Coimbra, Portugal

It was with fondness and full bellies that we left the mother/daughter hosts extraordinaire, Anna and Anna, in Nazaré. Our destination for the day was north of our seaside town in the university city of Coimbra. But we had plenty of time for a little diversion, so we headed east to Tomar.


The Convento de Cristo was our goal, a UNESCO world heritage site that was founded by the Knights of the Templar and stands on the top of a hill overlooking the town of Tomar. It had an extraordinary round charola (round walkway encircling an altar) that evoked many wows and slack-jawed tourist admiration. This place also went on for days with 8 cloisters in total. Just when you thought you were done, there was another one.

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Cloister sated, we headed down the hill to the cute little town of Tomar, whose streets and laneways were decorated with paper flowers and trimmings from the Festa dos Tabuleiros (Festival of Trays). This festival takes place in July every four years, with huge numbers of visitors flocking to the city, including the President of Portugal. While our timing meant we missed the parades, it was magical walking through the streets festooned with flowers without hordes of people around.

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Having stumbled into this purely by chance, we were lucky to catch the tail end of things and managed to experience the colourful displays just as they were being dismantled by tired looking locals who had been partying for 10 days. Unfortunately, because of the end of the holiday all of the recommended restaurants were closed. We found a random Italian place called La Bella for a standard meal. The place was packed, though, because everywhere else was closed (not just our assumption, confirmed by the waitress).

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Arrival in Coimbra

Driving into the historic university town of Coimbra with its tiny, cobbled streets, we were relieved to hand over the hired Alfa to the valet parking attendant. Even the 3 star hotel we were staying at offered this service – must keep the guests happy when staying in the middle of a town with no public parking! Very sensible.

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We stayed at Hotel Oslo Coimbra which, surprisingly, didn’t have a fridge in the room for our store-bought bevvies. But it did have a rooftop terrace with fabulous views of the hill and university, where we could take drinks purchased from the bar on the floor below. The bed in our room was comfortable (always important), and a great night’s sleep was had once we realised how to properly shut the double-glazed doors to the balcony!

Evening Exploration

Nothing like listening to a Crowded House cover in a tapas bar in Portugal – clearly the Finn boys transcend cultures (and for some reason always make me feel like travelling…not that I need to hear ‘Bring the Weather with You’ to want to get on a plane!).

Tapas nas Costas provided us with another new culinary experience – cod fish à bras (cod fish with potatoes cooked with egg and a strong mushroom. Delicious). We also had baked asparagus, with this dish confirming (disappointingly) that the Portuguese like to cook the hell out of this vegetable. Looking forward to preparing some myself in the apartment when we get to Porto.

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You cannot visit Coimbra (or Portugal, in general) without attending a Fado performance. We hit the Fado ao Centro for an after-dinner performance (well, at 8pm it was after dinner for us, for the Portuguese, pre-dinner). In Coimbra, the Fado is only sung by men, when everywhere else it is performed by either men or women. And here, they are all university students or graduates. The trio on this night were consummate performers, a Portuguese guitarist (a Portuguese guitar is very similar to a mandolin), an acoustic guitarist, and a singer. Very mournful, beautiful songs, all about longing – longing for your love, your home, your whatever. So glad we went.

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Coimbra University

Glad we hit the tourist drawcard of Coimbra University right on opening. To keep the hoards manageable, the visit to the library is a timed event. We were in the 9:20am bunch and were ushered through the academic prison in the basement before going to the book storeroom and then the actual old library (inspiration for JK Rowling, who apparently wrote HP when living in Porto – so many claims to her presence when writing the HP books). It was clear the influence that this place had on the creation of the world of Harry Potter; full of dark wood and gold leaf, beautifully but gently lit so as not to damage any of the rare books inside. Such a shame that no photographs were allowed, but we just savoured every moment in the space.

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Still in the grounds of the university, we also visited the chapel and the palace, which were not huge, so it didn’t take a lot of time. Leaving the university, we debated whether to visit the Machado de Castro Museum, which had some Roman ruins underneath it and some supposedly good artworks, but when we entered the foyer and saw the scale of the thing, it all just felt too hard. Instead, we stopped for a long break over a large beer at Café Sé Velha near the Old Cathedral, using their wifi to catch up on posts.

Next, on to Porto

Accommodation: Hotel Oslo Coimbra

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About bontaks

Nic is the the 'Bon' part of 'Bontaks.' Together we are Nic and John - two travel-addicted teachers who enjoy every opportunity to go places, meet people and experience life.

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