Sightseeing in Coimbra, Portugal
We had heard there is a heat wave here in Portugal, but nothing could have prepared us for the 100 degree temperature at 7:00 pm. The sun beat down mercilessly all day, but with our guide book in hand, we made the best of it. Coimbra, Portugal is really a fascinating place.
The Church of Santa Cruz is covered on the inside with beautiful 18th century Portuguese tiles. It's Sunday so we weren't able to visit the entire church because a special event was taking place with all the women and children dressed in their Sunday best. Outside the church is the site of a former monastery. Today there is a small cafe there with fountains and flowers. They had beautiful pastries, but in this heat the fresh fruit salad looked the most appealing.
The Machada de Castro Museum is housed in an old bishop's palace. We saw beautiful art and statues from the now dissolved monastery and Roman ruins that were discovered underneath. As for the statues and altar pieces we learned that Coimbra was the most important center for altar piece sculptures. In one room were life size terra cotta sculptures that were part of a Last Supper scene in the former monastery.
Feeling pleased with the art we had seen we headed to the museum cafe which Rick Steves' says is the best deal in town. For the equivalent of $12US we had a buffet with chicken kabobs, roasted potatoes, pasta, and a complete salad bar. At the salad bar people were taking what looked like croutons out of a wooden box and sprinkling them on their salad, Curious I decided to try one and to my surprise discovered it was a fried fish nugget. Drinks and desserts were included such as chocolate mousse and vanilla panacotta. They even had jello, but no one chose it.
A friendly museum guide had us step in the elevator and pushed the buttons for us. We assumed we were headed for the exit, but somehow we ended up deep in the basement and a man who may have been a curator stepped in the elevator. "This is a great little museum you have here," Dave said. "Yes, but it sounds like you haven't even seen half of it," said the man with a smile.
He was right. Every time we thought the guides were pointing to an exit, we ended up at another section: jewels, Flemish paintings, church treasury, wooden altar pieces, pottery through the centuries, It was all so wonderful, but would take all day to see and appreciate all of it. When we asked the next room guide where the exit was, he begged us to take a look at Queen Isabel's jewels. We were so glad we did because there was a silver walking staff she used on the trail to Santiago de Compestela dating back to the 1400s.
The highlight of a visit to Coimbra is a visit to Coimbra's old university dating back to 1290. Traditions are important here. For special occasions students wear a suit and tie and a long black robe. We visited an elaborate chapel decorated with intricately painted tiles and the library. Because it is so old, only 60 people are allowed in at a time for 10 minutes. I love libraries like this with old wooden bookcases that extend upward several stories and can only be accessed by wooden ladders. The view of the town and river from the courtyard of the university was incredible, but it was so hot, no one was hanging out very long.
We stopped at a cafe in the shade on the way back to the hotel. I ordered a small Coke and a big bottle of water. "Do you mean big, big, really big?" asked the exuberant waiter. I nodded happily and off he dashed only to return proudly with a big liter of Coke all for me and no water and it wasn't cold. Here sodas are served at room temperature. I didn't have the heart to tell him he brought the wrong thing. People walking by looked positively wilted and were easily convinced by the waiter to take a rest and enjoy some refreshments.
Dinner tonight was at Italia, an outside restaurant overlooking the river. It is still stifling hot tonight in Coimbra, but we both agreed this is a great place to visit to experience some of the old world charm that still exists here in Portugal.