Leira turned out to be a lovely small city, once we had found our way into the centre. We had travelled to Leiria by train from Coimbra intending to use the university town as a stopover on our way to Batalha and Alcobaça. As we walked the four kilometres from the railway station into the centre of the city – a pleasant walk along a dirt road which runs by fields and the River Lis – the castle acted as our guide, dominating the skyline above Leiria.
The original castle, an important part of the defence system of central Portugal, was a Moorish stronghold, which Dom Afonso Henriques (later King Afonso I) conquered in 1135. The castle was rebuilt in the fourteenth century and housed the royal palace where King Dinis lived. He gave the town of Leiria to his wife Isabel of Aragon as a gift and they used the town as their summer residence.
Once we had navigated the modern outskirts of Leiria we arrived at the Largo 5 de Outubro de 1910 (in front of the bus station), with a statue of Pope Paul VI dominating the small square. It was sculpted by Charters de Almeida in 1968 to commemorate the Pope’s visit to Leiria in 1967. This square led onto the charming Jardim de Luís de Camões with a statue of Camões by Fernando Marques (1980) gesticulating to the castle behind him.
At the end of the park a small bridge crossed the tree-lined River Lis and led us to the Parque da Cidade, a small sculpture park with an eye-catching marble statue ‘As Mulheres de Leiria’ (‘The Women of Leiria’) by Pedros Anjos Teixeira (1945) created to commemorate the 400th anniversary of Leira becoming a city.
From here we made our way to the Travessa de Tomar, a steep narrow street which housed our room for the night at the small modern Dom Dinis hotel. After dropping off our bags we set off to see the town. Despite our train arriving at just after 3pm, we had wasted 45 minutes waiting for a taxi that never showed up, trying to get on a bus that drove off before we could board and walking for an hour to the hotel, and by the time we had checked in it was nearly 5.30pm: Leiria was closing and we were in need of a drink! The castle was about to shut, so we weren’t able to visit the former royal palace, the shell of the early-fifteenth-century gothic Nossa Senhora da Pena church or enjoy the views of the city and the huge Pinhal de Leiria pine forest in the distance. Instead we ambled around the pretty narrow streets, coming across murals painted on the side of buildings, houses built into arches across the street; the distinctive Baroque bell tower of the Torre sineira de Leiria (dating from 1772) in Largo Dr. Manuel de Arriaga where the original tower marked the southern entrance to the medieval walled town; a small square housing the sixteenth-century Cathedral of Nossa Senhora da Conceição (Our Lady of the Immaculate Conception) designed by Afonso Alvares; and opposite the cathedral a very pretty building comprising the Casa de Acácio de Paiva, named after the late-nineteenth-century poet who was born there, and the Farmácia Paiva which was his great uncle’s chemist’s shop (and the first chemist’s shop to open in Leiria). The building is covered in azulejos which are thought to depict Socrates, Hippocrates and Galen and it is said to have inspired the chemist’s shop in the Leiria-based novel The Crime of Father Amaro by Eça de Queiroz (published in 1875).
We then found ourselves in the Praça Rodrigues Lobo, a large graceful square with attractive townhouses and cafés built around a pavement of striking patterned cobbles. In the centre of the square was a statue of the eponymous seventeenth-century Leirian poet Francisco Rodrigues Lobo (1580-1622). It was a lovely place to sit with a beer and recover from our journey.
Two beers later we set off in search of dinner. Compared to Coimbra, Leiria was refreshingly untouristy. The downside was that there didn’t seem to be a restaurant area. We continued to walk around, making detours into any streets that looked like they might have a restaurant and by sheer luck we discovered a true gem, the Restaurante Montecarlo ‘Salvador’ – a Portuguese restaurant with the best food we had during our tour around Portugal, at unbelievably cheap prices. The food, like the restaurant, was simple and basic, but delicious and the wine, at €3.80 a bottle meant that we had to order a second bottle! As testimony to how good the food was, it was full of locals on a Monday night in late September.
Full of good food and wine we staggered out into the now dark streets of Leiria, past the photogenic market building and found another large square, Largo Goa Damão e Diu, with the Fonte Luminosa dancing fountains playing to an empty audience and a picture perfect view of the lit-up castle in the background. In the middle of the Fonte Luminso was a large statue, ‘O Lis e o Lena’ by Mestre Lagoa Henriques (1973), depicting the legend of how the Rivers Lis and Lena became one river, portrayed as a marriage between a man and a woman. A poem by José Marques da Cruz (1888-1958) telling this love story in words is carved on a tablet nearby.
We wound our way back to the hotel passing a very pretty seventeenth-century churchl (Igreja do Espírito Santo) on Rua Tenente Valadim and, it may have been the wine, but we had both fallen a little in love with Leiria.
This newly found love was put to the test the next day as we tried to leave Leiria by bus from the most disorganized bus station I have ever encountered. Finally giving up on getting any useful information from the bus station staff we tried to flag down a taxi, to no avail. At that moment a kind elderly man of Leiria came to our rescue and directed us to the nearby taxi rank. My faith in Leiria was restored.
Leiria Castle opening hours: April to September 10am-6pm; October to March 9.30am-5.30pm. Entrance fee: €2.10 (as of 2017).
Restaurante Montecarlo ‘Salvador’, Rua Dr. Correira Mateus. A two-course meal for two with a bottle of wine cost less than €30.
Hotel Dom Dinis, Travessa de Tomar. A twin room with breakfast cost €43 per night.