Coimbra, Hotel Astória, Coimbra: the faded beauty of a bygone era

Hotel Astória, Coimbra: the faded beauty of a bygone era

I had first heard of the Hotel Astória long before visiting Coimbra through a language course I was studying which was set in Coimbra. The words ‘Hotel Astória’ were among the first Portuguese words I learnt and as such had stuck in my head. So, when we decided to spend a few days in Coimbra the Hotel Astória was the natural choice. On further research I discovered that it is one the best Art Nouveau buildings in Coimbra and the decision was made.
We approached the wedge-shaped five-storey building, with a rotunda at the narrow end, from the railway station, a short walk along the riverfront road (Avenida Emídio Navarro) where it is situated. The building was designed by the architect Adães Bermudes, who included ornate balconies and Art Nouveau decorative features on the exterior walls, but the highlight is the ornate dome on the rotunda which wouldn’t look out of place on a church. The ground floor has large arched Modernist windows and a glass canopy over the entrance. Everything looked like it must have done when the hotel first opened in 1926.


After walking in through an iron and glass revolving door I felt that I had stepped back in time. We entered a beautiful lobby, designed by Francisco de Oliveira Ferreira, in grey and pink marble with wood panelling and Art Nouveau decor in wrought iron. There is a private phone booth next to the reception desk and above the small seating area is a balcony with further seating, some books to read and even writing desks.

There were also lots of black and white photos from the first half of the twentieth century on display showing this hotel and other luxurious hotels. I was particularly interested in one showing the railway running in front of the Astória.

The lounge with its beautiful parquet floor, pink marbled, wood-panelled and mirrored walls, chandeliers and plush furnishings conjures up images of a bygone age when people would write postcards or even letters on the writing desks located in the room. There is also a small balcony above the lounge with a stunning Art Deco design in wrought iron and stained glass and I wondered who would have stood up there looking down on the people below – a Jay Gatsbyesque character, perhaps. I felt decidedly underdressed.

The dining room, where the breakfast buffet is served, is a light airy space built in the rotunda so there are large windows on three sides plus wood panelling on the walls, with carved leaf patterns overlaid, and two large pillars in the middle of the room. There is another small balcony above it.

The pièce de résistance has to be the original cage lift, which has been slightly modernized, but retains the original features, including a glass and wood interior with a leather seat inside, and is still fully functional.

It’s true that our room had none of the charm of the communal areas, it was very basic with ugly wood panelling, uncomfortable functional furniture, slightly worn carpets, a CRT TV and an old-fashioned bathroom (admittedly some of these may have been original features, but they had none of the historical interest of the items downstairs),

but the views from the rooms at the front of the hotel of the River Mondego, the Santa Clara Bridge and the Santa Clara-a-Nova Convent on the opposite side of the river and from the rooms at the back, of the hilltop university, make up for that.

The Astória’s glory days may be over (it is now only a three-star hotel owned by the Alexandre de Almeida hotel group, where the average price for a standard room with breakfast is €75 per night) and it may have lost its prestigious status to the five-star Quinta das Lágrimas hotel on the other side of the river, but it remains a living monument to the Art Nouveau style of the 1920s and gives a taste of how it might have been in the days when the rich and powerful passed through its doors.

Food and drink, Polvo à lagareiro (Octopus in olive oil)

Polvo à lagareiro (Octopus in olive oil)

I discovered how delicious octopus can be in a small restaurant in Porto. Initially I was slightly scared of the strange-looking tentacles (or arms as they should correctly be referred to) with suckers which, as a Northern European, I had never seen on a plate before, and I expected them to be rubbery. However, I had ordered polvo à lagareiro (which literally means ‘octopus à la olive presser’) in which the tentacles are boiled and then roasted in garlic and olive oil (hence the name ‘à lagareiro’) to make them very tender. They are served with batatas a murro, small potatoes baked in their skins which, at the end of the cooking time, are pressed down on to break the skin (‘murro’ literally means ‘punch’) and added to the oil that the octopus is cooking in to soak up the flavours. I have always associated this dish with summer holidays, but in the Trás-os-Montes region in the north-east of Portugal it is eaten on Christmas Eve. As with many Portuguese dishes the secret is in the freshness and quality of the ingredients and the simplicity of this recipe is testament to that fact.

Alentejo, Twenty-four hours in Évora: the noble city with a rich history

Twenty-four hours in Évora: the noble city with a rich history

Praça do Giraldo, Évora

University of Évora: Holy Spirit College

We ran all the way from the bus station to the Colégio do Espírito Santo (Holy Spirit College), the wheels of our suitcases bouncing behind us on the cobbled streets. We had missed the bus we had intended to get from Lisbon and the next one had arrived at twenty to five. Our guidebook informed us that the famous university building closed at 6pm on Saturdays, so time was of the essence. We needn’t have rushed as the guidebook was wrong; the college closes at 8pm on Saturdays and after leaving our luggage with the porter we were able to have a leisurely look around the university building that was originally built as a Jesuit seminary in 1551 by Cardinal Henrique (who later became Cardinal-King Henrique). The Jesuit symbol IHS with a cross and three nails can still be seen on the building. The college became part of the University of Évora in 1559, the second university to be established in Portugal (the first being the University of Coimbra in 1537), however, it was closed in 1759 by the Jesuit-hating Marquês de Pombal, when he expelled the Jesuits from Portugal and for the next two centuries, although it was used for various educational purposes, it was no longer part of the university and it wasn’t until 1973 that it was reintegrated with the university. The college is built around a cloister, the Pátio dos Gerais (Generals’ Courtyard), which is bordered by Italian Renaissance-style marble columns, has a pretty fountain in the centre and is dominated on one side by an 18th-century marble portico. On the ground floor is the Sala de Atos (Great Hall), a former 17th-century Baroque chapel, which is now used for graduation ceremonies. It is an impressive room decorated with azulejo panels, stucco and at the far end are portraits of King Sebastião and Cardinal-King Henrique. Also on the ground floor are the older classrooms, each of which still has a pulpit. Each classroom also has azulejo panels on the walls which depict various themes including the Ancient Greek philosophers, such as Plato and Aristotle, and scenes linked to the subjects that were taught. There is another former cloister with marble columns which is now the refectory. Upstairs, are azulejo-lined corridors, more classrooms, the library, with its early-18th-century ceiling decorated with an image of the Virgin Mary and lots cherubs, and the octagonal central intersection known as ‘The Centre of the World’, decorated in Baroque style with azulejo panels, sculptures, paintings and at the central point, a dome depicting the four elements of earth, air, water and fire. I was so happy we had made the effort to see this beautiful building, which we more or less had to ourselves at this late hour.

Roman temple

After dropping our bags off at the lovely Vitória Stone hotel,

Vitória Stone Hotel, Évora

a modern hotel on the southern outskirts of the town, and enjoying a wonderful meal in the hotel restaurant, comprising typical Alentejo dishes cooked with local ingredients, we walked to the famous Roman temple in the Largo do Conde de Vila Flor at the top of the town, which is part of the Historic Centre of Évora UNESCO World Heritage Site. The temple which was built between the 1st and 3rd Centuries AD is said to be one of the best preserved Roman buildings in south-west Europe. What remains of the former temple is a granite platform with 14 granite columns, whose capitals and bases are made of white marble from nearby Estremoz. Excavations have revealed that the temple would have been surrounded by water on three sides and a staircase would have led to the entrance (the remains of a staircase is still visible) and a small model of the temple as it might have looked can be seen in the Museum of Évora. The temple is erroneously known as the Temple of Diana due to a myth started in the 17th century that it was dedicated to the goddess Diana (the goddess of hunting), a myth that has been disputed by archaeologists. What isn’t under dispute is that the temple has had a chequered history: it was walled up and incorporated into Évora Castle in the Middle Ages (this largely accounts for why it survived so well); used as an execution ground during the Inquisition; and at various points in history used as an armoury, a theatre and a slaughterhouse. The temple is floodlit at night and the area takes on a mystical atmosphere.

Pousada Convento de Évora, Church of St John the Evangelist and Cadaval Palace

Also in the Largo do Conde de Vila Flor is the Pousada Convento de Évora (also known as Pousada dos Lóios) (pousadas are luxury hotels owned by the Pestana Group which are generally located in historic buildings) in the former convent of Os Lóios, which was begun in 1487 by Rodrigo de Melo (the First Count of Olivença), who was Head of the Royal Guard for King Afonso V and from whom the Duke of Cadaval line can be traced. In the current pousada the restaurant is in the former cloisters and the rooms are the former convent cells. Next door to the pousada is the Igreja de São João Evangelista (Church of Saint John the Evangelist), which was also commissioned by Rodrigo de Melo as a private church and family tomb. The church is still owned by the House of Cadaval and contains tombs of generations of Dukes of Cadaval, including one of Francisco de Melo sculpted by Nicolau Chanterene in the 16th century. The church is part of the Palácio Cadaval (Cadaval Palace), which is the family home of the current Duchess of Cadaval, although part of it is open to the public and they also hold temporary exhibitions on the first floor of the church. On the Saturday night when we were there we intrigued by the African music coming from the courtyard garden outside the palace restaurant, Cinco Quinas (named after the five shields on the Portuguese coat of arms). We entered through the big barred gate, bought two glasses of wine from the restaurant and sat at one of the tables in the courtyard to listen to the lively music in the relaxed surroundings. Soon many other people had joined us and were up dancing. It was a lovely way to end the evening.

City walls and Évora Public Park

We began the next day wandering around the old town, entering through the imposing city walls, which were originally built by the Romans and added to during the Middle Ages. These were superseded by new walls built in the 14th century which were fortified in the 17th century (in preparation for an attack by the Spanish). The previous day we had entered through one of the most famous gates, the Porta de Alconchel (to the west of the city, near the bus station)

Porta de Alconchel, Évora

and on this day we walked along the outside of the 16th-century wall with watchtowers that surround the Jardim Público de Évora (Évora Public Park). We began by walking through the park, which as well as a charming 19th-century bandstand and duck pond, also has a former palace, the Palácio de Dom Manuel (King Manuel Palace), where the royal family would come and stay throughout the 15th and 16th centuries. It originates from the late-15th century and was part of the Convent of São Francisco, however, a lot of the building was destroyed and rebuilt in the 19th century. The main part of the former palace still standing today is the early-16th-century Galeria das Damas (Ladies’ Gallery) which comprises a mixture of architectural styles, including Manueline, Gothic and Renaissance (and is most notable for its distinctive arches with what looks like a pattern of spearheads around them), built during the reign of King Manuel. It was the home of the royal court until 1580, when Cardinal-King Henrique died and King Philip II of Spain seized the throne and had no interest in coming to Évora. (The palace is now owned by the local council and used for official ceremonies and cultural events.) In the park there are also remains of a Medieval wall and a 19th-century folly known as the Ruínas Fingidas (Fake Ruins), which comprise the remains of buildings from around the city. There is a statue of José Cinnatti, the Italian designer who created the park in the late-19th century and, as it is believed that the great Portuguese explorer, Vasco da Gama, received his commission to lead an expedition to find a sea route to India at the palace, there is a statue commemorating him in the grounds of the park which was given by the South African people to commemorate his discovery of Natal in 1497.

Praça do Giraldo

At several points during our time walking around the city we found ourselves passing through the main square, Praça do Giraldo, thought to be named after Giraldo Sem Pavor (Gerald the Fearless), a Christian knight who fought in King Afonso Henriques army during the time of the reconquest of Portugal from the Moors. He is said to have climbed up the town walls on a ladder of swords and distracted (or killed) the sentries in the watchtower allowing the Christian soldiers to capture the town. The square is large with a 16th-century fountain (marking the spot where water was first brought to Évora by the aqueduct) dominating the centre; the Igreja de Santo Antão (Saint Anthony’s Church) is at one end and the Bank of Portugal is at the other end and there is a colonnaded shopping arcade on one side. It is a popular place to sit at one of the pavement cafés and watch the world go by and it is hard to believe that in the past it was the site of executions and burnings during the Inquisition.

Praça do Giraldo, Évora

Largo da Porta de Moura

Drawn like a magnet back to the historic centre, we zigzagged our way through the narrow streets of the city, passing through the Largo da Porta de Moura (Moorish Gate Square), in the centre of which is a uncharacteristically 16th-century marble fountain made up of two large rectangles with a large globe with water jets on the top. The square was the original entrance to the town and in the 15th century was a prestigious part of Évora in which to live and the former manor houses that surround it are still standing, including the Casa Cordovil with its mixture of Manueline and Moorish architectural styles.

Garden of Diana and aqueduct

We returned to the Roman temple to see it in daylight and to the pretty garden next to it named Jardim Diana (Garden of Diana) with lovely views of the famous aqueduct and the Alentejo countryside. The Aqueduto da Água de Prata (Silver Water Aqueduct) was completed in 1537 by the architect Francisco de Arruda (who also designed the Belém Tower in Lisbon) to bring water from the Ribeira do Divor (to the north of Évora) into the town (initially to the aforementioned fountain in the Praça do Giraldo). The original aqueduct was 18 kilometres in length, but it suffered damage in the 17th century during the Restoration War and now it only extends for 9 kilometres, but it is possible to walk along the top of most of it starting at Rua do Cano in Évora where houses and shops are built into the arches. The aqueduct has the honour to be mentioned in Os Lusíadas (The Lusiads) by Luís Vaz de Camões (1572) in Canto III, verse 63:

Eis a nobre Cidade, certo assento
Do rebelde Sertório antigamente,
Onde ora as águas nítidas de argento
Vem sustentar de longo a terra e a gente,
Pelos arcos reais, que cento e cento
Nos ares se alevantam nobremente,
Obedeceu por meio e ousadia
De Giraldo, que medos não temia.

(Behold the noble City, the former seat
Of the rebel Sertorius,
Where now the clear silvery waters
Come from afar to sustain the earth and the people,
Through regal arches, that in their hundreds
Rise nobly in the air,
It yielded through the audacity
Of Giraldo, who had no fear of fear.)

The small Jardim Diana is dominated by a statue in homage to Francisco Barahona, a local philanthropist, by Simões de Almeida and Alfredo Costa Campos (1908), and there are also some modern sculptures dotted around the garden dating from 1981 (when the International Symposium of Stone was held in Évora).

Museum of Évora

From here it was a short stroll to the Museum of Évora, housed in a 16th-century former Bishop’s Palace. I wasn’t expecting much, having visited various Portuguese town museums which often have a random collection of broken pots and local artefacts, but I was very impressed by the large collection of art and sculpture along with Portuguese furniture and decorative arts and Roman, Moorish and medieval remains. Highlights included sculptures by Teixeira Lopes, Simões de Almeida, Bernardim Ribeiro, Alberto Nunes, Costa Mota and Aristides Fontana and paintings by Flemish and Dutch masters, the highlight of which was a late-15th-/early-16th-century polyptych depicting ‘The Life of the Virgin’, and Portuguese artists including Josefa de Óbidos, Gregório Lopes, Frei Carlos and the Mestre do Sardoal (Master of Sardoal).

Évora Cathedral

Next door to the museum is the imposing granite Gothic-style Sé Catedral de Évora (Évora Cathedral), which is also part of the UNESCO World Heritage Site. The original cathedral dates from 1186, when Évora was reconquered from the Moors, but it was rebuilt in the 13th and 14th centuries and added to over the subsequent centuries, resulting in the building standing today with its crenellated walls, main portal with statues of the Apostles (thought to be sculpted by the sculptor Pêro in the 14th century), asymmetric towers, including one with blue tiles, and a pretty lantern tower decorated with six turrets which are miniature versions of the tower. Inside the cathedral there is a mixture of styles ranging from the main altar of white, pink and black marble built in the first half of the 18th-century from a design by João Frederico Ludovice (who also designed the Mafra National Palace), a Baroque side altar with a 15th century marble statue of a pregnant Virgin Mary (Nossa Senhora do Ó (Our Lady of the Oh)) facing a wooden statue of the Angel Gabriel (dating from the 16th century), the Mannerist altar in the Capela do Esporão with the eye-catching painting, Descida da Cruz (Descent from the Cross) by Pedro Nunes (1620), and a Renaissance organ. The cloisters contain marble statues of the four evangelists and tombs of former recent archbishops of Évora and there is a separate chapel which contains the tomb of Bishop Dom Pedro, who commissioned the building of the cloister in the 14th century, watched over by statues of the Angel Gabriel and the Virgin Mary. A number of small stone spiral staircases lead to a terrace from which there are great views of the exterior of the cathedral, the Roman temple and the Alentejo landscape in the distance. The cathedral complex also has a Museum of Sacred Art, which is definitely worth a visit to see the two main treasures, if nothing else: the 17th-century Cruz Relicário do Santo Lenho de Évora (Reliquary Cross of Holy Wood of Évora), which is a silver box with a cross on the top decorated with 1426 gems including diamonds, emeralds, sapphires and rubies and said to contain fragments of the cross that Christ was crucified on; and the 14th-century French ivory triptych known as the Virgem do Paraíso (Virgin of Paradise, named after the Convent of Paradise where it was housed), which is a 40cm-high statue of the Virgin Mary which opens up to reveal nine scenes from her life. The head of the statue is an incongruous wooden replacement for the original one, added in the 16th century. Another amusing statue which caught my eye, was one of St Anthony dressed as a choirboy. The building that houses the museum was formerly the Colégio dos Moços da Sé (Cathedral Choir School) and it is believed that the image of St Anthony dressed as a choirboy (from Lisbon Cathedral) became the patron saint of the Évora Cathedral choirboys.

St Francis’ Church and the Chapel of Bones

While we were in the ecclesiastical mood, there was one church that we had to visit, the Igreja de São Francisco (St Francis’ Church), which is best known for its Capela dos Ossos (Chapel of Bones). The church, which dates from the 15th and 16th centuries, replaced a former church which was built in 1226 for the Order of Saint Francis. It is a mixture of Gothic and Manueline styles and I was drawn to the Gothic arches at the front of the church which are not uniform in size or shape and the white cone-shaped spires with spirals, which look like Mr Whippy ice cream! Inside the church we were greeted by a vaulted nave of bare bricks, but there are elements of Renaissance and Baroque styles throughout the church, including the 18th-century Sala de Ordem Terceira de São Francisco (Secular Franciscan Order Room) which combines Neo-classical, Rococco, Baroque and Joanine styles. We also visited the small church museum, the highlight of which was a beautiful 18th-century organ built by Pascoal Caetano Oldovino (a Genoese organ builder who set up a workshop in Évora) and the exhibition of nativity scenes on the first floor of the church, from where there are lovely views of the town including the King Manuel Palace opposite the church. However, the main draw is the Chapel of Bones and as we approached the entrance to the chapel we were greeted with the grizzly reminder of our mortality, as above the door is the greeting ‘Nós ossos que aqui estamos, pelos vossos esperamos’ (‘We bones that are here, await yours’) and inside the chapel there are bones, lots of bones, covering every surface. The chapel dates from the late-16th century and was built by three Franciscan monks who wanted to create a place of prayer where they could reflect on the transitoriness of life. They moved the bones of approximately 5000 deceased monks from the many cemeteries, which were taking up precious space in Évora, into this chapel and used them to decorate the walls, pillars and ceiling and despite the materials being bones and skulls, there is a beauty to the way they have been displayed. The most macabre items in the chapel are two mummified corpses of a man and a child, which are now laid to rest in glass display cases, but in the past were hanging from a wall. The legend that accompanies these corpses says that they are father and son and that the son abused his mother and the father did nothing to stop it. As she was dying, the mother put a curse on them as she cried out ‘Que a terra de vossas sepulturas não vos desfaça!’ (‘May the earth not open for your graves’) and so they were not buried. The mood is lightened slightly by a recent addition in 2015 of an azulejo panel by the artist Álvaro Siza depicting the birth of Jesus and Mary and Joseph raising the baby Jesus to Heaven. At the far end there is a small baroque altar in gold and the ceiling is painted in a baroque style, although on closer examination the decorative items in the painting are skulls.

Church of Our Lady of Grace and Chapel of St Blaise

There were two final churches to which we felt it was worth making a quick detour. The first was the renaissance Igreja de Nossa Senhora da Graça (Church of Our Lady of Grace), built by the architect Miguel de Arruda between 1537 and 1546, in the Largo da Graça to which we wended our way to see the wonderful Meninos da Graça  (Boys of Grace), the nickname for the statues of grotesque Atlantean figures holding globes on each corner of the church roof. They represent the four continents of the world and the universal power of King João III (who was king at the time the church was built and during whose reign the Portuguese empire increased).

Os Meninos da Graça, Igreja de Nossa Senhora da Graça, Évora

The second church was the 15th-century Ermida de São Brás (Chapel of St Blaise) on Avenida Dr. Francisco Barahona on the southern outskirts of Évora which we passed on the way back to our hotel. A Manueline extravaganza, it is an early work by the architect Diogo de Boitaca, who is the architect most associated with the Manueline style of architecture (he is most famous for the Jeronimos Monastery in Belém). The exterior consists of crenallated walls, cylindrical towers, conical spires and arches.

Ermida de São Brás, Évora

First World War Monument

Nearby, in the centre of a roundabout, is an impressive First Word War memorial, Monumento aos Mortos da Grande Guerra (Monument to those who died in the Great War), sculpted by João da Silva in 1933. It depicts a winged woman on the top of the pedestal holding aloft a sword in one hand and a laurel wreath in the other and at the bottom of the pedestal is the chilling sight of four bombs.

First World War monument, Évora

This marked the end of our short visit to Évora. We had a bus to catch only 24 hours after arriving, but we had seen so much that I felt that we had been there much longer than that. The small city with such a rich history had got under my skin and I promised myself I would come back and next time spend a few days, seeing Évora at the slower pace of life that the Alentejans are famous for.

Practicalities

Colégio do Espírito Santo, University of Évora, Largo dos Colégiais. Open Monday to Saturday (excluding public holidays) 9am-8pm; entrance (as of 2018) €3

Museu de Évora, Largo do Conde de Vila Flor. Open Tuesday to Sunday 9.30am-5.30pm (November to March); 10am-6pm (April to October); entrance (as of 2018) €3

Évora Cathedral, Largo do Marquês de Marialva. Open daily 9am-5pm; entrance: cathedral and cloister €2.50; cathedral, cloister and tower €3.50; cathedral, cloister and Museum of Sacred Art €4.50

Igreja de São Francisco, Praça 1˚ de Maio. Open daily (except 1 January, Easter Sunday, 24 December (afternoon) and 25 December): 1 June to 30 September 9am-6.30pm; 1 October to 31 May 9am-5pm; entrance (as of 2018) €4

Vitória Stone Hotel, Rua Diana de Lis. We paid €83 for a double room (including a lovely breakfast) for one night in June 2018.

5amêndoas Restaurant (located in the Vitória Stone Hotel)

Arrival

Train: the train station is located 1km south-east of the town. Trains run from Lisbon and Beja.

Bus: the bus station is located to the west of the city (outside the city walls). Buses run from several places, including Lisbon, Beja and Faro.