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From Lisbon to Coimbra: 10 Reasons to Go


From Lisbon to Coimbra: 10 Reasons to Go

It lacks the contemporary attractions of Lisbon and Porto, but the city of Coimbra is rich in old monuments illustrating every chapter of the history of architecture, from romanesque to gothic, to manueline and baroque. It’s easily accessible by train between the country’s two largest cities, and is worth a quick stop to see one of the world’s oldest universities and some of Europe’s best-preserved Roman mosaics.

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One of the world’s oldest, the university of Coimbra hides what is recognized as one of the world’s finest libraries. A gift of king João V in the early 1700s, it is filled with 300,000 ancient books displayed around an extravagant display of gilt. Also golden is much of Capela de São Miguel, an ornate chapel with a brightly painted ceiling, while another room that may be visited is the Sala dos Capelos (Graduates’ Hall), once used as an examination room and decorated with portraits of Portugal’s kings.

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Portugal’s largest excavated Roman ruins are just a few minutes outside Coimbra and are remarkable for having some of the best-preserved mosaics in Europe. Conimbriga was once a rich Roman town but was abandoned after the invasion of Germanic tribes in the 5th century (a small but informative museum tells the history and daily life of the place). Besides the mosaics (the most extraordinary of which show the four seasons and hunting scenes), the most eye-catching features of the archaeological remains are the pond-gardens and fountains.

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Down the street from the university is this former bishop’s palace that is now one of Portugal’s most important museums for its collection of 14th-to-16th-century sculpture. It’s undergone a long renovation and the most memorable part of a visit is going underground to walk through vaulted passageways that survive from the city’s Roman occupation.

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This church is the reason why the university was established in Coimbra, as it was long known as a school and center of culture (St. Anthony was the most famous student). Behind the sculpted façade are the elaborate tombs of Portugal’s first two kings (at the altar), while the cloister is one of the purest examples of Manueline architecture.

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A landmark with all the atmosphere you expect from a monumental and classic European café, this is one of the most unusual coffee shops you’ll see anywhere. It’s a former chapel of the church next door, with a high-vaulted Manueline ceiling, stained-glass windows and wood paneling. Tables are also placed outside facing the square.

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This church-fortress was the city’s first cathedral, built in the late 1100s. It’s only been slightly altered during its nine centuries and therefore remains one of the greatest examples of Romanesque architecture in the country. The majesty of the interior only changed in the 1500s with the addition of a gilded altarpiece.

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Two decades of careful renovation brought these gothic ruins back to life. It’s an old monastery founded in 1330 that had been sinking by the river since the 17th century and a museum now explains its past as well as the impressive renovation work through film.

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This tiny open-air theme park is a small tour of Portugal through the country’s main landmarks built to the scale of five-year-olds. Part of the fun is posing for photos creating the illusion of giants standing next to monuments and inside homes. While meant as a family attraction, adults will enjoy the experience on their own.

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While Fado originated in Lisbon, it has a second home in Coimbra. Here it’s usually sung by male university students and it’s often not sung at all, with just instrumental pieces using the Portuguese guitar. You may hear it at night at the cafés below the university, but the best place to head to is the Á Capella bar, a tiny 14th-century chapel. That’s where the city’s best musicians perform, Fado and other musical styles.

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This wonderful hotel stands on the site of a real-life “Romeo and Juliet” story, the tragedy of prince Pedro and Inês. King Afonso IV forbade his son from marrying Inês because of her Spanish origins, but they married in secret and the king had her murdered in 1355. The hotel is by far the best place to stay in town, while also offering the best gastronomic experience in its Michelin-starred restaurant “Arcadas da Capela.”



The Garb al-Andalus


The Garb al-Andalus

The Garb al-Andalus was the name given to the west of the Muslim Iberian Peninsula, which covered the centre and south of Portugal and also the extreme west of Spanish Estremadura and Andalusia. Portugal is a mystery of cultures, a Catholic country without a doubt and a very devoted one. But the old continent was the cradle of many civilizations way before the crusades conquered Europe. In the year 710 the Muslims entered in the Iberian Peninsula and one year later Cordoba and Toledo fell. It was only 800 years later that the last breath of the Muslin Empire in this peninsula was taken.


As I know you are passionate about Portugal, otherwise you wouldn’t be considering buying a home and maybe retire here to live under this splendid sun, I thought of sharing with you just a glance of the Arab heritage in the country. The Muslins left a strong presence in some Portuguese cities and as I know that sooner or later you will visit the cities in your process of getting to know us better, you will probably recall this article and look at the view with a different perspective.

The cities of Garb al-Andalus developed notably under Arab domain. They didn’t have a scorched earth policy, and often concede broad administrative autonomy in return for the recognition of the authority of the Caliph and the payment of taxes. The introduction of new products and goods brought about not only by sophisticated techniques in the areas of agriculture, science and handicrafts, but also by the silk and spices route revitalizing old cities that where fallen in to decadence, making them prosper. Muslim geographers describe the cities of Garb in glowing terms, boasting of their natural riches and the beauty and qualities of their inhabitants


Beja (Baja) is probably the most important Arab city in Portugal, as it was the home of very illustrious intellectuals like the theologian Sulayman Ibn Khalaf al-Baji, the poet king al-Mu’tamid or the historian Ibn Sahib al-Sala, but also has the foremost of a region rich in cattle, olive oil, honey and other fruits of the heart.

Alcácer do Sal (Al-Qasr Abu Danis or Al-Qasr al-Fath) they say, had the advantage of its pine forest from where wood was taken for naval construction. For this reason, its shipyards and arsenals where famed.

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Lisbon (Lishbuna) is referred to as an important port, its city walls having many gates. The most important was the west gate (Bad al-Garb) near Aljama Mosque, on the site of the present cathedral. This gate was adorned with monumental marble arches and columns. It was, even then, a city of sailors and alfama was famous for its hot springs and baths. The Saga of the Adventures  took place here, the story tells of eight cousin-brothers who went off in search of the mythical Enchanted Islands and reached the Canary Islands before landing in Morocco. It is a true story, the precursor of the Atlantic navigations of the Portuguese. The best –known poet of the Lisbon region was Abu Zayd ibn Muqana.

Santarém (Shantarin), home of the great poet Ibn Sara and of the noted historian and literary commentator Ibn Bassam, is portrayed as an important agricultural town, living on the abundant harvest of wheat from the Tagus plains and the breeding of horses.


Sintra (Shintara), probably the birthplace of the poet-mystic bakr Ibn Dawudal-Marwani al-Shantarini has two castles attributed to it. All indications point to these being the forticications today known as the Castelo dos Mouros and the Palácio da Vila, which would have been the governosrs palace. It was praised for its apples (hence Praia das Maças – Apple beach).

Coimbra (Qulumriya) is credited with an unconquerable castle on the banks of the Mondego (Mundik), which after flooding proved to provide excellent soil for abundant harvests. The riverside plains produce olives, apples, grapes and cherries. The Mozarab culture around the Lorvão Convent was prosperous.

Mértola (Mirtula) was important for its strategic position as the strong castle dominated the landscape of the Guadiana river (Wadi Ana), an important access route to the interior and to the sea. It was the birthplace of the poet Sufi AbuÍmran al-Mirtuli. At an early stage the centre of the ephemeral reign of the poet and notable Sufi master Ahmad Ibn Qasi was based here. In Mértola, there is the only relatively intact Portuguese mosque from the Arab period, although altered as a church. 

Évora (Yabura) described in Arab sources as an important city was, however, presented as dependent variously on Beja and Badajoz. It had beautiful estates outside the town, backing on the to the castle walls. One of its many illustrious sons was the poet and notable scholar Ibn’Abdun.


Finally, Silves (Shilb) is the object of the most praise from the Arab historians and geographers, both for the beauty of its architecture and landscape and for the prosperity and culture of its people. In the castle was famous the Palácio das Varandas (Qasr Al-Sharajib), which existed inside it, was no less so. The river Arade, which the city is built on, was then navigable for a long extent and, along its course, there where watermills and shipyards for naval construction. If its markets where famous, no less where the poetic vain and the purity of the Arabic language of the inhabitants mainly of Yemeni origin.

These prosperous cities with fertile soils, strategic positions or riverside used their fortune and intellectual abilities to enrich the culture and footprint in the territory. Take a ride through these towns and explore ancient churches and take closer look to details – you will find 800 years of history that bring an exotic singularity to the scenery and an enchantment to handcrafts goods.

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Traditional properties in the Algarve are very representative of the Arab culture, their white walls, flat roofs and round shimmies are Algarve’s postcard and the culture brand of this coastal territory.


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