Tuesday, March 8, 2011

The historic towns of Portugal--Coimbra, Tomar, Evora: The Portugal Diaries, Part Four

The Library at the University of Coimbra.

Our next stop was Coimbra to see the famous library at the University of Coimbra. I’m not a fan of the hyper-baroque style but the library was definitely worth a stop. It was as ornate and covered with gold as any Baroque church.

In a time when books are increasingly becoming electronic downloads on Kindle, it was wonderful to glimpse a time when the book was a treasured work of art. (Of course, a lot of folks get to download books on Kindle; very few had access to those gorgeous books in the Library of Coimbra.) I suppose we didn’t do Coimbra justice but then in two weeks not every town we wanted to see could be an overnight stop.

Although the University complex was an architectural treasure, much of Coimbra looked a little down at heels and I’m glad that Rick, who did the hotel research, booked Bussaco Palace Hotel , a real historical/sociological curiosity in nearby Bucaco Forest. The hotel was built in the 19th century as a residence for Portuguese royalty, in that crazy mish-mash of styles the Portuguese specialize in.

Bussaco Palace Hotel

When Portugal became a Republic, the king’s chief cook convinced the Portuguese government to let him open Bussaco Palace as a hotel and it’s been one ever since. It’s now a little shabby and clearly no longer frequented by the Portuguese elite who were once the regular customers. It’s now a hotel for middle class tourists who want a trip back in time. The wealthy people who stayed at the hotel in the early twentieth century must have come with lots of suitcases because the large rooms contain the biggest hotel closets I’ve ever seen. Every item Rick and I own could have fit into that enormous closet with plenty of space left over. Bussaco Palace was definitely worth an overnight stop and the hotel restaurant was seriously good.

We saved the best for last—-Tomar and Evora. The historic towns of Portugal are as magical as those of Italy, although not as incredibly rich in artistic treasures as the Italian hill towns. Nothing comes close to Italy in that regard but the towns themselves are every bit as beautiful. And in one respect they are even more beautiful than Italian hill towns-—they are spotlessly clean which is generally not the case in Italy. (I love Italy so much, I can easily put up with a little dirt and untidiness.) And something of great importance to me, there is an abundance of squeaky clean public bathrooms. Portugal is almost like a Latin Switzerland in that regard.

Our next stop, Tomar, is one of the great travel bargains of Portugal—or at least it turned out that way for us. Rick managed to find a really charming little hotel, Estalagem de Santa Iria for 58 Euros a night. Since we hadn’t been to Europe since the rise of the Euro, we were experiencing some real sticker shock and were very happy to find a very affordable hotel with a good inexpensive restaurant, a comfortable bar, and very helpful hotel staff.
The town square at Tomar

Despite being incredibly picturesque, Tomar felt very much like a real town. The shops were clearly intended for the people who lived there—not for the tourists. The monastery just outside of Tomar is one of the major historic sites of Portugal.

The Monastery at Tomar

The cloisters at Tomar

After Tomar, magical Evora. The entire town is designated as a UNESCO world heritage site and with good reason. Evora is an old Roman Town and has the remains of a Roman Temple. Like Italy there are all those layers of civilization with ancient Roman Temples and medieval monasteries sharing the same space. Roman Temple at Evora

Street scene, Evora

We had been avoiding the Portuguese pousadas( upscale hotels located in historic buildings) because they are expensive but we indulged in one in Evora, Pousada de Evora, Loios, a converted 15tth century monastery. Another benefit of traveling off-season, the pousadas are much less expensive than in high season. I don’t think I would want to pay their summer prices but if we make it back to Portugal again off season, I think I want to stay in more of those converted monasteries.

I’ve been checking my guidebook for historic towns and wondrous pousadas in Northern Portugal. Maybe next year we’ll do the North.


  1. Many of your photos are lovely, Karen, but the sunlight-implied arch of the Tomar monastery is one of the most beautiful. It's been a treat to enjoy your trip secondhand!

  2. It's my favorite photo as well!

    Rick took all the photos.