September 8, 2014 | Sunvil Discovery
The handsome city of Coimbra, located in Portugal’s unspoilt Centro region, brims over with an abundance of charms to delight city-breakers who step off the beaten track.
As the medieval capital of Portugal, Coimbra is armed with hundreds of years of history and intrigue. Starting from the royal palace and university at its summit, the city tumbles down the side of the hill on which it is built, and out beyond the Mondego River, carrying with it a delightful mix of fascinating heritage, kooky customs and spectacular architecture.
Here are just a few of the highlights of this splendid city, recommended by Portugal experts Sunvil Discovery, which offers flexible, tailor-made holidays to a number of outstanding properties in and around Coimbra:
The University of Coimbra – Portugal’s oldest university
Coimbra’s pinnacle – both geographically and otherwise – is undoubtedly the Velha Universidade (Old University). This collection of grand and impressive 16th to 18th century structures – formerly the royal palace buildings – is arranged around the Patio des Escolas square. The 18th century clock tower rises loftily in one corner, casting its shadow over the brilliantly-ornate São Miguel chapel and imposing Graduates’ Hall, where the magnificently-decorated rooms are still used for degree award ceremonies. A guided tour of the Velha Universidade costs €15 pp.
The Biblioteca Joanina – books… and bats
The undisputed crowning jewel of the old University has to be the splendid Joanina Library. It is an exercise in Baroque brilliance: intricate golden gilt details snake along the rosewood shelves, arches swoop majestically overhead and extravagant frescoes adorn the ceiling. Around 250,000 books line the walls – some of which date back to the 16th century. The protection of these tomes is ensured in a most intriguing way: a colony of 15 or so bats reside behind the books, and venture out at night to feast on the insects which would otherwise damage these priceless pages.
Fado – but more refined
Portugal’s famously mournful musical genre, the tradition of Fado, is tightly woven into Coimbra’s ancient academic traditions. Unlike their Lisbon counterparts, Coimbra’s Fado singers – typically students of the university – are exclusively male. Centuries-old customs are strictly observed, with performers donning their sombre black academic dress for each recital. There are daily concerts (€10 pp) at the Fado Centre, where the finest musicians showcase their soul-wrenching songs.
Conimbriga – Portugal’s most remarkable Roman ruins
16km southwest of Coimbra lies Conimbriga – Portugal’s most extensive and impressively well-preserved Roman ruins. Much remains of the town which flourished here until around 4 AD; masterful mosaic floors, a four-metre thick defensive wall, a complex of baths and an aqueduct are among the wonders waiting to be explored. An excellent on-site museum displays finds unearthed in archaeological digs in the area. Admission €4.50 pp.
Quinta das Lagrimas – a former royal palace and setting for a legendary tragedy
Just outside the bustle of Coimbra’s centre lies Quinta das Lagrimas (the estate of tears) – a royal palace now converted into a sumptuous hotel. The winding tree-lined drive leads to the pastel-yellow façade of the palace wing and the 20-acre botanical garden – allegedly the setting of Portugal’s greatest tale of doomed star-crossed lovers: Prince Pedro and Inês. Legend has it that Inês was murdered in the garden on the orders of Pedro’s disapproving father, King Dom Alfonso IV, and the tears she shed transformed into the spring that now bubbles gently in a corner of the tranquil grounds.
Sunvil Discovery offers a seven-night stay at the Quinta das Lagrimas in a garden wing room from £624 pp (two sharing) including flights (Gatwick), B&B and car hire. A three-night short break costs from £482 pp on the same basis. Tailor-made fly-drive itineraries are also available throughout the little-known region of Centro, with its soaring mountains, miles of unblemished coastline and charming medieval schist villages.
Visit www.sunvil.co.uk for further information, or call Sunvil Discovery to speak to an expert on 020 8758 4722.
Ends / 4 September 2014
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