Coimbra, Jardim da Manga, Coimbra: a cloister designed on a sleeve

Jardim da Manga, Coimbra: a cloister designed on a sleeve

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Jardim da Manga, Coimbra
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Jardim da Manga, Coimbra

Hidden away behind the Church of Santa Cruz on Rua Olímpio Nicolau Rui Fernandes in downtown Coimbra is a pretty little square that has the curious name of Jardim da Manga (Garden of the Sleeve). In the centre of the square is a Renaissance-style structure in yellow made up of a central fountain topped with a dome, four turret-shaped chapels, one at each corner, and water channels with small fountains running in each direction. The name allegedly comes from King João III who visited the Monastery of Santa Cruz in 1533 and drew a plan for a cloister and a garden on the sleeve of his doublet (manga means sleeve, hence the name Jardim da Manga). His design was realised under the direction of the abbot of the monastery, Friar Brás de Braga, but this building, constructed by local stonemasons, is all that has survived. It is full of Christian symbolism, representing the Fountain of Life and the four rivers that flowed from the Garden of Eden. There are gargoyles on the exterior and in each chapel are altarpieces with bas-reliefs, in a state of despair, depicting lives of various saints, sculpted by Jean de Rouen (known in Portugal as João de Ruão).

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Bas-relief inside one of the chapels, Jardim da Manga, Coimbra

Sadly, despite being a National Monument, it could clearly do with a good clean to remove the mould stains on the exterior and some renovation of the interior, but that doesn’t detract from the fact that it is a unique and charming building in a peaceful little square and one of my favourite places in Coimbra.

Coimbra, The University of Coimbra: the oldest university in Portugal

The University of Coimbra: the oldest university in Portugal

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Old university from left bank of River Mondego, Coimbra

Sitting on top of a hill above the city of Coimbra is the Paço das Escolas (Schools’ Palace), a former royal palace that houses the oldest university in Portugal, the University of Coimbra. When the university was first founded by King Dinis in 1290 it was on two sites, Coimbra and Lisbon, and stayed like that until 1537 when King João III decreed that the university should be based in Coimbra. Statues honouring both King Dinis and King João III have been erected on the campus.

Statue of King Dinis, University of Coimbra

There has been a palace on the site of the Paço das Escolas since the late-tenth century when it was the Royal Palace of Alcáçova during the Moorish period, although the exterior of the palace dates largely from the eighteenth and early-nineteenth centuries, and from 1131 it was the home of the Portuguese royal family, beginning with Afonso Henriques, later King Afonso I the first king of Portugal, at a time when Coimbra was the capital of Portugal.

The entrance to the Velha Universidade (Old University) in the Paço das Escolas is through the ornate Porta Férrea (Iron Gate) designed by António Tavares in 1634 and decorated with images of King Dinis and King João III, along with figures symbolizing the three areas of study at that time (law, medicine and theology) and at the top of the gate is a figure representing wisdom. As we approached the Porta Férrea the crowds of tourists parted long enough for me to notice the university emblem of Minerva (the Roman goddess of wisdom) holding a book and a sceptre with an armillary sphere on the top, designed in a pattern of cobbles on the ground.

The gateway leads into a large courtyard, the Pátio das Escolas, with an imposing statue of King João III looking proudly at the university buildings, sculpted by Francisco Franco in 1950, and taking pride of place in the centre of the courtyard.

Statue of King João III, Paço das Escolas, University of Coimbra

After buying our ticket to visit the chapel, library and Great Hall, we had 30 minutes before our timed entry into the library, which gave us an opportunity to look at the intricate details on the exterior of the building, starting with the Via Latina, a walkway constructed in the 1770s, during the period of enlightenment and educational reform spearheaded by the Marquês de Pombal, who encouraged a wider range of subjects to be taught at the university. The Via Latina has a beautiful colonnaded staircase and sculptures depicting King José I alongside figures representing fortitude, justice and wisdom.

As the chapel and library were closed at that time we were able to marvel at the Manueline-style decor dating from the early-sixteenth century on the doorway of the Capela de São Miguel (Saint Michael’s Chapel), including the royal coat-of-arms, the cross of Christ and an armillary sphere, and at the doorway of the Biblioteca Joanina (Joanine Library) dating from the 1720s which was built to look like a triumphal arch, with columns and an elaborate cornice topped with a crown.

To the left of the library, and built around the same time, is the Escada de Minerva (Minerva Staircase), which is another entrance into the Pátio das Escolas, with a statue at the top of Minerva, again holding a book and sceptre. Watching over the courtyard is an early-eighteenth-century bell tower, designed by António Canevari, with a clock and four bells which regulate the start and end of each day. One of the bells (the one facing the river) is nicknamed a cabra (the goat) allegedly due to the sound it makes (but the word cabra is also a slang word with pejorative connotations and I can imagine that many a student has muttered it under his/her breath as the bell rang to start classes!). The best views of the old university and the tower are from the other side of the River Mondego, but it is also worth climbing the 184-step spiral staircase for unrestricted views of the city and beyond, including the two cathedrals (Sé Velha and Sé Nova (Old and New Cathedrals)) below and the two convents (Santa Clara-a-Velha and Santa Clara-a-Nova) on the left bank of the river, from the viewing platform at the top of the tower (be aware that you have to buy a separate ticket to do this).

Having explored the exterior, it was time to visit the first of the three interior sections of the old university, Saint Michael’s Chapel. This small chapel was built in the late-fifteenth/early-sixteenth century from a design by Marcos Pires and Diogo de Castilho, and it may be small but it was richly decorated in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries and every corner of the chapel has something of interest, including the Mannerist altar built in 1605 with a statue of Nossa Senhora da Luz (Our Lady of Light, the patron saint of students) in a small altar to the left and another of Nossa Senhora da Conceição (Our Lady of the Conception, the patron saint of the university) on the right. Added to this are the beautiful late-seventeenth-century azulejo panels that cover every millimetre of wall, but the highlight is the Baroque organ built in the 1730s by Friar Manuel Gomes which is richly decorated with gold leaf and trumpet-blowing angels and which comprises 2000 pipes.

The chapel was a warm-up for the Baroque extravagence of the much-publicized Joanine Library. I had read wonderful things about it before I arrived, but was disappointed to find out that photography in the library was forbidden, so I had to try to commit everything to memory; I did buy a slightly out-of-focus postcard in the gift shop, but it didn’t do justice to the opulence of this library which was commissioned by King João V in 1717 (hence the name ‘joanine’). During this time Portugal had become a very wealthy country, particularly from gold which had recently been discovered in the Portuguese colony of Brazil and this is celebrated in the library, particularly at the far end where a portrait of King João V (attributed to Giorgio Domêncio Duprà) hangs surrounded by excessive gold ornamentation and topped by a gold crown. The library is divided up into three rooms and in each room are two-tiered oak shelves decorated with gold-leaf images in the Chinese style which was popular at the time, by Manuel de Silva, and tables made of exotic wood. The ceiling is decorated with detailed trompe l’oeil paintings by António Simões Ribeiro and Vicente Nunes, depicting the library, the university and the faculties of law, medicine and theology. It is claimed that there are 60,000 books in the library dating from the sixteenth, seventeenth and eighteenth centuries; among the rarer books in the collection is a first edition of Os Lusíadas by Luís Vaz de Camões (1572) and one of the few surviving Hebrew Bibles from the fifteenth century. The books are aesthetically arranged on the shelves making it look more like a museum than a library and I suspect that it has been a long time since anyone has actually read a book from here. The books are protected by keeping the library at a constant temperature and level of humidity and by a colony of bats which live in the library and eat the insects that would normally destroy the pages.

Postcard of Joanine Library, Paço das Escolas, University of Coimbra

From the Piso Nobre (Noble Floor), as this part of the library is called, we were ushered downstairs to a comparatively stark area with more displays of books on shelves and in glass cabinets and then down a spiral staircase to the basement where we found ourselves in a former medieval prison made up of two cells, which from 1773 to 1832 was used as the prisão acadêmica (academic prison), a place where students were imprisoned for breaking the university rules.

It was nice to get back into the bright light of the courtyard, which we crossed to climb the stairs of the Via Latina to enter the main part of the former palace. The highlight in this part of the building is the Sala dos Capelos (Hall of Capes), also known as Sala Grande dos Actos (Great Hall), which was once the throne room dating from 1655. This room still has a regal look to it, from the red and gold decor and the dark wooden furniture to the portraits of the kings of Portugal, from King Afonso I to King João IV, on the walls and the ceiling covered with over 100 wooden panels painted in a Baroque style in gold and silver by Jacinto Pereira da Costa. The hall is now used for official university ceremonies, including being the place PhD viva voce exams are held.

Great Hall (Sala dos Capelos), Paço das Escolas, University of Coimbra

The other rooms open to the public retain a palatial look, including the Sala do Exame Privado (Private Examination Room) with a colourful ceiling by José Ferreira Araújo (1701) and walls lined with azulejos and portraits of past university rectors; the Sala das Armas (Hall of Arms) which houses antique arrows displayed on the azulejo-decorated walls and displays the royal coat-of-arms on the ceiling; and the Sala Amarela (Yellow Room) and Sala Azul (Blue Room) which are named after the colour of the silk wallpaper on the walls, each representing a faculty (yellow for medicine and blue for science and technology), and both of which have more portraits of former rectors on the walls.

The university, including the Paço das Escolas, the sixteenth-century buildings on the Rua da Sofia in the lower part of the city (many of them no longer owned by the university and not open to the public, including Colégio de São Tomás de Aquino (Saint Thomas Aquinas College) and Colégio de São Pedro dos Religiosos Terceiros (Saint Peter of the Third Order College)), the eighteenth-century science buildings (including Colégio de Jesus (Jesus College), which has displays centred on the 18th– and 19th-century study of physics and natural history) and the Botanic Garden (created in 1772 under the auspices of the Marquês de Pombal), is now a UNESCO World Heritage site and is as revered in Portugal as Oxford and Cambridge Universities are in the UK.


Alumni include the writers Luís Vaz de Camões, Almeida Garrett, Eça de Queiroz and Vergílio Ferreira; the political singer-songwriter José (Zeca) Afonso; the eighteenth-century prime minister and reformer the Marquês de Pombal; and the twentieth-century dictator António de Oliveira Salazar. Nowadays the university departments are spread around the city, many of them in ugly concrete blocks built in the mid-twentieth-century during Salazar’s attempt to modernize the university. Despite (or because of) this, for many people the heart of the university is still in the Paço das Escolas.


Velha Universidade, Paço das Escolas, Coimbra

Ticket office is in Edifício da Biblioteca Geral, Largo da Porta Férrea. A ticket (€12) gives a timed entrance to the Joanine Library, Saint Michael’s Chapel and the Great Hall and a few other rooms of the former palace. It also includes entrance into the Colégio de Jesus, which is in a completely different building and wasn’t part of the tour when we visited in 2016. To climb the tower requires a separate ticket (€2).

Opening hours: March to October 9am-7.30pm; November to February 9.30am-1pm and 2pm-5.30pm (closed 1 January, 24 and 25 December, and closes at 2pm 31 December)

Jardim Botânico da Universidade de Coimbra (University of Coimbra Botanic Garden), Calçada Martim de Freitas, Coimbra

Entrance is free. Opening hours: April to September 9am-8pm; October to March 9am-5.30pm


Assumption Day, 15th August, Festivals

Assumption Day, 15th August

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‘Assumption of the Virgin’ by Bernardino di Betto, c1508 (Museo di Capodimonte, Naples, Italy)

Dia da Assunção de Nossa Senhora (Assumption Day) is a religious festival that takes place on 15th August which celebrates the Catholic Church’s belief that the Virgin Mary, at the end of her earthly life, did not die but instead her body and soul were assumed into heaven.

Throughout the country there are processions of the statue of the Virgin Mary through the streets, followed by a Mass. But for many people the national holiday falls right in the middle of the summer holiday season and is an excuse to head to the beach!

Banks, post offices and other public services are closed on this day (this includes some museums) and public transport runs to a reduced timetable. However, large shopping centres and shops in tourist areas should be open as usual. Churches will be closed to tourists while Mass is taking place.

Centro region, Nazaré: place of sea mists and big waves

Nazaré: place of sea mists and big waves

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Nazaré was a most welcome sight after a long day of travelling from Leiria to Batalha and then to Alcobaça to visit two of the most famous monasteries in Portugal. A rather fraught journey by public bus from Alcobaça to Nazaré had left me feeling stressed and in need of a beer and a comfortable bed, the latter of which was waiting for us as we had booked two nights in Nazaré, a seaside resort on the Costa de Prata (Silver Coast), for rest and recuperation halfway through our week-long trip around western Portugal. After dropping off our bags at our hotel we went for a walk along the promenade, marvelling at the long expanse of golden sandy beach, which seemed to go on forever, and the imposing cliff to the north of the town, with the funicular track and eye-catching mural, topped by the neighbourhood of Sítio da Nazaré. We were too tired to investigate the town any further that evening and went off in search of a nice bar, which we found in the Praça Souza Oliveira, just off the sea front.

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Praça Souza Oliveira, Nazaré

After a good night’s sleep and a light breakfast we headed to Sítio da Nazaré, which was the original village of Nazaré until the eighteenth century, as until that time what is now the seaside resort of lower Nazaré was under the sea. Being at the top of the cliff, 110 metres above sea level, also meant that the inhabitants were less likely to be attacked by the pirates that roamed the seas. We took the modern funicular (Ascensor da Nazaré) which runs on a track built in 1889 to the top of the cliff where we stepped out near the Miradouro do Suberco, a wonderful viewpoint overlooking the sea, beaches and town of Nazaré below.

Sítio da Nazaré is dominated by the Santuário de Nossa Senhora da Nazaré (Sanctuary of Our Lady of Nazaré), a beautiful Baroque church which houses a small black wooden statue of the Virgin Mary breastfeeding Jesus, rumoured to have been carved by Saint Joseph (the father of Christ) and painted by Saint Luke. The statue is believed to have been brought to Spain from Nazareth in the fourth century (it is from this that Nazaré got its name) and then brought to Sítio da Nazaré in the eighth century where it was hidden in the rocks during the period of Moorish rule. The statue and church are connected to a famous legend which tells of Dom Fuas Roupinho, a nobleman, who in 1182 was hunting deer on the cliff. A sea mist came down and the deer he was chasing ran over the edge of the cliff. Dom Fuas’ horse was about to follow it over the edge when Dom Fuas cried out to the Virgin Mary and she appeared and made the horse stop at the very edge of the precipice thus saving Dom Fuas’ life. Dom Fuas built the Ermida da Memória (Chapel of Remembrance) as a shrine to the miracle and to house the little statue of the Virgin Mary.

It is said that the hoof prints of his horse can still be seen at the Bico do Milagre (Point of the Miracle) where it happened. The statue now has pride of place in the altar of the church which was built in her honour in the fourteenth century by King Fernando I and visitors can have the unusual experience of climbing up stairs behind the altar to see the statue close up and being able to look out over the nave from there. Also in the area behind the altar is a small chapel with beautiful eighteenth-century azulejos and an area of votive offerings to Our Lady of Nazaré, including replicas of children and limbs in wax and models of boats. For me, the highlight was a naïve painting near the entrance of the nave depicting the miracle of Dom Fuas.

Attached to the church is the small Museu de Arte Sacra (Sacred Art Museum) which has a collection of religious artefacts, such as robes, votive offerings and statues, including the affecting carving of Nossa Senhora das Dores (Our Lady of Sorrows). The church is located in a large square which has a pretty bandstand in the centre and stalls selling souvenirs and local products including knitwear and dried fruit and nuts.

Many stalls are run by women wearing traditional costume, which consists of coloured blouses and headscarves, embroidered aprons, gold earrings, long woollen socks, mules and the famous seven skirts of Nazaré, a narrow-waisted full skirt which has a thick outer layer and six or so thinner under layers. In the past there was a practical reason for wearing this type of skirt combined with an element of superstition which goes back to the mid-twentieth century when women would sit on the beach waiting for their menfolk to return from a fishing trip. The outer layer of the skirt was used as a shawl protecting the head and shoulders while the other layers covered their legs and it is also said that the women used the skirts to count the waves, believing that waves travel in sets of seven and hoping that their menfolk’s fishing boat would come to shore safely before the seventh and biggest wave. Although nowadays this costume tends to be worn on festival days and by women working in the tourist industry, older women watching over the fishing drying on the beach can still be seen wearing it.

Just behind the church, hidden away in the Rua Brito Alão, is a small peach-coloured theatre, Teatro Chaby Pinheiro, an eclectic building which includes art nouveau elements designed by the architect Ernesto Korrodi in 1907, and which is worth seeing for the eye-catching theatrical mask surrounded by musical instruments on the gable. A short walk from the centre is the bullring, which is still used for bullfights, but was not open to tourists on the day we visited. In fact, there were no tourists around in this part of the town; despite being so close to the centre it was a typical Portuguese neighbourhood with facilities for the locals, including a small grocery shop selling the cheapest bottle of water I have ever bought in Portugal!

In the other direction from the square is a path that leads to one of the most famous surfing beaches in the world, Praia do Norte, and the Fort of São Miguel Arcanjo. The fort is famous for a rebellion against the French invadors in July 1808 when a local resistance group made up of townsfolk, using any weapons they could get hold of, took back the fort where the French were quartered. Nowadays the invaders are tourists who come to enjoy the views of the coast. At the entrance to the beach is a striking sculpture in marble and steel called ‘Veado’ (‘Deer’, 2016) by Agostinho Pires and Adália Alberto, which shows a human body with a deer’s head holding a surfboard, combining the two things that Sítio da Nazaré is famous for, surfing and the legend of Dom Fuas. Praia do Norte holds the Guinness World Record for the biggest wave ever surfed (at 24.38 metres) by the Brazilian surfer Rodrigo Koxa on 8th November 2017. A photograph in the small surfing exhibition in the Fort of São Miguel Arcanjo shows a wave rising high above the fort, as if to engulf it. Luckily the sea looked very calm on the late September day that we were visiting and there were no surfers on the beach; they come in search of the big waves in the winter months.

There is an explanation in the fort as to why Nazaré gets such high waves; it is due to a 5km-deep underwater canyon. In very simple terms, the deep water of the canyon crosses the shallower continental shelf and the difference in depth, combined with a build up of water in the cove which then meets a current coming from the other direction, creates very high waves which break when their height is equal to the depth of the water. Due to the currents, even on a calm day the sea off Praia do Norte is not a safe place to swim and there is great respect for the fishermen who go to sea off this coast in vulnerable fishing boats. It is not surprising that there are so many monuments around Nazaré dedicated to the people of Nazaré, including the bronze statue ‘Mãe Nazarena’ (‘Nazarene Mother’) on Avenida Manuel Remígio, which depicts a Nazerene woman carrying a representation of the cliff and Sítio da Nazaré on her head, harking back to the days when the women carried heavy items on their heads, and holding two children in representation of her role as mother and fisherman’s wife. Also on Avenida Manuel Remígio is ‘Monumento aos Náufragos’ (‘Monument to the Survivors of Shipwrecks’), which is an emotive statue in marble showing a woman holding a drowned man with his head resting on her lap. In Largo dos Cedros is a fountain (sadly in a state of disrepair), ‘Monumento à Mulher da Nazaré’ (‘Monument to the Woman of Nazaré’), which has azulejo-panelled segments depicting scenes of village life in the past including a fishing boat being pulled onto the beach by oxen, men mending their nets, women carrying water in containers on their head and washing their clothes in a stream. Nowadays the fishing boats depart from the harbour to the south of the town, but traditional fishing boats from the past are exhibited along the top of the beach with information panels about them and rows of frames with fish drying in the sun watched over by the older women of Nazaré show that fishing is still an important part of Nazaré’s identity.

A gentle stroll from Sítio da Nazaré down the zigzagging path back into lower Nazaré took us past a huge mural, painted on the side of the cliff by Erick Wilson, of the fort and lighthouse with a huge blue wave behind it, which can be seen from miles away. On the seafront road we passed by two small, pretty, azulejo-covered chapels hidden among the abundance of modern hotels, restaurants and gift shops: Capela de Santo António na Nazaré (Chapel of Saint Anthony in Nazaré), built in the late-nineteenth century with donations from the fishermen, and Capela de Nossa Senhora dos Aflitos (Chapel of Our Lady of the Afflicted), dating from 1760.

Leaving the seafront we headed into the backstreets of the fishermen’s district, which retains a traditional feel with narrow cobbled streets of whitewashed houses and washing hanging from the balconies. From here we continued up to the fishing harbour at the far end of the town, which is a reminder that Nazaré still is a working fishing town and that the fish served in the local restaurants is freshly caught.

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Fishing harbour, Nazaré

All day we had noticed a sea mist over the town that continuously moved around, at one point completely obscuring Sítio da Nazaré and later covering the area to the east of Nazaré. However, by the late afternoon it had started to envelope lower Nazaré and as we sat at a seafront café we watched the beach and town slowly disappear in the same kind of mist that nearly killed Dom Fuas all those centuries ago.

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Azulejo panel of Nazaré (1929) at Valado do Frades station

Nazaré is accessible by bus from Alcobaça, Caldas da Rainha, Peniche, Leiria, Lisbon and Valado dos Frades (where there is a train station on the Linha do Oeste regional line). A taxi from Valado dos Frades to Nazaré costs approximately €9.

Forte de São Miguel Arcanjo: €1 entrance. Open every day 10am-6pm.

Ascensor da Nazaré: €1.20 one way. Runs June to mid-July and mid-late September 7.30am-midnight; mid-July to mid-September (and a few other holidays) 7.30am-2am; October to May 7.30am-8.30pm.

Santuário de Nossa Senhora da Nazaré, Largo de Nossa Senhora da Nazaré, Sítio da Nazaré: Open April to September 9am-7pm; October to March 9am-6pm.

Museu de Arte Sacra in the Santuário de Nossa Senhora da Nazaré: €1 entrance. Open July to September 10am-7pm; October to June 10am-1pm and 2pm-6pm.