Set on a steep hill rising from the north bank of the River Mondego, Coimbra (pronounced ‘Queenborough’) is one of Europe’s most ancient seats of learning. The university was founded in 1290 when the city was Portugal’s capital. Traditions are guarded by students in black capes, while pride of place in academic lore goes to the self-governing residential communities known as repúblicas. The city hums with activity in term time, calming to a more museum-like ambience during the holidays.
Because it stands at the edge of a great lagoon, and is sliced with canals that are spanned by arched bridges, Aveiro is sometimes called the ‘Portuguese Venice’. An exaggeration, obviously, but Aveiro also has its imperious monuments. These are in honour of Royal Princess Joana, venerated as a saint, who ruled as Regent of Portugal before entering the convent here where she died in 1490. The town’s more recent prosperity is built on fishing, salt and seaweed.
Compact Coimbra is easily walkable if your legs are up to the precipitous labyrinth of medieval lanes and stone staircases. Start at the Arco de Almedina Moorish gateway and climb past the austere Romanesque old cathedral before spilling into Paço das Escolas, a former royal palace repurposed as the university’s main square. Here, the wildly extravagant 18th-century Biblioteca Joanina, a rococo-style library with gilt shelves and frescoed ceilings, is the unmissable gem.
Art nouveau villas and pavements patterned with ships and seahorses line the canals and fill Largo da Praça, the main square. However, all pales before Joana’s former Convent of Jesus, now the Museum of Aveiro, featuring baroque art and architecture of astonishing exuberance; make a beeline for the chapel and its gild carvings. Make time, too, for the Maritime Museum, 5km away at Ílhavo, with its intriguing collection of everything connected with Portuguese cod fishing.
An hour’s drive east from Coimbra takes you through the glaciated valley of the Zêzere River, into the Serra da Estrêla, mainland Portugal’s highest mountains. There are waymarked hiking trails through wooded slopes of oak and chestnut, and over bare uplands strewn with heather and huge granite boulders. Birds of prey soar overhead and packs of wolves roam the remotest reaches. Sightings are rare but their haunting howls are sometimes heard at night.
The Ria de Aveiro on which the town stands is a vast stretch of interconnecting lagoons separated from the Atlantic by a narrow spit of dunes and pine woods. The brackish ria runs from Ovar in the north down to Mira south of the sea mouth, creating a maze of creeks, inlets and islands, and an excellent wetland habitat for waders. Look out for moliçeiros, long, brightly painted boats with high, curved prows traditionally used to gather seaweed for fertiliser.
Lampreia (lamprey) fished at the mouth of the Mondego is a prized local delicacy, although seasonal (January to May). The streets of the old town are packed with bars and cafés, at some of which you can enjoy free performances of the Coimbra genre of fado, Portugal’s soulful songs of fate and unrequited love, sung to the strains of 12-stringed guitarras. Head to Café Santa Cruz to hear voices echo off the high, vaulted ceiling as you sip Bairrada wine.
Anyone who has been to the museum at Ílhavo will tuck into their next dish of bacalhau with a fresh understanding of how deeply ingrained the fishing, drying and salting of cod is in Portuguese history, maritime lore and cuisine. There are a reputed 365 ways of preparing the fish, many examples of which can be found – and enjoyed – in the restaurants along the quayside of the three main canals that cut through the heart of Aveiro.
Cosy Sapientia Boutique Hotel is right next to the university and has gorgeous views from its roof-top bar and terrace, as well as its Tias Camellas restaurant and patio. Historic, grand and atmospheric, Quinta das Lágrimas boasts a Shakespearean love story setting and outstanding service.
Average max July temperature: 28°C
Famous for: Ancient university, medieval old town, rococo library, fado.
Average max July temperature: 24°C
Famous for: Canals, seaweed-gathering boats, baroque, bacalhau.
Coimbra and Aveiro are around 60km apart. Trains between the two take 40-70 minutes, depending on frequency of stops. The bus or drive via the toll road takes about 50 minutes.
Porto is the closest airport to both Coimbra and Aveiro. British Airways and TAP Portugal fly direct from Heathrow and Gatwick respectively. Flight time is around 2.5 hours; fares start from around £50 one way.
Trains run from Porto’s Campanhã station to Coimbra (from 70 minutes) and Aveiro (from 40 minutes).
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