In 2012 I retired again and we are traveling in Europe. In 2009 Ron and I retired and we volunteered at Quaker Meeting House in Wellington, New Zealand for a year.

Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Outside Lisbon - Coimbra and Tomar


After Leiria, we traveled by bus to Coimbra, which has the oldest University in Portugal, and one of the oldest in Europe, established in 1290.  The town is situated on the Mondego River, which is quite wide and pretty, and has pleasant parks and walkways on either side.  Our hotel was right across the street from the river.  We found many pleasant restaurants there for lunch or dinner. 
University plaza

Rising up above the river is a high hill with the ancient University at the top.  (The university has spread out from there over the centuries.)  The University itself has a large courtyard surrounded by the oldest buildings.  One end of the courtyard is on the bluff with a great view of the Mondego River valley.

Church of Santa Cruz
Although you have to climb to get to the university, from the river it is possible to stay on a reasonable flat street to get to the heart of the old town, which is the Church of Santa Cruz, founded in 1131, where the first two kings of Portugal are buried.  However, the original Gothic is totally overlaid with Manueline exuberance and later tile decorations. 
Tomb of Afonso Henriques

This contrasts remarkably with the Old Cathedral (Sé Velha), a bulky Romanesque hulk halfway up the hill, begun in 1162.  This is actually a very impressive church in its solidity and plainness.  It only has a few high up windows, so it was reminiscent of a lot of early churches we saw in Spain.

Old Cathedral
Coimbra is also home to its own version of fado, which we were able to hear in an afternoon concert.  This fado is all romantic ballads sung by students to their lady loves.  There is still an ongoing tradition of singing on the street below your girlfriend’s window.  Although we couldn’t understand the words, which probably are more important in this form, we could tell the difference from the Lisbon fado, which has a more working or even under class tone.
Saint Queen Isabel

Across the river, there are also a number of interesting sights.  The Convent of Santa Clara houses the silver tomb of the Saint Queen of Portugal, Doña Isabel of Aragon, who died in 1336.  This is in the new convent.

Cloister of new Santa Clara
The old convent, built by Queen Isabel, is a recently restored ruin on the banks of the river.  This location proved to be prone to frequent flooding, and the entire first floor was eventually abandoned, and a second floor built in the church.  Eventually, the nuns moved up hill to the new convent, and the old one remained submerged until recently drained and excavated and a new visitors’ center created.  The ruins of the church and cloister were surprisingly well preserved under the mud, and the visitors’ center does a good job of describing the monastic life of the order of Saint Claire.

Ruins of old Santa Clara
We ate lunch at a villa turned hotel nearby, which also has a connection to Inȇs de Castro.  This was one of their hideaways, and it was here that she was captured by her assassins, though she was actually killed nearby in Coimbra.

Portugal dos Pequinitos
Finally, one of the must see sights in Coimbra is Portugal dos Pequenitos, founded in 1940, with scale models of Portuguese houses and monuments, and exhibits about the many Portuguese colonies.  It was built in the 1940s.  The buildings are big enough to walk into, especially if you are a child.  The monuments are rather odd as they are pastiches of buildings – a Manueline window or doorframe, a castle tower or two.  Signs at each building identify the half dozen different elements. 
Portugal dos Pequinitos
I particularly wanted to see this park, as I hope to go to Madurodam in Holland, which is a miniature town that I vividly remember from a trip to Europe when I was 6 years old.  The scale of the buildings at Pequenitos is much bigger, and I think it must be fun to be inside them if you are six.
Conimbriga rain garden
Outside of Coimbra, about a half hour bus trip, is the ancient Roman city of Conimbriga, situated on a hill overlooking a steep ravine.  It is a remarkably well preserved Roman site because it was not built over and continuously occupied like so many other places.  There were many large villas with lovely mosaics.  Many of the courtyards had elaborate water gardens, which I have not seen before.  There is a large public bath, and a large forum.  I have never been to Pompeii, but this felt almost as exciting, as it is possible to get a real sense of the Roman town.
Wall through house
One of the striking things about the town is that when it came under attack by the Visigoths in the 6th century,  it threw up a big wall, cutting though a number of even fairly large villas, using stones from everything that was outside the wall.  Eventually the wall did not prevent them from being overrun.
Wall and road

Finally, our last stop was the town of Tomar, also situated on a pretty little river, the Nabão.  Indeed, our hotel was a pleasant old inn on an island in the river.  Most of the island is a public park, and our room had a large balcony overlooking the park, with a large trellis of fragrant wisteria framing the view. 
View from our Tomar balcony
It was an easy and pleasant walk to the town square where there is a 16th century church with Manueline doorway and well done religious painting by the famous-in-Portugal painter Gregorio Lopes.
Convent of Christ above Tomar

Across the river on a hill is the main sight of Tomar, the Convent of Christ.  This was originally the center for the Knights Templar of Portugal, an order of crusaders.  After the crusades were over, kings and pope decided the Knights had gotten too powerful, so that they were disbanded in 1314.  In Portugal, King Dinis reconstituted them as the Order of Christ, with himself as Grand Master. 
Manueline doorway
They were much involved with the Portuguese discoveries and expansion overseas, and so kings and princes, who continued to head the organization, continued to build and expand the Convent.  It is by the far the biggest complex we have been in, with seven cloisters.  The core of the convent is the original Chapel, built in the 12th century, a sixteen sided church with a central alter inside an arched octagon.  Later a 2 story nave was attached, with the chapel becoming the apse of the church.  There are also the usual (by now) extravagantly decorated doorways and windows added by King Manuel. 
Of interest was the huge dormitory, a part of monasteries that we were rarely able to see elsewhere.  This dormitory was in the shape of a large T.  The hallway seemed as wide as a road, and the cells were as big (or bigger) than our tiny apartment in Lisbon.  There was a choir warming up for a concert in one cloister, which gave a nice aural element to our tour.

The other main sight in Tomar is the oldest preserved synagogue in Portugal.  It is an aesthetically pleasing square room with four pillars in the center supporting Gothic arches.  The pillars are said to represent the 4 matriarchs of Judaism, Sarah, Rebecca, Leah, and Rachel, which is something that I had never heard before.  The museum included displays explaining Judaism, and a number of old gravestones from around the country.  The volunteer who showed us around was very enthusiastic, but also wished that much more archeology and preservation work could get done.  For instance, in an adjoining room there is evidence of the mikvah, which needs more excavation.  We enjoyed talking with him about the similar, less well preserved synagogue in St. Eustatius.

On April 22 we returned to Lisbon by train with enough time to enjoy relaxing at the Praça Commercio and eating a delicious vegetarian dinner.  On April 23 we flew out to new adventures in Holland.

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