With revellers celebrating the festival of Sao Joao until the early hours, we begrudgingly awoke early the next morning to set out for Coimbra, a city that was formerly the capital of Portugal.
Situated approximately halfway between Porto and Lisbon, Coimbra is home to the University of Coimbra – the oldest university in Portugal, dating back to 1290! The university grounds are quite large, and include botanic gardens and a building that was once the Royal Palace. PhD examinations and numerous academic ceremonies are still conducted today in the old Throne Hall!
However, the main drawcard for most is the immaculate, Baroque-influenced Joanine Library. This library houses 60,000 works, most of which date back to before the 18th century. Although the library cannot be accessed by students it is still possible to request these books for study. Perhaps the most unique aspect to this library, apart from the stunning interior design and architecture, is the presence of bats that live inside! We learned that there are scores of bats that call the library home, and that they protect the three hundred year-old books from harmful insects! This library reminded us of the library in Beauty and the Beast – complete with a wooden ladder to reach those books on the tallest shelf! Unfortunately, photos were not allowed so you will just have to imagine it for yourselves.
After checking out some more of the historic university buildings, we spent the remainder of our time in Coimbra exploring the steep streets of the old town – perfect preparation for Lisbon, our next destination!
As our usual go-to, we started our five day spell in Lisbon with a free walking tour, provided by Sandemans New Europe. The free tour focused on the city centre, and provided an excellent mix of history, culture and most importantly – tips on where to eat and drink! We were able to gain an appreciation for the mix of architecture and buildings throughout Bairro Alto, Baixa and Chiado, and, despite already having clocked up close to 10km for the day, signed up for a second walking tour that afternoon.
Our afternoon tour took us to Alfama, traditionally the Muslim and Jewish community of Lisbon, constructed in typical moorish style – narrow winding, steep streets! This was the only part of Lisbon unharmed by the tragic 1755 earthquake which destroyed most of the city, and was also the birthplace of Fado, a traditional Portuguese musical art form. Our journey through Alfama also had a theme of alcohol as we were lucky enough to try some traditionally brewed ginjinha (cherry liquor), albeit illegally sold by a lady from her front window, and even some green wine in a 300 year old cellar! After a long day of walking we headed home for some much needed rest!
We headed back to Alfama the next day to check out the Feira da Ladra, a local flea market that is held every Tuesday and Saturday. Here we found a little bit of everything from handmade ceramics to old clothes, vinyl records, and even a man selling old Nokia mobile phones! The market is frequented by a mix of locals and tourists and was a great experience!
During our time in Lisbon we decided to make the day trip to Sintra, a town in the mountains most well-known for its many palaces and castles. After some research we realised it was actually quite expensive to visit some of the sights so we decided to try and fit three into our day trip. Our first stop was the Moorish Castle, a military fort constructed in the 10th century by Muslims that occupied the Iberian Peninsula. Un-fort-untately (pun intended), the apparently amazing view were obstructed by a thick cloud of fog at the time of our visit. The upside was some amazing photos and a complete lack of other tourists – it was like we were the first to discover the fort!
Secondly, we visited the Park and Palace of Pena, a complex that, on its own, would take one full day to properly explore. The Park is a massive 85 hectares that contains numerous gardens, lakes, farms, fountains and viewpoints. It is a remarkable sight, given that prior to any botanical works the property was a barren hill! The Palace and complete grounds were primarily constructed during the 19th century and are a bewildering mix of architectural styles, elements and most obviously, colours! The contrast of colours and styles creates a Disney-like appearance, and it is difficult to concieve that it is a palace and not a theme park!
Our final stop in Sintra was the Quinta da Regaleira, the summer residence of the Carvalho Monteiro family. This property was the most surprising for us, with its many tower-like structures set amongst acres of greenery. But most intriguing were the three underground walkways and ‘subterranean tower’ – a well that sinks 27 metres into the earth, accessible by a monumental spiral stairway from top to bottom!
Our last full day in Lisbon was reserved for a visit to Belem (Portuguese for Bethlehem!), a district to the west of central Lisbon. Belem is also home to the Pastel de Belem (a specific form of the Pastel de Nata – simplified to the ‘Portuguese Tart’ in Australia), which has been a product of the Pastéis de Belém pastessierie since 1837!! If they have been making tarts for that long it was going to be worth the trip! Whilst in Belem we also checked out the Monastery (Mosteiro dos Jeronimos) and the Tower of Belem (from afar). The vastly impressive Padrão dos Descobrimentos is also a must-see, depicting Portugals navigational past with a giant monument of a ship.
On our way back from Belem, we stopped in the city district to check out the Timeout Food Market – a gourmet food haven although very touristic and a tad pricey! And because we didn’t eat enough, a quick stop at Landeau Chocolate shop – famous for their chocolate cake! They only sell one type of chocolate cake and boy is it delicious!
And with that, our time in Spain and Portugal was at an end! Our next stop, Morocco!
AP & DT