Coimbra and Fatima
The next day, we said goodbye to Olga and Fernando and headed south to Coimbra, just a short ride on the fast train from Porto.
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Coimbra appealed to me for a couple of reasons. First, it is a university town, home to the second oldest university in Europe. Plus, it seemed like a good base to visit Fatima, on our own rather than on a package trip. It turned out to be much more than that, and one of our favorite spots on the trip.
Republica Guest House
When we arrived at the train station, our B&B host João picked us up at the train station and gave us the lowdown on Coimbra. The Republica Guest house is in the heart of the university district and has been in his family for decades. The upstairs remains a common guest house for students.
João and his wife Graça decided to remodel the downstairs and make it into the kind of bed and breakfast they’d like to visit. Each room is themed and beautifully decorated, with comfortable beds and modern bathrooms. Downstairs is a kitchen and a lovely sitting room, where we devoured our breakfast each morning.
I had already emailed João and told him we wanted to visit Fatima, and he gave us some great advice on how to take the bus and the best times to get there. Once we arrived at the guest house, Graça gave us a map of the area and recommended restaurants and places to visit. Since we only had a couple of days, we unpacked and got busy.
University of Coimbra
Our first stop was up a steep, switch-backed hill to the university. The neighborhood was a mix of different ages of buildings, apartment buildings and Republicas, special community houses for students with shared interests. Once we reached the top we found the historic university buildings.
Once on campus, we bought tickets to tour the attractions. First we hit the Science Museum. The museum is in the original Chemical Laboratory of the university, dating from 1775. It was established as part of the reforms of the Portuguese Prime Minister Marques de Pombal, the same guy who re-imagined Lisbon after the 1755 earthquake.
Pombal wanted to modernize the university with the latest ideas from the enlightenment and this museum is filled with all kinds of scientific objects from that time, from ancient microscopes to experimental mirrors to stuffed animals.
Next, we queued up for our visit to the Biblioteca Joanina, or King John’s Library, across the campus and the most famous building in the area.
While the university was established in 1290 and permanently established in Coimbra in 1537, the library was built in the 1700s, commissioned by Portugal’s King John V. It houses more than 56,000 volumes of books, dating mostly from the 16th to 18th century. Both the building and the books are fragile, so the school limits visitors to timed entry and doesn’t allow any photography inside.
Once you enter the library you understand why they are trying to keep it safe. It’s multiple floors stacked with old bound books, with ornate decorations and massive luxurious tables below. You can imagine Harry Potter and his classmates studying for their exams here, just as JK Rowling was inspired when she lived in Portugal teaching English. You can’t touch anything, take pictures or sit down, but even our short visit was awe inspiring. King John must have really loved books to create such a place.
After our visit to the library we wandered around the other rooms in the campus which were equally impressive yet empty of other tourists. My favorite was the main ceremonial hall or Sala dos Capelos. You could imagine students and faculty gathering here, surrounded by the watchful eyes of the Portuguese kings.
After wandering through the halls, we emerged onto an old balcony for an impressive view of Coimbra below. It seemed a little treacherous, so we retreated back into the building and had a snack at the student coffee bar. The students, some in regular clothes and others in their formal black and white with capes, didn’t seem to notice the tourists mingling around them.
Walking through Coimbra
After our tour of the University we wandered back down the hills to Coimbra’s central shopping area. There were plenty of people going about their day with not that many tourists.
We stopped at the Cafe Santa Cruz, an old coffee house next to the cathedral and highly recommended by our hosts and Rick Steves, to see a local Fado concert.
Fado is a style of music unique to Portugal and in Coimbra, it’s unique because it’s usually men who sing instead of women. We enjoyed a couple of beers and snacks while we watched the musicians, joined by a few tourists and plenty of locals. We probably wouldn’t have sought out a Fado concert otherwise, so I’m glad we got to have this little taste.
After our snack we walked through the town until we found the restaurant Graça recommended, Cantinho dos Reis, deep inside the city neighborhood. It was probably the one place in Portugal we visited where the staff didn’t speak any English, but we managed to score a table outside and a generous and cheap meal yet delicious. We were one of the only tables not dedicated to a huge student celebration, and the caped young men and women took up most of the square outside the restaurant by the time we left.
The next day we made our obligatory trip to Fatima. I grew up Catholic and wanted to make the trip so I could see the church and get some mementos for my mom. I knew that I didn’t want to do it on an organized tour so taking the local bus seemed like the best way to go.
We took a ride across town to the bus station in Coimbra to pick up one of many daily buses to Fatima. The station was small with a tiny waiting room filled with commuters. After our short bus ride, we arrived at the Fatima bus station, quite a bit larger and better supplied than Coimbra.
Fatima was made famous when three young shepherd children saw visions of the Virgin Mary here in 1917. Mary appeared to them several times, calling for peace during World War I. On October 13, 1917, they saw visions again and many in the crowd also saw what became known as the “Miracle of the Sun,” with some weather and mysterious sun activity.
Not surprisingly, at the time, the church and the community didn’t really believe the children or agree with what was happening. In 1930, the church officially recognized the event and in 2000, Pope John Paul II canonized two of the children, Francisco and Jacinta, who died during the Spanish Flu pandemic. The third, Lucia, became a nun and lived nearby until her death in 2005. She’s also on her way to sainthood. They are all buried inside the Basilica.
Today, more than 100 years later, more than 5 million people visit Fatima every year. Some of the most devoted walk on their knees along a 182 meter path between the two churches on the site, praying for Mary’s support or thanking her for requests granted.
We visited in late October, in the middle of the week, past all the annual celebrations and festivities, so we had smallish crowds for our day at Fatima. There are two large buildings, the Basilica of our Lady of the Rosary, built in 1953, and a larger Paul VI Pastoral Center, which opened in 1982 and can hold up to two thousand people. The Chapel of the Apparitions, the place where the shepherds saw the Virgin Mary, is in the center of the square and was where all the people congregated.
We visited both buildings, lit candles and bought some souvenirs in the small gift shop. It was a solemn place and not as crowded as I would have expected, probably due to the day we visited and the pandemic. If you’re at all curious about the history of this place, it’s worth a stop on your Portugal tour.
After our bus trip back to Coimbra, we rested a bit before heading out for dinner. We have traveled a lot and at some point we usually start to tire of the local foods and crave something familiar. For other Americans, maybe that’s a burger or a chicken fried steak, but for us, it’s sushi.
I figured that since Coimbra is a university town we ought to be able to have some decent sushi, so I did a little online research, and found Japonês. It didn’t look that far away from our B&B on the map, but it turned out it was pretty much straight up. We should have called an Uber.
The restaurant is in a mostly residential area and is an elegant multi-story building with a modern, elegant atmosphere. As usual, we were a little early for dinner so the place wasn’t that crowded when we got there, but by the time we left it was packed and it must be a local hot spot. We enjoyed a great selection of fresh sashimi, nigiri and two of the best tuna handrolls we’ve ever had. The tuna was a deep, deep red, something we have rarely seen in our travels, even in Japan.
The best part of our visit was talking to the owner, Sara. When we mentioned where we were staying, it turns out that not only did she know João and Graça, she had hired Graça as a food engineer to help her start the restaurant. We knew we had picked a great place.
We really enjoyed our time in Coimbra. There is youthful energy that you’d expect from a university town, and plenty of neighborhoods to wander through without getting too lost. It felt the least touristy of the cities we visited during our trip with prices to match. It’s definitely worth two or three days of your time.
This ends our 20 days in Portugal. After Coimbra, we returned to Lisbon for a few more nights before we took off for home. We thoroughly enjoyed our trip and hope to return someday soon.