Coimbra is famous for its university, one of the oldest in the world. It is a beautiful city that seduces its visitors slowly, with its winding streets, ancient buildings, and academic traditions. According to an old folk song “Coimbra is most alluring when you try to say goodbye.” Hans Christian Andersen, the author of “The Little Mermaid” and other popular fairytales, visited Coimbra in 1866 and fell under its spell. Here’s what he wrote:
“We drove along the Mondego river whose broad bed displayed more dry sand than running water. Yet, what freshness and forest charm all around! The city rose as the loveliest flower in the whole bouquet. Coimbra rests upon the mountain side, one street higher than another. The streets are narrow, crooked, and rise continually. Shops and bookstores are here in abundance.
From the cloister of Santa Cruz the streets ascend towards the university, an extensive building that occupies the highest site in the city. Up there, through the dilapidated walls of the fortress, one enters the botanical garden, which is rich in rare flowers and trees.
I met some students all in their medieval garb: one went by himself, reading; three others passed in lively conversation with the guitar strung over the shoulder; their wild pranks in these surroundings put me in a cheerful mood; it was as if I lived back in an earlier century.”
Americans discovered France, Italy, and more recently,
Spain, as vacation destinations. But Portugal has remained terra incognita. That is changing. The New York Times has written a steady stream of articles about Portugal. Most are about Lisbon; about the places to go, the culinary renaissance, the new restaurants, the new museums, the relaxed atmosphere, and the art scene. But the Times has also discovered Cascais and Évora. The Wall Street Journaltells its readers that “In Portugal you can pack seven days worth of castles, clubbing, seafood, shopping and luxury hotels into one perfectly affordable long weekend.” Now, perhaps Woody Allen will consider directing a movie about a writer who comes to Lisbon and discovers that the secret to eternal youth is a daily bath of piri-piri sauce.
Every morning King D. João V looked in the mirror and told his reflection: you’re magnificent! There was only one cloud in his life: he did not have an heir to the throne. So, he promised that, if Queen D. Maria Ana got pregnant, he would build a magnificent monastery. That is, according to legend, how the Mafra Palace came to be built.
Financed with gold from Brazil, it features sumptuous accommodations for the king and queen, a magnificent Basilica with six pipe organs, and an enormous library. This library has been preserved by a colony of bats that prey on the insects that would otherwise devour the book pages. It is well worth it to visit this 18th century palace built by a vain Portuguese king for an austere Austrian queen, guarded by Franciscan monks and their learned bats.
Imagine that the year is 1282 and that you are king D. Dinis. What wedding present would you choose to impress your bride, Isabel of Aragon?
1) a passionate “cantiga de amor” (a medieval love poem);
2) a state-of-the art ship that can crest ocean waves without capsizing;
3) silk and jewels;
4) a medieval town.
If you guessed 4), you are correct. King Dinis offered Queen Isabel the town of Óbidos. And, while the gift might seem extravagant, Queen Isabel repaid it many times over by helping the poor and maintaining peace in the realm.
Óbidos’ beauty is unique. Inside the castle walls it is easy to imagine we are in the Middle Ages and that we might bump into the “Lidador,” the knight who helped conquer the town in 1148.
If you cannot afford giving your loved one a medieval town, you can settle for the next best thing: a visit to Óbidos.
If you’re in Portugal in July, you might want to visit the Óbidos medieval fair. It features jugglers, jesters, and jousting tournaments, all in the shadow of the majestic Óbidos castle. You can also taste the delicious pork roasted on a spit, a delicacy that, in the Middle Ages, only kings could afford.