A street that connects the lower part of the original walled city of Coimbra with the higher part has the witty name of Rua do Quebra Costas (Back-breaking Street), due to the steepness of the hill (despite the addition of steps in the nineteenth century to ease the climb, allegedly at the instigation of writer and former alumnus of Coimbra University Almeida Garrett). It is in one of the historically important areas of Coimbra, linking a medieval arch with the Sé Velha (Old Cathedral) and including two sculptures that embody Coimbra.
At the bottom of the hill is a Manueline archway, the Porta da Barbacã (Barbican Gate), which as the name suggests, was the outer defence of the old walled city. On the front of the arch is the royal coat of arms and a sculpture of the Virgin Mary and baby Jesus.
A little further up the hill is a second arch, the eleventh-century Arco de Almedina, which was part of the original city wall and has a bas-relief image of the Virgin Mary with the baby Jesus on the interior of the arch, with the royal coat of arms and the Coimbra coat of arms either side of it. This second arch leads into the Rua do Quebra Costas.
Just after the Arco de Almedina is the first of two sculptures in homage to Coimbra, a fado guitarra, sculpted by Alves André in bronze in 2013. The sculpture conveys Coimbra as a woman with a small teardrop-shaped head and the body of a guitarra standing on an academic gown with flowers beneath her.
A little further up the hill is the Fado ao Centro, a fado centre that offers an introduction to Coimbra fado.
Coimbra fado is different from Lisbon fado in several ways. While Lisbon fado is focussed on the singer who conveys the message through the emotion they express in their dramatic performance, Coimbra fado is more linked to the university and generally performed by male-only students and graduates dressed in their academic gowns. In Coimbra fado the guitarra takes a central role. The instrument is different to that played in Lisbon fado, being smaller with a distinctive teardrop-shaped decoration at the head and having a slightly different sound. The lyrics cover themes of love and student life, but are also often about the city of Coimbra. Lines from Coimbra fado songs are inscribed on the sculpture:
Coimbra é de Portugal
Como a flor é do jardim
Como a estrela é do céu
Como a saudade é de mim.
(Coimbra is of Portugal
As the flower is of the garden
As the star is of the sky
As the yearning is of me.)
(From ‘Coimbra, Menina e Moça’ (Coimbra, Girl and Young Woman))
Do Choupal até à Lapa
Foi Coimbra os meus amores
A sombre da minha capa
Deu no chão abriu em flores.
(From Choupal to Lapa
Coimbra was my loves
The shade of my cape
Became the ground covered with flowers.)
(From ‘Ó Coimbra do Mondego’)
Coimbra terra de encanto
Fundo mistério é o seu
Chega a ter saudades dela
Quem nunca nela viveu.
(Coimbra land of charm
Yours is a deep mystery
Those who never lived there
Come to yearn for it.)
(From ‘Coimbra, Rio Mondego’ )
A little further up the hill is the second of the sculptures, ‘A Tricana de Coimbra’ (The Woman of Coimbra) also by Alves André, 2008, which depicts a seated woman in bronze, dressed in traditional clothes of shawl, headscarf and apron and holding an amphora of water.
‘Tricana’ was the name given to the working-class women of Coimbra, some of whom worked as water-sellers, and is an image that survives in Coimbra folklore. The plaque on the statue reads:
Cantanda Pelos Poetas
Airosa, delicada, irradiando graça e simpatia, embora o seu amor nem sempre fosse correspondido.
(Praised by the Poets
Graceful, delicate, irradiating beauty and kindness, even though her love was not always reciprocated.)
At the end of Rua do Quebra Costas is the castle-like Sé Velha (Old Cathedral), Coimbra’s original cathedral dating from the twelfth century, when Coimbra was the capital of Portugal. An incongruous renaissance portal, known as the Porta Especiosa (Specious Door), on the north facade, built by the French sculptor Jean de Rouen (known in Portugal as João de Ruão) in the sixteenth century, contrasts with the Romanesque style of the rest of the building. The Largo da Sé Velha is a good place to get your breath before continuing up the hill to the top of the city.
From the arches in the old city wall at the bottom of the Rua do Quebra Costas to the enduring cathedral at the top, by way of the sculptures paying tribute to Coimbra and the traditional women of the city, this small street encapsulates the essence of Coimbra.