as the Palace of Schools that all Faculties of the University of Coimbra – Theology, Canons, Law and Medicine – gathered in 1544. This is the image engraved in the Portuguese collective imagination, indelible mark of the city and its University ever since.

In June of 2013, UNESCO classified the University of Coimbra as a World Heritage Site, for its unquestionable value for the Portuguese History and Culture – thus rewarding the effort and dedication of those who work every day to preserve, enhance, and share its heritage with the World.

Baroque LibraryBiblioteca Joanina

Built between 1717 and 1728, it is one of the exponents of the Portuguese Baroque and one of the richest European libraries. It is known as ‘Biblioteca Joanina’ in honor and memory of King John V (1707-1750), who sponsored its construction and whose portrait, made by Domenico Duprà (1725), dominates the space.

It consists of three floors: the Noble floor, a richly decorated space, and the most emblematic face of the House of the Library; the Intermediate Floor, used as a workplace and as the guards’ house; and the Academic Prison, which operated here from 1773 until 1834.

The Noble Floor, completed in 1728, began receiving the first books after 1750, and currently its collection comprises some 40,000 volumes. The entire construction is aimed at conserving the library collections, from the width of the outer walls to the use of wood on the inside. Also, to help with the conservation of the books, there are two small colonies of bats that have been protecting them from insects for centuries.
Built with noble and exotic materials, brought from all over the world, the symbolism attributed to its decor is a tribute to the magnanimity and power of King John V and to the Portuguese Empire, whose repository of knowledge was headquartered here in the King’s University. It was used as a place of study from 1777 to the mid-20th century, until the General Library opened in 1962.
The Academic Prison worked initially in two rooms beneath the ‘Hall of Capelos’, then in 1559 – since its foundation that the University had its own legal code, as a privilege, apart from the general law of the Kingdom. To this code, named ‘Private Forum’, were subjected all those who, in some way, were connected to the Institution. This autonomy allowed the University to have a judge – the Rector –, guards and a prison.
In 1773, it was transferred to the building of the Baroque Library, which recovered the remains of what was the old jail of the Royal Palace, and documented the unique medieval chain that still exists in Portugal. In 1834, after the extinction of the religious orders in Portugal, the prison started serving as a deposit for books, manuscripts and illuminated manuscripts that were in various monasteries and convents.
The Intermediate Floor was always the deposit of the Library, and its access was denied to students and other employees – access would always be for the librarians. It was also the place where the Royal Academic Guard would be, accessing the Academic Prison below, through a winding staircase, originally of the old Jail form the 14th century.

The Royal Palace

The Royal Palace of Coimbra was purchased by the University to the Royal Family in 1597. It is here that the most iconic rooms of the University are located, where the most important traditional academic ceremonies take place, but in which some key moments in the History of Portugal also occurred.

The Great Hall of Acts is the main room of the University and the place where its main ceremonies are held; it is also the place par excellence of the realization of doctoral exams by doctoral students at the University of Coimbra, and it is better known as the ‘Hall of Capelos’, the name given to the small cape used by the University’s Doctors on solemn occasions.
It was the first Throne Room of Portugal. Here, between March and April of 1385, the assembled Courts determined the acclamation of John, the Master of Avis, as King John I of Portugal. Its decorations are from the 17th century, and the absence of any mention of the Spanish monarchs, who ruled the kingdom from 1580 to 1640, are the direct result of the huge political and ideological support of the Institution to King John IV, Duke of Braganza.

The Private Examination Room, former room of the King of Portugal, was the place where the graduates took their exams to become Doctors. This consisted of a private oral exam, done in secret and at night. Their demand was such that its memory remained after its end, with the Reforms of the Marquis of Pombal in the 1770’s. Its current layout dates back to the great works of the University at the beginning of the 18th century.

The Arms Room houses the weapons (halberds) of the former Royal Academic Guard that had the function of guarding the University spaces. These weapons are used nowadays by Halberdiers – original guard body heirs – only on solemn academic ceremonies: solemn and PhD Honoris Causa, the Rector Investiture, the Solemn Opening of the School Year.

Saint Michael’s Chapel

The original chapel dates back to the 11th century, built right after the conquest of the city from the Moors in 1064, just prior to the foundation of Portugal. It is dedicated to St. Michael, like all Portuguese Royal Chapels, because of his religious role in defeating the forces of evil.
The current layout is the direct result of the 16th century renovations under the patronage of King Manuel I, whose decorative style has its patent mark on the side door, one of the simplest and most beautiful of its kind.
The interior decoration was carried out over the 16th and 18th centuries and works by artists like Simão Rodrigues, Simão Ferreira, Joaquim Ferreira Bernardes and Francisco Araujo are displayed throughout the building. The majestic pipe organ with over 2000 tubes, by Friar Manuel de S. Bento (1733), is still in use today.

Iron Gate

Located on the site of the original entry of the Muslim fortress of Almanzor (10th century – the original defensive towers are still preserved within the walls of the gate), it was built from 1634 resulting from the initiative of the Rector of the University, D. Álvaro da Costa (1633-1637), and it is the first major work of the University following the acquisition of the Royal Palace to the King Philip I.
Authored by the architect António Tavares, it presents us the main figures of the University: the Kings Dinis and John III topped by the figure of Wisdom, the insignia of the University. In each of its symmetric portals we also find representations of the ancient colleges – Medicine and Laws on the outside, and Theology and Canons on the inside. All sculptural groups are authored by Manuel de Sousa.
The Iron Gate is also one of the most important places of the academic life that developed around the University.

College of Jesus

The College of Jesus is one of the less known spaces of the University of Coimbra, despite their importance for the history of the institution and for the scientific development in Portugal.
Initially built by the Society of Jesus (Jesuits) from 1542 – making it the oldest Jesuit college in the world – it was transferred to the University in 1759, due to the expulsion of the Company of Jesus of Portugal, by the Marquis of Pombal.
It will become the center of all the Marquis of Pombal’s Reforms of the University, from 1772. Two new Colleges – Natural Philosophy and Mathematics – were created, and it was extensively refurbished to accommodate the Faculty of Medicine. Also the old refectory of the College, was reconstructed to serve as the “Laboratório Chimico” (Chemical Laboratory), which is now the Museum of Science.
The Physics Gallery exists in the context of the Reform by the transfer to Coimbra of Experimental Physics classes from the Royal College of Nobles in Lisbon, as well as its tools. Giovanni dalla Bella, reputed Italian physicist, who had already been at the College of Nobles, was invited to be its director. The collection of instruments was acquired during his direction. This laboratory was distinguished by the European Physical Society, since the site had not suffered any modification since its formation at the end of the 18th century.
The Zoology Gallery was at the responsibility of Domenico Vandelli who, as Giovanni Dalla Bella, came to Portugal to teach at the Royal College of Nobles. In Coimbra, he is the director of the Science Museum, but it is mostly in Natural History that his work stands out. In addition to the Natural History Museum, he is also responsible for the Botanical Garden organization. The collections presented here reflect donations to the University and the outcome of various “philosophic journeys” undertaken throughout the Portuguese Empire, under the direct patronage of the Crown at the end of the 18th century.

University’s Tower

The Tower is the brand image of the University and of the city of Coimbra. Designed by the Italian architect Antonio Cannevari, it was built between 1728 and 1733, replacing the old 16th century tower Jean de Rouen had erected (1561).
Its distinct shape results from one of the original purposes – to serve as an astronomical observation site, hence the ‘roofless’ top, uncommon in other similar towers around the world. With 34 meters in height it dominates the landscape around it.
The University’s daily life has always been regulated by the bells of the tower, the oldest being from 1561. By tradition the bells always went 15 minutes behind the other clock towers of the city, in order not to confuse the inhabitants and students regarding their daily obligations and duties.
The University’s Tower was recently the subject of an intervention in its structure that allows visitors to travel to its top and enjoy a unique view over the city of Coimbra – for safety reasons the entry is banned to children under the age of six and in bad weather days. Visits are only allowed during the summer period.

Botanical Garden of the University of Coimbra

The Botanical Garden occupied a considerable portion of the grounds of the College of São Bento, which had been given over to the University, undergoing extensive remodelling dating from the time of the Pombaline Reforms (1774). In 1854, the engineer Pezerat presented his project for a greenhouse (which is still in existence), marking a technological advance in the use of iron and glass in architecture in Coimbra. This building was completed in 1865. The works, carried out between 1944 and 1949, involved the addition of a fountain in the central square, stone benches, a cold greenhouse and the renovation of the thoroughfares between the various sections of the garden and the woodland area.
The survival of some of the buildings of the former Benedictine College, such as the old chapel in the woods, endows the place with a romantic historical air.
In addition to the Botanical Garden’s various works of architecture and sculpture, there is an extensive biological heritage, involving thousands of ancient plant species.

In 1854, the engineer Pezerat presented his project for a greenhouse (which is still in existence), marking a technological advance in the use of iron and glass in architecture in Coimbra. This building was completed in 1865. The works, carried out between 1944 and 1949, involved the addition of a fountain in the central square, stone benches, a cold greenhouse and the renovation of the thoroughfares between the various sections of the garden and the woodland area.
The survival of some of the buildings of the former Benedictine College, such as the old chapel in the woods, endows the place with a romantic historical air.
In addition to the Botanical Garden’s various works of architecture and sculpture, there is an extensive biological heritage, involving thousands of ancient plant species.

Monastery of Santa Clara-a-Velha

Founded in 1283, by D. Mor Dias, the Monastery of Santa Clara of Coimbra was given to the Clare nuns soon after. Elizabeth of Aragon, the Saint Elizabeth Queen, took an interest by the convent, extinct in the meanwhile, and gave orders to construct new buildings in a gothic style, such as the cloister and the church.
Since the beginning, the Monastery suffered from the floods by the Mondego River, which led to architectural adaptations. Finally, in 1677, the nuns moved to a new building, constructed in a higher place. Due to this, the old monastery was named Santa Clara-a-Velha.

Monastery of Santa Clara-a-Nova

This Monastery served as the substitute for the old convent of the Clare nuns that had been damaged by the floods of the Mondego River. Its construction started in 1649.
The building is baroque, sober, and utilitarian, with turrets. In the altarpiece of the presbytery, in the church, it is kept the silver and crystal urn, from the 17th century, where the body of the Saint Elizabeth Queen is adored. The primitive stone tomb of the city’s patroness is kept in the low room underneath the choir of the church.

Old Cathedral

The construction of the Old Cathedral began in the 12th century under the direction of Master Roberto, who was directing in the same period the works of the Cathedral of Lisbon. The Romanic church, built in yellow limestone, is located on a slope and is composed by three aisles, prominent transept and threefold headboard. The one floor cloister, located on the southern side of the church was built in the beginning of the 13th century.
From the several works and remodeling that the cathedral went through, stand the work campaign that took place in the beginning of the 16th century and the works of construction of a renascence Specious Door performed by the architect João de Ruão and the sculptor Nicolau Chanterenne. Standing on the north elevation of the transept of the church, the Specious Door, of high sculpting value, in white limestone, is composed by three overlaid architectural registers, particularly the loggia and the adornment that reconstructs the triumphal Roman arches. 
Inside the church stand the headboard, the lantern-tower over the cross, the medieval tombs and the 16th century Seville tiles that encase the columns and the aisles, and that today are circumscribed to some areas and arcosoliums.
In the 18th century, after the expulsion of the Jesuits, the episcopal headquarters were transferred to the Church of Jesus College in the city uptown, known today as the New Cathedral of Coimbra.

Santa Cruz Monastery

The Santa Cruz Monastery was founded in 1131 by the Order of Regular Canons of St. Augustine. The primitive Romanic church dates from the 12th century. At the beginning of the 16th century, the King Manuel I commands its destruction along with the cloister and the chapter house because they were old and degraded, and engages in a long campaign of construction that conferred the building with its present look. 
These works involved the best artists of the reign and included the new church with a vaulted aisle with two towers on the sides of the façade, the portal, the main cloister and the house of chapter. Along with these works, the remains of the first kings of Portugal were translated from their primitive sarcophagi to new ones; works of sculpture in Manueline Style performed by Nicolau Chanterenne and located in the main chapel.
With the reformation of the Order of Regular Canons of St Augustine, during the reign of King John III (1521-1557), some other works were performed. From these stand the singular Cloister of Manga, located northeast of the church. In the 20th century, to allow the construction of Sá da Bandeira Avenue, some of the structures located north were destroyed and the Manga Cloister was opened. Nowadays, besides de cultural and religious activities, the Monastery hosts Municipal services and services from the The Central Region Directorate for Culture.

National Museum Machado de Castro

Machado de Castro National Museum is named after the royal sculptor from the reigns of the King Joseph, the Queen Mary I, and the King John VI, and he is the most remarkable representative of the Portuguese sculpture from the 18th century.
The Museum opened its doors on the 11th October 1913, occupying the buildings that, from the 12th to the 18th century, were built to serve as the Episcopalian residence and, in the 20th century, were adapted to be proper for a museum. The remains of the cloister from the Condal period (c. 1100 – c. 1140), as well as the cryptoporticus from the 1st century are particularly significant, especially since the second one is the most important Roman construction preserved in Portugal.
The Museum fully reopened in the end of 2012.

Penedo da Saudade

It is a rocky promontory, turned into a garden, which name comes from the tradition that the King Peter went to the location, then known as the Rock of the Winds, to mourn the loss of his lover Inês de Castro.
During the 20th century, due to meetings and other academic events, it became customary to put down headstones with verses written on them through the garden. Busts of well-known poets from the Portuguese culture, such as António Nobre and Eça de Queiroz perpetuated on the gravestones their connection to the city of Coimbra.   

Quinta das Lágrimas

It is named after the misadventures of the romance between Inês de Castro and the Prince Peter. The romantic tragedy places the death of Inês in this place.
In the place where the couple used to meet in secret, exists today a hotel surrounded by a garden that includes different plant species from around the world.
Despite the fact that the Prince lived with Inês in the Palace of Santa Clara, popular tradition states that, for many years, the Prince Pedro used a pipe to talk to her that went through the estate until near the Clare Nuns Monastery. It is said that he placed the letters in small wood boats that were transported by the water of the fountain, known nowadays as the Fountain of Love.
It also exists a Fountain of Tears that, according to the legend, originated due to the spilled tears of Inês de Castro when she was murdered. Her blood is supposed to have left an algae red stain in a rock, still visible today.