Around the World... One Journey at a Time. Around the World... One Journey at a Time.

Portugal: Day 8

by Kathy 31. March 2011 18:55

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Miniatures and Majesty of Coimbra

Some places look “good” on paper, but dish up something different in person. Sometimes you can leave feeling a bit hollow. Then there are places like the city of Coimbra, which delivered such unexpected treats that we were completely bowled over. The only disappointment came when we realized that we just couldn’t stay another day.

On paper, Coimbra was a university town about 1 ½ hours northeast of Nazaré. We were drawn to it initially because it offered a children’s park full of miniature monuments and buildings around Portugal.

After two nights in Nazaré, Sebastian and Genevieve were well-rested and ready for more adventures.

Sebastian, in the car, with his favorite traveling companion—“Kitty”:


Our road north took us through many patches of neatly planted trees:

Most of the vehicles in Portugal were on the small side, compared to those in the United States. Even the trucks were generally smaller. The trucks that we would consider to be “normal” sized back home all had warning signs on the back, reading “Veiculo Longo” (Long Vehicle):

(We presumed that this was to allow more accurate timing/distance calculations by drivers that wanted to pass the trucks, especially in the presence of oncoming traffic.)

In Coimbra, we stayed at the Hotel Astoria, built in 1926, with a genuine shabby-chic appearance that totally charmed us:

Our large room was on the 4th floor, overlooking the red-rooftops of University Hill:

Even looking at the pictures now, my heart does a double-time happy beat.

Coimbra has a long history as a thriving commercial town, and has been occupied by many groups, such as the Romans, Moors, and Spanish. In the 12th century, Coimbra became the first capital of Portugal, until the capital was moved to Lisbon in the year 1255. In the 16th century, the University of Coimbra moved into the Royal Grounds on top of the hill. The university had been established in Lisbon in 1290, and is one of the oldest universities in Europe.

We could see the university’s clock tower peeking out over some of the school buildings:

I just loved the plants growing on a nearby rooftop, across from a satellite dish:

Some more modern apartment buildings rose off to one side:

A “for sale” (“vende”) sign hung on some beautiful blue doors nearby:

Hmmmm . . . what would it be like to live here?

The streets in the old district around the hotel were narrow, with many off-shoot alleyways that twisted around. For lunch, our trusty guidebook recommended a cozy place tucked away near the hotel. After getting lost for a short time, we circled back, tried a different turn, and finally found it:

The food at Restaurante O Bizarro was delicious, and the atmosphere “homey” and welcoming. Here is Sebastian, sucking the last bit of juicy tartness from his lemon rind:

After lunch, 1 15-minute walk took us to the children’s park called Portugal dos Pequenitos (Portugal of the Little Ones).

First, we crossed the Mondego River on the bridge called Ponte de Santa Clara. Here is a view looking back toward the historic part of Coimbra, with our hotel on the left:

Portugal dos Pequenitos was opened in 1940 as a “learning through play” park, aimed at children. The project was created by Dr. Bissaya Barreto who was very active in social work and cultural activities in the central region of Portugal. Here are Ben and the kids, at the entrance:

Inside was a wonderland of miniature buildings that were famous throughout Portugal. Genevieve and Sebastian immediately recognized the National Palace of Sintra, with its twin chimneys:

Other buildings were less familiar to us:

There were also miniature houses that showed the architectural heritage of Portugal:

Sebastian and Genevieve loved exploring each little house, and they picked out their favorites. Sebastian liked this two-story home because he could look out of the upper window:

Genevieve liked this house with the blue trim.  She said, "If I could live here, I would!"

The park also contained several museums, displaying costumes, furniture, and boats. We really enjoyed looking at all the exhibits in the Naval Museum. Many of the boats on display had originally been constructed as miniatures in the Mondego Naval Yard before the actual boats had been constructed. Here is Sebastian’s favorite boat:

Relaxing in the park’s spacious plaza:

Sebastian patiently waited in line for his turn to ride the cars:

The park also had structures and characters from other countries in which Portuguese influence can be found:

We finally tore ourselves away after the kids had crawled into, climbed, explored, and then revisited “one last time”, every single building in the park. Sebastian’s legs were weary, so he got his usual piggy-back ride on the walk back to the hotel (he sneezed as Ben snapped the photo):

Genevieve had plenty of energy still. She charged ahead, and occasionally waited for us to catch up:

I loved the buildings that revealed their layers of history:

Crossing the bridge, we had a clear view of University Hill, which was crowned by what used to be the National Palace for the royal family in the 1100’s:

To our left was our beautiful hotel, where we returned for a brief rest.

I had developed the hiccups during our walk. Back in the hotel room, I did a double-take when I saw this on my pillow:

Ben and Genevieve, both intimately familiar with my fear of spiders, had concocted a scheme to “scare” the hiccups out of me by placing a drawing of a spider-like bug on my pillow. My hiccups did not disappear, but we all laughed and laughed!

Later that evening, we began an upward wander through the old town area. A short nap had rejuvenated Sebastian, and he and Genevieve led the way:

We started at a small plaza called Largo da Portagem (Place of the Gateway). In the center, a statue of Joaquim Antonio de Aguiar, a former Prime Minister of Portugal who was born in Coimbra, welcomed people to the old city entrance.

The streetlights were coming to life, shining down on the narrow cobblestone streets and people returning home with small shopping bags—perhaps full of ingredients for tonight’s dinner.

The Old Cathedral of Coimbra, named Se Velha, loomed around one corner, resembling a fortress with its crenulated rooftop and solid presence:

Construction for this church initially began in the 12th century, shortly after King Henriques selected Coimbra to be the capital of Portugal. Historians consider the Old Cathedral to be one of the best preserved Romanesque buildings in the country.

The swirls and other patterns around the arched doorway reflect an Arabic influence:

The back side of the church (on the east side) had a semi-circular apse, where the interior altar is located:

Daylight was fading quickly, and we continued following the skinny streets upward, trusting that they would eventually lead us to the university on top:

And they did!

The University Tower stands over 110 feet high and was built in the early 1700’s. Under the clock is an open space with some bells, and university students purportedly refer to the bell tower as “a Cabra” (the Goat).

To Genevieve and Sebastian, the clock tower was “nice,” but the vast open space in front was much more exciting, as it represented freedom to run and jump and twirl and run some more:

Here they are beside the statue of King John III, the fifteenth king of Portugal, nicknamed “the Pious”:

Genevieve took this photo of Ben and I, with Sebastian:

Sebastian was busy creating hearts for me on the ground:

As the last rays of light disappeared, I was absorbing all of the fascinating architectural details of the old buildings around the university:

One final photo of Genevieve and I, overlooking the Mondego River and the modern bridge called Ponte Rainha Santa (also known as Ponte Europa), which was completed in 2004.

The enchantment of Coimbra was perhaps all the more sweet because we hadn’t anticipated it.  Today, we felt as if we had opened an seemingly ordinary box and discovered an abundance of treasure.   

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<< Day 7: Nazaré and Sítio | Day 9: Marvão, the Eagle’s Nest >>

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