Rua do Quebra Costas: encapsulating the essence of Coimbra, Uncategorized

Rua do Quebra Costas: encapsulating the essence of Coimbra

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‘A Tricana de Coimbra’, Rua do Quebra Costas, Coimbra

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.

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Porta da Barbacã, Coimbra

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.

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Arco de Almedina, Coimbra

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.

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Fado guitarra sculpture, Rua do Quebra Costas, Coimbra

A little further up the hill is the Fado ao Centro, a fado centre that offers an introduction to Coimbra fado.

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Fado ao Centro, Coimbra

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:

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Fado guitarra sculpture, Rua do Quebra Costas, Coimbra

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.

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‘A Tricana de Coimbra’, Rua do Quebra Costas, Coimbra

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.

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.


Festivals, Lisbon, The Festival of Saint Anthony in Lisbon: a celebration of weddings, parades and the humble sardine

The Festival of Saint Anthony in Lisbon: a celebration of weddings, parades and the humble sardine

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Saint Anthony, Saint Anthony’s church, Lisbon

The festival of Saint Anthony on 12th and 13th June is the party of the year in Lisbon. It has the same importance in Lisbon as the festival of Saint John has in Porto, but it is celebrated in a very Lisboan style. Saint Anthony, along with Our Lady of the Conception, is the patron saint of Portugal and is the unofficial patron saint of Lisbon along with the official patron saint, Saint Vincent. He was born Fernando Martins de Bulhões in what is now Saint Anthony’s church in Lisbon in 1195 and died on 13th June 1231, which is why his feast is celebrated on this day. He is a saint associated with many things including sailors, fishermen, farmers, travellers, the poor, the oppressed, the elderly, financial problems, lovers, marriage, the home and family, pregnant and childless women, single women, missing people and lost objects. The party-like celebrations take place on the 12th June, including the Saint Anthony weddings and the Marchas Populares, and the religious celebrations take place on 13th June.

The Saint Anthony weddings (Casamentos de Santo António) are one of the most endearing parts of the festival of Saint Anthony celebrations. In a tradition dating from 1958 (despite a 30-year pause after the 1974 revolution), the city council of Lisbon pays for the wedding of 16 couples who get married en masse at Lisbon city hall or in Lisbon cathedral on 12th June. The original idea for the Saint Anthony weddings was to help couples whose families couldn’t afford to pay for their wedding and while this may no longer be the case, couples (of which one member of each has to live in Lisbon) have to apply and be selected and in return the city council, through the sponsorship of various companies, provides them with the bride’s wedding dress, shoes, bouquet, hairdresser and make-up artist, the groom’s suit, the wedding rings, photographs, wedding car, honeymoon and money towards furnishing their new home. The weddings are covered throughout the day on Portugal’s national television station, RTP. With careful planning we were lucky enough to see both sets of couples appear after their respective weddings. The first couples to get married were the five couples who had a civil wedding in the city hall in the Praça do Município around midday. This was a simple but moving wedding followed by the couples appearing on the balcony where they were serenaded by the VenusMonti tuna group, made up of students from Lisbon University Faculty of Law. The couples then came down to the square where they danced to more music from VenusMonti, including Se Tu Soubesses (‘If You Only Knew’).

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Saint Anthony brides and grooms on the balcony of Lisbon City Hall, Praça do Município, Lisbon
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Saint Anthony brides and grooms dancing outside Lisbon City Hall, Praça do Município, Lisbon
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VenusMonti tuna group, Praça do Município, Lisbon

After they had gone back into the city hall it wasn’t clear what was going to happen next, but half an hour later (at around 2pm) the 11 brides who were getting married in the cathedral appeared with their maids of honour walking towards the waiting classic cars. One-by-one the cars headed to the cathedral where the brides met their waiting fathers and entered the cathedral.

There were already crowds of people waiting outside the cathedral and as the service, which lasted over two hours (made longer by nine couples who had got married in 1968 renewing their vows), went on more people kept arriving. Even though there was nothing to see, except a man setting up a confetti machine, a brass band arriving and warming up, and the wedding service being broadcast through loudspeakers almost as background noise, people were determined to stand and wait for the newly-weds to come out of the cathedral. After what seemed an eternity, the couples finally appeared to the sound of the Banda de Música da Carris brass band playing Coldplay’s ‘Viva la Vida’ and Abba’s ‘Dancing Queen’ and we were able to say ‘Vivam os noivos!’ (‘Long live the bride and groom!’).

After the obligatory photos they walked down to the neighbouring Saint Anthony’s church where each couple placed a sunflower on the statue of Saint Anthony, who is known as the holy matchmaker and, as noted above, is the patron saint of lovers and marriage, and more photos were taken.

The couples then walked down the hill and through the Baixa to the Praça do Município, where they met up with the other five couples for more photos on the pillory in the centre of the square, before being driven in the classic cars to the Estufa Fria in Parque Eduardo VII for the copo-d’agua (reception). You would think that the couples would be allowed to enjoy the reception, but as the reception is broadcast on RTP the couples have to give interviews during the evening. After the reception, the couples still have one more engagement: at 11pm they make an appearance, still in their wedding attire, at the Marchas Populares on the Avenida da Liberdade where they are photographed with the President of the Republic. After that they are free to go on their honeymoon, although they are not given the chance to spend much time alone, as all the couples go on the honeymoon as a group.

The Marchas Populares (People’s Parades) are a highlight of the Saint Anthony celebrations on the night of 12th June and it felt like the whole of Lisbon had left the cathedral after the weddings were over and come down to line each side of the Avenida da Liberdade to watch the districts of Lisbon compete in a distinctly Portuguese parade which is a singing and dancing spectacular with colourful costumes and movable scenery. The first Marchas Populares were held in 1932 when the districts of Lisbon were invited to take part in a competition based on their traditional celebrations of the popular saints festivals. Over the years things have changed, but the key elements remain the same: people wearing costumes based on traditional clothes sing and dance to an accompanying marching band. The women wear very flared skirts and march on the spot with their hands on their hips while swinging their hips and shoulders. The men also march on the spot, but not as animatedly. Each year the Marchas Populares have a theme set by the organizers, the Empresa de Gestão de Equipamentos e Animação Cultural (EGEAC), and in 2018 the theme was the very famous and much-loved film A Canção de Lisboa (The Song of Lisbon, 1933) and the equally well-loved actor who starred in it, Vasco Santana (1898-1958). (The film is musical comedy about a medical student (Vasco Santana), whose studies are being paid for by his two wealthy aunts who live in the north of the country. Vasco prefers wine, women and song to studying and when he fails his final exam he lies to his aunts that he has passed the exam and got a job as a doctor. However, things start to go wrong when his aunts arrive in Lisbon wanting to see the doctor’s surgery where he has said he works.) As well as the original songs that each group composes, there had also been a competition earlier in the year to write a song that has become the parades’ theme song, that all the teams have to include in their routine. The winning song for the 2018 parades was a very catchy song, Vasco é Saudade’ (‘Vasco is saudade’: a word that doesn’t easily translate as it conveys a notion of yearning and nostalgia for what is lost, whether it be a place, a person or a way of life, and for what will never be attained). Each group is represented by a madrinha and padrinho (sponsors), minor celebrities who do the obligatory RTP interview and give gifts to the President of the Republic and the Mayor of Lisbon. The Marchas Populares are not for the faint-hearted, as they start at 9pm and don’t finish until 1am, when the 23 competing teams, plus a few other groups, including a group of children representing an educational charity, A Voz do Operário (The Voice of the Worker) and a group of market traders, finish performing.

Judging of the competition is done in two stages: the first is held in the Altice Arena at the beginning of June and the second on the night of 12th June and teams are judged on criteria such as choreography, music, lyrics, costume design and set design. In 2018 the Alfama district was the overall winner. The groups perform at points along the Avenida da Liberdade, the main one being opposite the monument to the First World War and knowing this we positioned ourselves near there before the parades started. However, we soon realized that in order to see the dancing we needed to be sat in one of the stands in front of which the groups perform and those stands are not available to the general public. Therefore all we managed to see on the night were the groups walking down the avenue before and after they had performed. There are a few small TV screens on the back of the stands where we could watch what was being broadcast on RTP, but we decided it would be better to watch it later on catch-up TV and went off in search of the traditional arraiais (street parties) which are held in different neighbourhoods.

On the night the streets are decorated with brightly coloured streamers, the unmistakable smell of sardines being grilled fills the air and loud music can be heard everywhere, particularly songs dedicated to the popular saints such as the strangely titled Marcha do Pião das Nicas (‘March of the Punchbag’) by Carlos Paião, the chorus of which goes:
Viva o Santo António, viva o São João!
Viva o dez de junho e a Restauração!
Viva até São Bento, se nos arranjar!
Muitos feriados para festejar!
(‘Long live Saint Anthony, long live Saint John! / Long live the tenth of June and the restoration! / Long live even Saint Bento, if it can be arranged for us! / So many holidays to celebrate!’)

On our walk around we came across various parties ranging from an informal gathering on the steps of the Calçada do Lavra, to streets with improvised food and drink stalls and live music that were so crowded with people we couldn’t get down them and a big food fair selling all kinds of food and drink at the Miradouro de São Pedro de Alcântara. In true Saint Anthony style we chose to have a simple but delicious grilled sardine on a slice of bread and a glass of beer served in a plastic cup.  Although the sardine is the food most associated with the Saint Anthony festivities, other Portuguese street food is in demand at this time,  including febras (slices of grilled pork), bifanas (bread rolls filled with pork), caldo-verde (soup made with potatoes and a green leafy vegetable similar to kale), grilled chouriço (a spiced sausage) and snails, along with the ubiquitous sangria.

As well as the street parties a feature of the Saint Anthony celebrations is the giving of a manjerico plant (a type of basil) in a pot decorated with a carnation and a small flag with a quadra (a four-line verse) on it. Many of the famous quadras were written by Fernando Pessoa, one of Portugal’s most famous twentieth-century poets. In the past a young man would give the plant to his girlfriend as a commitment to marriage. The giving and receiving of the pot of basil is not so binding nowadays, but the recipient is expected to look after the plant for the next 12 months, when it is replaced with a new one. Traditionally single women received a plant with a pink carnation and married women received one with a red or orange carnation, but nowadays any colour goes!

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A manjerico plant

The main event on 13th June is the procession of Saint Anthony which starts at 5pm at Saint Anthony’s church from where the statue of Saint Anthony is carried through the streets of the Alfama stopping at the cathedral to collect the relic of the saint and at other churches to collect icons of other saints on the way, and returning to the cathedral at 7pm for a religious ceremony before carrying the statue back to Saint Anthony’s church. The procession is followed by thousands of people, many carrying candles or carnations which can be bought from a stall outside the church.

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Procession of Saint Anthony, Lisbon

In the entrance to the church we spotted a stall selling very small bread rolls wrapped in paper, the pão de Santo António (Saint Anthony’s bread). These rolls are sold at 30 cents each by the church during the week of the festival of Saint Anthony to raise money for the poor.

The tradition originates from a story that when Saint Anthony was a friar he gave all the monastery’s bread away to the poor and as a result there was none left to feed the monks. The monastery’s baker, believing the bread had been stolen, told Saint Anthony who advised the baker to check again and on doing so the baker found a plentiful supply of bread. Other legends tell of people who over the years have prayed to Saint Anthony and promised to give bread to the poor if he could answer their prayers: one concerns a baker who was unable to unlock the door to her shop until Saint Anthony intervened; and another concerns a mother whose child is believed to have drowned but after praying to Saint Anthony she finds the child is alive.

It is clear from the celebrations that Saint Anthony is a much-loved saint in Lisbon, even if he isn’t the official patron saint of the city, but as a Lisboan told me, if a saint is born in Lisbon he automatically becomes a patron saint in the hearts of the people.

Viva o Santo António!

Coimbra, Enduring love and political intrigue: the story of Pedro and Inês, History

Enduring love and political intrigue: the story of Pedro and Inês


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Sculpture of Pedro and Inês, Santa Clara-a-Velha convent museum, Coimbra

The most famous love story in Portuguese history takes us to Coimbra and Alcobaça to learn more about the intense passion between Prince Pedro, the heir to the Portuguese throne, and his mistress, Inês de Castro, and Pedro’s enduring love for her after her death. The story is often described as the Portuguese Romeo and Juliet, but there are also elements of obsessive love and political intrigue reminiscent of Henry VIII’s relationship with Anne Boleyn. The story begins in 1340 when Pedro married Constança Manuel of Villena and she brought her cousin, Inês de Castro, to Portugal with her as her lady-in-waiting. Inês was illegitimately connected to the Castilian royal family and had spent her childhood in Albuquerque Castle in Estremadura in Spain, during which time Afonso Sanches, the illegitimate half-brother of King Afonso IV of Portugal (Pedro’s father), was taking refuge in the castle to escape his brother’s death threats. This connection with Afonso Sanches became a problem when Pedro fell madly in love with Inês and they began a passionate affair. When Pedro’s father found out about their relationship he expelled Inês from Portugal. She returned to Albuquerque Castle where she stayed until Constança’s death in 1345, when she came back to Portugal and resumed her affair with Pedro. Pedro declared that she was his one true love, but King Afonso IV refused to let them marry. The King was distrustful of this relationship partly due to Inês connection to Castile and the possibility that Portugal would become involved in the civil war that was taking place there in which the insurrection against the King of Spain was being led by the son of King Afonso’s arch enemy, the aforementioned Afonso Sanches, further complicated by Pedro declaring himself pretender to the Castile throne in 1354; and partly because if Pedro and Inês were to marry their children would have a legitimate right to the throne which the King wanted to avoid. Despite this opposition, Pedro lived with Inês in Coimbra and they had three children together. However, on a January day in 1355 Inês was arrested and taken to Santa Clara-a-Velha convent where she was beheaded by three assassins acting under the King’s orders.

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Santa Clara-a-Velha convent, Coimbra

After her murder Pedro’s immediate reaction was to declare a rebellion against his father, which he ultimately did not go through with and they were reconciled by the time of the King’s death in 1357. However, the story does not end there, for once Pedro was crowned King Pedro I he confessed that he and Inês had got married in secret, allegedly at the Igreja de São Vicente in Bragança. But the marriage could not be proven and the Pope refused to recognize it, thus preventing their children from having a legitimate right to the throne.

Not surprisingly various legends have developed around the story of Pedro and Inês over the centuries and while they may not be true they have given it a mythic quality. One legend is that King Pedro I had Inês’ decomposed corpse exhumed and then crowned her Queen of Portugal, insisting that everyone in his court kiss her hand. Another legend is that when Pedro had her assassins arrested he then tore out their hearts and ate them. The myth has been perpetuated through the centuries in art, literature, music and film. There is an Inês de Castro Foundation dedicated to historical research, art and cultural events related to her and Alcobaça has a Pedro and Inês route around the city with ceramics made by local factories depicting episodes from the Luís Vaz de Camões version of the story from Os Lusíadas (The Lusiads, 1572).

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Sculpture of ‘Thrones of Pedro and Inês’ by Thierry Ferreira and Renato Silva, Jardim do Amor, Alcobaça

Canto III, verses 118-136 of Os Lusíadas tells the story of Pedro and Inês, with some artistic licence on the part of Camões, and verse 135, which describes the legend of the Fonte das Lágrimas (Spring of Tears) in the Quinta das Lágrimas in Coimbra, is carved on a plaque at the place where Inês is reputedly said to have been murdered and where, after her death, a spring created by her tears as she was dying allegedly rose.

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Verse from Os Lusíadas, Fonte das Lágrimas, Quinta das Lágrimas, Coimbra

‘As filhas do Mondego a morte escura
Longo tempo chorando memoraram,
As lágrimas choradas transformaram.
O nome lhe puseram, que inda dura,
Dos amores de Inês, que ali passaram.
Vede que fresco fonte rega as flores,
Que lágrimas são a água e o nome Amores.’

(‘The nymphs of Mondego long mourned the memory of that dark death, And, in eternal memory, the tears were transformed into a clear spring. The name they gave it, that still endures, came from the love of Inês who spent time there. See the cool spring watering the flowers, whose tears are the water and whose name is Love.’)

A further legend says that her blood still remains on the stones of the channel that is fed by the spring.

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Fonte das Lágrimas, Quinta das Lágrimas, Coimbra

Nearby is the fourteenth-century Fonte dos Amores (Spring of Love), where Pedro and Inês carried out their love affair. This is a peaceful place in the grounds of the Quinta das Lágrimas, which is entered through a nineteenth-century gothic arch.

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Gothic arch, Fonte dos Amores, Quinta das Lágrimas, Coimbra
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Fonte dos Amores, Quinta das Lágrimas, Coimbra

Before walking through the arch there is a wooded area with ribbons hanging from the trees. It has become a tradition to write the name of a loved one on the ribbon and attach it to a tree.

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Ribbons of love, Quinta das Lágrimas, Coimbra

Pedro’s love for Inês did not fade and after ascending the throne in 1357 Pedro ordered tombs for him and Inês to be built at the Santa Maria de Alcobaça Monastery.

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Santa Maria de Alcobaça Monastery, Alcobaça

Inês’ body was moved from Coimbra to her tomb in Alcobaça and after his death in 1367 Pedro was interred in his tomb. The tombs are in the transepts of the church and are made of white marble in an elaborate gothic style. They are unusually placed facing each other rather than side-by-side and both are carved with the phrase ‘Até ao Fim do Mundo’ (‘Until the End of the World’), which is believed to refer to Judgement Day when the first sight they will have will be of each other. Recumbent statues of Pedro and Inês lie on top of their respective tombs and both are supported by angels. Pedro has a dog at his feet to represent fidelity and on the side of his tomb is the Portuguese coat of arms and scenes from the life of his patron saint, Saint Bartholomew. On the end is a wheel of life showing scenes from Pedro’s life and depicting his love for Inês. The tomb stands on lions.

The scenes on Inês’ tomb are more unsettling, with episodes analogous to her violent death, including the crucifixion of Christ and the Last Judgement, where the innocents are shown going to Heaven, the guilty going to Hell and Pedro and Inês reunited in Paradise. Her tomb is supported by figures that are half-men and half-beast, representing the men who murdered her.

Despite damage over the centuries, particularly in the early-nineteenth century when French troops pillaged the church, the tombs are beautiful and both Pedro and Inês look as if they are peacefully sleeping and waiting until the end of the world when they will be together again.