Coimbra - university town with suprising gastronomy
Updated: Oct 29, 2021
Harry Potter and his friends, dressed in fancy black hoods, walk uphill to the gates of Hogwarts. Or this might be the case if you do not know that “Harry Potter” and his friends are in fact students of the University of Coimbra, second oldest university in Europe, who are still dressing according to the old traditions. Coimbra influenced heavily J.K. Rowling who wrote the Harry Potter books, and scenes that you might be familiar with from the movies are also bearing a mark of similarity with the hill in centre of Coimbra, atop which the university stands.
It might be questionable why to visit Coimbra out of all the other places in Portugal, which are far more known worldwide. This centre of Beiras province is, however, Portugal experienced in eyes of a local and, just like in the rest of the country, it boasts with hedonism. Charming little alleys, cosy squares, and vast open space along the Mondego river are just a scene behind which a very young spirit of university students lives in its entirety. From the hustle and bustle of the university faculties to the picturesque communal student dwellings called repúblicas, it is evident that Coimbra lives with full heart together with students from all over the country. One can find students in old-styled cafes as well as at the terrace bars and restaurants along the river, in city’s modern side.
Student’s hedonism – Fado and Ginja
The Universidade de Coimbra is Portugal’s oldest university, founded by king Dom Dinis in 1290. His statue still stands high at the entrance to the old university building, that was attractive to many teachers, artists and intellectuals from across Europe. Students attend class in black robes and capes, often adorned with patches signifying course of study, home town or some other affiliation. Their very steps here are rigorously maintained by set of rites and practices. If you cross the gates of Almedina, be sure to wrap your robe round your neck. If you’re having an exam, be sure to kick a fox azulejo at the University building with your foot. I was happy to learn all of these from my friend studying at the university who introduced me to his many friends that all play in a traditional choir Desconcertuna.
Music is terribly important for understanding any single part of Portuguese life. In Coimbra even more so, as it is a heart to the Portuguese fado music, immortalised in its melancholic tones and references to saudade, a term that is untranslatable for anyone who cannot feel the deep sense of longing. The Coimbra style is considered more lyrical and purer than in the rest of countries, probably due to the fact that Coimbra was always populated with numbers of students from all over the countries. Students are still acting as major performers, whereas only male students can sing, accompanied by a 12-string guitarra. Graduating classes will collectively cry when these student singers gather in front of Sé Velha, Coimbra’s fortress-like old cathedral, and sing the farewell song Balada da Despedida, while other will drop a tear or two during the performance of song made by the legendary singer José Zeca Afonso, the Canção de Embalar.
Of course, feelings run better with a glass of drink. Wine is ever present in Portugal, as well as nice beer (see below) but there are few drinks very typical for Coimbra. Next to the old gates of Almedina, taking you up to the Sé Velha and the University, there is a ginja bar. This is favourite Portuguese sweet liqueur made of sour cherry and served in a quite cute small cups, sometimes adjoined with chocolate cup which you can eat after the drink. Ginja comes in fact from Lisbon, but has its varieties in Alcobaça and Coimbra. In numerous small bars, where the only noticeable items are few tables, lots of chairs, a guitar and azujelos, ginja-similar drinks are poured. Otherwise Portuguese would opt for Beirão, which also comes from Beira region. It is made from a double distillation of seeds and herbs from all over the world, mostly from the former Portuguese colonies. Its production began in the 19th century in the village of Lousã when eucalyptus, cinnamon, alecrime and lavender were used together with aromatic seeds. As any good digestif, Beirão is good for stomach but also has a very typical, sweet-herbal taste that will make you love this drink instantly.
Fado is ever present in Coimbra, at any given time of the day. You can hear it in the morning, while having a sweet breakfast at the Pastelaria Briosa in the quintessential shopping street of Largo da Portagem. It is not a coincidence to begin this gastronomic story with sweets. Portuguese generally like sweet tastes and are very proud on their bakeries and sweet shops (pastelaria). Briosa is very famous place and is intimately connected to the town and its academic life. Young and old sit here, enjoying sweets made in the old way, with no colourings, preservatives or flavourings.
Holy sweets! How nuns care for us
In Briosa guests enjoy such marvellous sweets such as Arrufada de Coimbra, Manjar Branco and Santa Clara pastry. Arrufada is a type of sweet bread, with a rounded shape or half-moon shape, originally made in convents. They are considered to be the most famous cakes of Coimbra, and there are many discussions about its original shape, one suggesting that Arrufada was originally in shape of a phallus. In fact, famous convents of Santa Clara and Sant’ Anna were real sweet factories. Briosa is having some of those cookies, like Almendrados (cakes made with almonds and egg whites on a layer of rice paper), Cavacas Altas (dry and hollow cakes made with flour, oils and eggs, with a lovely legend of its appearance), Convent Hosts (wafer made of eggs, almond and squash), Lorvão (pastry made with almond paste, sugar eggs and cinnamon), Santa Clara (pastry in the shape of half-moon and filled with a sweet egg and almond mix), Tentúgal and other. Those nuns must have had a really sweet life!
Usually, they lived on the other side of the river Mondego, in a place visually separated from the university. Today, when one crosses the Ponte de Santa Clara, one can see long stretches of green parks along the river, where students have their parties and where families enjoy the riverfront bars and eateries. Very close is the Convento de Santa Clara-a-Velha, a gothic convent founded in 1330 by the saintly Rainha Isabel (she was Dom Dinis’ wife, of the one who founded the university). The floods in the 17th century were terrible and it was renovated only in 20th century. The nuns moved further uphill, to the Convento de Santa Clara-a-Nova, where the cookies were made in presence of Queen Isabel. She is buried here, in a solid silver casket enshrined above the altar in absolutely stunning church of the monastery. A legend has it that one day, while she was bringing food to the poor, her husband accused her of stealing food from the royal kitchens. When the king angrily demanded to see the contents of her apron, out fell nothing but flowers. Closter’s inner courtyard is lovely example of Portuguese monastery architecture and sometimes concerts take place here. But travel to Santa Clara-a-Nova is also rewarded by beautiful view of the Coimbra’s university hill and its surroundings.
Portuguese beer heaven
On the way down, you might stop at the Portugal dos Pequenitos, an impossibly cute theme park where kids visit the doll-house versions of Portugal’s most famous monuments, with adults having same desires. And just a short stroll away is one of the Coimbra’s craft breweries Praxis. Portugal is not famous only for its wine, but it also boasts lots of beers! This might strange to all those who never heard about Portuguese cervejas, but this country has one of the splendid beer scenes in Europe. Several brands are well known, like the pale lager Sagres or its counterpart Super Bock. These two can be found anywhere, but it is worth to try some craft beers, like Porto’s Sovina (made purely with water, yeast, malt and hops and without any colourings and preservatives), Lisbon’s Dois Corvos (which serves IPAs, Porters and Pale Ales), Cerveja Musa, 100% natural Letra beer, and many more.
Coimbra’s craft beer pride is called Praxis and boasts itself as a brewery based on a 100% natural process of brewing. It follows a tradition of Fábrica de Cerveja de Coimbra, a symbol of city’s industrialisation in the twenties and thirties and further developments of the beer industry in Coimbra. In 2006 Praxis is opened as a microbrewery. The best way to enjoy this place is to order samples of every beer produced here, that come in very cute small glasses. Praxis produces excellent Pilsener with a very soft hoppy aroma, dark Dunkel beer, with a slight copper hue and toasted barley aroma, wonderful redish Ambar, with flavours of molasses and a unique bitterness, typical German-style Weiss, with intense wheat flavour, and every month there is a special beer, with some unique ingredient. In December it was pumpkin! Ever tried a pumpkin beer? No? Then head to Praxis to taste other wonderful ideas!
Beer heritage in Coimbra wouldn’t be so excellent without a special ingredient of Coimbra’s water. All the other steps in the process of brewing can be seen in a small museum adjacent to the pub. Praxis is also great place for having lunch or just a snack. Portuguese don’t eat salty nuts or chips with beer but beans! It is quite a novelty to drink beer with these Tremoços or lupini beans. You enjoy them by removing the skin in your mouth and tossing the waxy skin away. Shells are later probably eaten by pigeons, so if you see a lot of pigeons on summer terrace, be sure someone is drinking beer and having Tremoços aside.
Everything is about goats!
Back in the downtown, there are numbers of atmospheric narrow streets between Praça do Comércio and Coimbra train station. Here one can find many Portuguese eateries, with wonderful smells. We went to a typical Coimbra’s place, A Cozinha da Maria. Recommended by many locals, this is really a nice place to taste full scale of Portuguese meals, with a special accent on Beiras. A look at the menu doesn’t reveals much, but behind hardly pronounced names hide beautiful dishes akin to the homely cuisine. There is, however, a single dish that stands out – Chanfana. It is goat stew marinated in red wine, then cooked slowly and served in the pot. It comes with bowl of potatoes and swiss chard. The taste of it is amazing, it literally melts in your mouth and yet stands firm in the sauce!
Chanfana reminds of Beira Alta highlands, where stoic stone villages resist the effects of time on the slopes of Portugal’s highest mainland mountain Serra da Estrela. Goat herding was popular once here, but most villages are now empty remnants of once glorious husbandry traditions. There are many villages to see in this area, but some of the most beautiful resemble quite known Piódão, a pristine place in a remote range. Summers are becoming hotter in Portugal and many fires are testimony to the nature’s change. To stop these devastating fires to ruin the greenery and threat the houses, clever Portuguese employed brigades of goats who are sent to clear combustible scrubland in the mountains. Authorities hope the firefighting goats will help stop blazes spreading from one forest to another and better contain any fires in times of soaring temperatures. No one mentioned, however, if these goats are going to be spared or they will end in Chanfana or some other nice dish.
Goat flavours are evident also in the cheese offer in the A Cozinha da Maria. We tried Amanteigado de Cabra. This goat cheese is from the region of Tras-os-Montes and Alto Douro. The breed of the goat is Serrana, simply meaning the mountain goat. It is a hard cheese and is shape is cylindrical without sharp edges. The aroma is strong and of a pleasant flavour and usually offers a slightly spicy aftertaste.
Bairrada wine terroir
Chanfana is best followed with some local wine. We had São Domingos Bairrada Colheita Red wine, with very attractive aroma focused on fresh fruit and wild berries. Soft and balanced, it comes from the Caves Solar de São Domingos winery, that produces sparkling wines, old spirits, pomace spirits and Bairrada, Dão and Beiras wines since 1937. Not as known as Douro region, Beiras still produce especially nice red wines that are typically rich, deeply coloured with several very known original titles of Bairrada, Beira Interior and the famous Dão. Bairrada, which we tried, is known for such wines, made from Baga, Castelão and Rufete grapes. The area is located in the western, coastal half of Beiras and enjoys the moderate climate of the Atlantic Ocean. Barro in Portuguese means clay and this wine really comes from limestone-rich clay soils.
If you’re not full yet, a typical Portuguese dessert awaits in a bakery that sells Pastel de Nata. It is known worldwide: egg tart pastry dusted with cinnamon. It is created by the Catholic monks at the Mosteiro dos Jerónimos in parish of Santa Maria de Belém in Lisbon. Straight from the oven and just lightly cooled, the soft texture of this sweet is so beloved that is has been proclaimed as one of 15 top desserts in the world!
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