For literally months, Declan has been planning this nine-day trip to Portugal. The last hurrah, if you will, to this wonderful seven-month European adventure that ends in just over two weeks.
When I told someone he had planned 85% of the trip, Declan looked at me sharply and said that the estimate was low. In retrospect, he’s probably correct. He first defined what cities we were going to visit after Marilynn and I said we should confine ourselves to the north of Portugal, where it was likely to be cooler in the middle of July.
Declan then researched plane tickets from both Belfast and Dublin to find the best (and cheapest) ones. He researched sights, hotels, transportation, restaurants and more, filling our days with activities while respecting our need to rest from time to time.
I’m writing about our first day in Coimbra on the fourth day of the trip (in Porto), and I can say that Declan has done a tremendous job so far.
Academic beauty in Coimbra
After flying in to Porto, we immediately headed to Coimbra, in the middle part of the country. Coimbra served as Portugal’s capital for more than 100 years (between 1139 and 1255, when it moved to Lisbon) and houses the country’s oldest university, founded in Lisbon in 1290 but relocated to Coimbra in 1537. So I guess Coimbra’s loss is Lisbon’s gain, and vice-versa. We stayed at the Hotel Vitória, a short walk from the train station and centrally located within the city.
Our first day was dominated by a visit to the Universidade de Coimbra, located in the highest part of the city and a UNESCO World Heritage site since 2013. Several of the buildings feature terrific city views, including the clock tower. One ticket allows entry into all of the buildings, and climbing the clock tower is an extra euro—the winding staircase gets tight and twisty at the top, but the views may well be worth the vertigo.
The Biblioteca Joanina (library) was deemed too distracting for student use, its 60,000 volumes housed amidst gilt, frescoes and lots of ornate woodwork. The 18th-century building remains too precious for tourist photos, so you’ll have to take my word that it ranks high on the audacious scale. Speaking of audacious, under the library is the Prisão Académica (academic prison). Misbehaving students were housed under the library until their grades got better, I suppose.
Student exams and important academic ceremonies take place in the Paço das Escolas (the original Royal Palace). We saw what appeared to be a Ph.D. defense take place in the Grand Hall, a high room with lots of dark wood, second-floor doors that can be opened from the two-sides balcony above, ornate ceiling and large portraits of Portuguese kings.
Saint Michael’s Chapel dates from the 16th century and replaced an older chapel from the 11th century. The 2,000-pipe organ dates from 1737 and remains in use today for music concerts, as well as weddings and baptisms at the still-consecrated chapel.
The central buildings of the university form three sides of a rectangle, with open views of the city from the fourth. With his back to the city, the statue of King João III overlooks the courtyard. The 16th-century king was responsible for moving the university to Coimbra and expanding it during his reign.
Several other historic buildings are included in the ticket price, including the Chemistry Laboratory, the Cabinet of Physics and the Cabinet of Natural History. The latter, created in 1772, is the oldest museum in Portugal that remains in its original location. These three buildings, with their science exhibits and displays, could easily have filled a day for those with an eye toward the history of invention, chemistry or natural history.
All I can say is that Declan knows what his parents like.