Coimbra: Old and New Cathedrals and a Museum

A view of Coimbra from my hotel's rooftop deck
A view of Coimbra from my hotel’s rooftop deck

Coimbra greeted me with light rain. I’m sure the rain is not an omen of unpleasant things to come. Kind of sure. Sort of. Well, who knows? Maybe.

I’ve experienced just a few short periods of rain this trip. And there have been only a couple of days of just barely bearable heat. Other than that, overall, the weather has been quite good. The weather gods probably just intervened today to ensure that I fulfill my precipitation quota. Either that or the god of Coimbra dislikes me.

At least, I haven’t had any, for instance, sleet or snow here. Although, I have about a week left in my trip. So, there’s still time. But, be that as it may, I’m pretty sure I won’t experience locusts or boils here. But, again, it’s too early to say for sure. And, of course, if all else fails, there’s always COVID to possibly plague me.


I arrived in Coimbra by train about half past twelve, noon. My stay is just two nights, with half-days on either side of the one full day. Only having a short time here, I realized I had to hurry up and get busy. So, after I checked into my hotel and got settled, I rushed out and found a nearby place for a long lunch. A tourist has to eat, doesn’t he?

Do Your Own Research

Oh, about that trailing half day. That wasn’t part of my original plan. When I started mapping out this trip, before I settled on precise dates for my travels, I randomly picked a date to search for trains from Coimbra to Evora, my next destination. While I hadn’t yet figured out the dates I planned to be in each city, I wanted to make sure the Coimbra to Evora train trip was easily doable. Otherwise, I would have skipped one of the cities and gone somewhere else instead.

It was easily doable. On the random date I picked, there were a few convenient options, including one leaving Coimbra at a reasonable time in the morning. The options all included at least one transfer, but the journeys didn’t look bad.

Then I settled on how much time I would spend in each city. With that, I worked forward from the date I was to meet my brother in Lisbon after he finished a cycling tour in France.

After mapping out my travel dates and buying my plane ticket, I locked in my hotel reservations. Then, I bought my train tickets.

When I investigated the Coimbra-to-Evora train I must have randomly picked a weekday for my research. But I don’t leave on a weekday. I leave on a Saturday.

When I bought my ticket there were only a couple of options, the first not leaving until almost 2:00 in the afternoon. And it will take longer than the trains that were available on whatever date I looked at earlier. I assume that’s because it will be a Saturday, not a weekday. Either that or Comboios de Portugal, Portugal’s train company, hates me and withdrew the other trains when it saw I was ready to buy a ticket.

The Point

All this is a rather long way of making two points:

  1. My stay in Coimbra will be a half day longer than I intended.
  2. If you’re going to take a trip as a tourist (business trips may have different rules), don’t be an idiot like me. Spend way more time researching the trip than I usually spend. In fact, before you go, call me and ask me how long I would spend researching the trip if I were the one taking it. Then spend, at the very least, twice as long as that on your research. I’d be happy to provide, at popular prices, a time estimate that you can double, triple, or more. Prices popular with me, that is.

Oh, Yeah. Coimbra.

Sometimes I get lost on a tangent and have a hard time finding my way back. See, for example, the preceding paragraphs. Back to the matter at hand.

On my first half day in Coimbra I visited its old and new cathedrals and the Machado de Castro National Museum, which includes entry to the literally underlying Cryptoporticus of Aeminium.

I also did some wandering around.

Old Coimbra Cathedral

Old Coimbra Cathedral
Old Coimbra Cathedral

The Old Coimbra Cathedral was consecrated in 1184. But it wasn’t the first religious structure on the site.

The current Old Cathedral sits on the site of a mosque built by the Moors. That was torn down in 1064 after the Moors were thrown out of the area. Looking even farther back in time, the Moors built the mosque on the site of a Christian church that was itself built on the site of a Visigoth religious structure.

If there’s a god, it would have been nice if He, She, or It revealed Himself, Herself, or Itself to everyone in the same way and with the same stories, rituals, and customs. That way, people wouldn’t have to keep replacing religious structures over the centuries. It seems quite wasteful, if you ask me. Then again, no one asked me.

Old Coimbra Cathedral interior
Old Coimbra Cathedral interior

There I go getting lost on a tangent again. Sorry.

The Old Cathedral is an imposing structure from the outside, as old cathedrals tend to be. Inside, there are paintings on the walls, a few sculptures scattered around and some sculpted statues and reliefs behind the altar.

Where there aren’t paintings, patterned tiles cover the side walls.

I’ve developed an affection for cloisters. The Old Coimbra Cathedral has a tranquil gothic cloister that I quite liked.

Gothic cloister
Gothic cloister

I call it a gothic cloister not because I’ve developed the expertise necessary to distinguish gothic cloisters from other cloisters, such as, say, a dadaist cloister, if such a thing exists. Anyone who knows me knows that I could study such things for years and still remain incapable of distinguishing architectural vintages and genres. I say it because the cathedral had a big sign pointing me to the “Gothic Cloister.” I took that as a subtle clue to its style and era.

Machado de Castro National Museum and Cryptoporticus of Aeminium

Entry to the Machado de Castro National Museum includes entry to the Cryptoporticus of Aeminium. The ticket seller told me to visit the latter first. I’m Canadian. I’m obedient. I visited the Cryptoporticus of Aeminium first.

Cryptoporticus

Inside the Cryptoporticus of Aeminium
Inside the Cryptoporticus of Aeminium

I read it is a Roman ruin. My first thought on reading the name was, “Wow. Who knew the Romans were crypto bros?” My thinking isn’t always clear.

Until this visit, I didn’t know what a cryptoporticus is. I don’t know if a) I’m just an ignoramus; everyone else knows what it is, b) I’m not an ignoramus; few people know what a cryptoporticus is, or, c) few people know what a cyprtoporticus is, but that’s only because, like me, most people are ignoramuses. If I had to hazard a guess, I’d say it’s a) or c).

A cryptoporticus is an ancient Roman architectural element, specifically a covered corridor or passageway. The Romans really got around in the gold old days, didn’t they? All the way to Coimbra, I guess. The Cryptoporticus of Aeminium was part of a Roman forum underneath the site where the museum now stands. That forum became so popular that the Romans had to expand it and create a two-level cryptoporticus.

Also inside the Cryptoporticus of Aeminium
Also inside the Cryptoporticus of Aeminium

Archeological excavations opened up the cryptoporticus to tourist such as, say, me to visit.

The excavation exposed two levels of what are essentially tunnels with stone-lined floors and walls. There are a few sculptures from the period on display in the cryptoporticus. To my eye, the sculptures seemed quite plain and facile. An archeologist or art historian might have a very different opinion.

Whatever you might think of the few sculptures displayed in the Cryptopoticus of Aeminium, if you’re a fan of really old things, thank you. I didn’t know I had any fans.

Museum

A sculpture in the Machado de Castro National Museum
A sculpture in the Machado de Castro National Museum

The Machado de Castro National Museum repurposes a former episcopal palace. Wait. What? Episcopal bishops needed palaces? I don’t imagine that helped them develop empathy with the destitute. Then again, the Pope still lives in the Vatican. Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.

But back to the present. The museum’s particular point of pride is its sculpture collection. It makes up the majority of the museum’s displays. The sculptures date from the 11th to the 18th centuries.

Almost all of the pieces are of a religious theme.

Another sculpture in the museum
Another sculpture in the museum

The museum also displays some tapestries, ceramics, artefacts made from precious metals, and a few paintings. Again, I think most or all of them, except many of the ceramics, were of a religious theme, subject to me possibly missing some that weren’t. By the time I left the museum I suffered somewhat from museum eye-glazing-over syndrome. So there’s a good chance I didn’t pay close attention to some of the items in the museum.

Yet another sculpture in the museum

New Coimbra Cathedral

New Coimbra Cathedral
New Coimbra Cathedral

Thankfully, the New Coimbra Cathedral is newer than the Old Coimbra Cathedral. I say “thankfully” because if the new cathedral were older than the old one, I wouldn’t have been able to resist paraphrasing some lines from one of Woody Allen’s older movies, “Love and Death:”

“Oddly enough, Young Gregor’s son was older than Old Gregor. Nobody could figure out how that happened. And everytime I asked they’d slap me.”

What with the controversy about Woody Allen, I’m glad I wasn’t drawn into using those lines. Forget I even mentioned it.

New Coimbra Cathedral interior
New Coimbra Cathedral interior

As luck would have it, Coimbra’s New Cathedral is much more recent than the Old Cathedral. Groundbreaking for the New Cathedral didn’t happen until 1541.

Recorded history exists on a different timescale in Europe than in North America, doesn’t it? According to Google, my hometown, Toronto was founded in 1793. Coimbra’s New Cathedral was already well over 200 years old by then.

The new cathedral isn’t particularly large, although it has the standard old-church high, vaulted ceilings. Those arched ceilings, and a small dome, sport raised square patterns as simple decorations.

Reliquaries

A door on the left of the sanctuary leads to a corridor that runs the length of the cathedral. There’s another short corridor about halfway along and perpendicular to it. The corridors currently serve as a small museum.

The artifacts include a number of reliquaries. Most of them are busts* with holes in the belly or in the centre of the chest, through which the honoured body part is visible.

I riffed on reliquaries in at least one previous post in this journal, but it still confounds me. What the the heck was it with those old-time Catholics that led them to feel the need to amputate body parts of dead saints and other revered people and put them on display? The word “macabre” comes to mind. Or, if I considered it further, I’d probably call it “exceptionally macabre, bordering on wacko.”

(*No juvenile giggling over my use of the word “busts,” please. Obviously, I employed the “sculpture of a person’s head, shoulders and chest” meaning of the word, not the “part of anatomy that a woman might holster with a bra” sense. Although, I’m not sure my use of the word was completely accurate. Most of the reliquary sculptures extended below the chest to include some or all of the belly.)

Wandering Around

A Coimbra old town vista
A Coimbra old town vista

My hotel and the sights I visited today are all in the old section on Coimbra. I intentionally did not take the most direct routes I could find between my destinations so I could explore more of the old city.

There are a lot of small, low-rise buildings, as one would expect in the old section of a European city.

There aren’t a lot of long stretches of straight streets in this part of town. I imagine that’s a sop to the somewhat steep hill it’s built on. The jags and jogs of the streets meant that even if I hadn’t intentionally taken longer routes, I wouldn’t have been able to follow straight lines from A to B. But, in my opinion, what the street plan or, rather, lack thereof, costs in travel efficiency, it makes up for in streetscape aesthetics.

A Coimbra old town street
A Coimbra old town street

Most of the streets are paved with cobblestones or just plane cemented-in stones. Some of the streets are pedestrianized. Others are not exclusively for pedestrians. Many of the non-pedestrianized are just wide enough to accommodate a car and a thin pedestrian.

The old town also has a few nice public squares.

Overall, I found the old town to be more gritty than the old towns I’ve already visited on this trip, such as Porto, Braga, and Guimarães, and other old towns I’ve visited on other European trips. Nevertheless, it has lots of character. And, it’s early, but so far I like it.

A Coimbra old town public square
A Coimbra old town public square