Visiting the Centre of Portugal – The Medieval City of Coimbra, Portugal’s Former Capital

Following a quick trip to Portugal last week, I figure now is as good a time as any to continue writing about our FAM tour adventure with Simply B Tours.
After we spent the afternoon in the fishing town of Nazaré, we were on the road again heading for Coimbra; a medieval city that was once Portugal’s capital long before Lisbon. The city is also known for its impressive university, and for all you romantics out there, a tragic love story. Gasp! The drama. More on that in a moment.

We arrived in Coimbra after nightfall, so the city was all the more mysterious and enchanting. We first stopped at our hotel, entering through the grand gates and stone walls of the Quinta das Lágrimas. The SimplyB mobile (what I like to call our people carrier on the trip) drove along a tree-lined driveway toward the stone staircase at the front of this impressive quinta, while the branches swayed toward each other in the wind, intertwining overhead. Eerie! Like something out of a movie, if that’s what you’re thinking. And in a way, it is. Quinta das Lágrimas is where this tragic love story took place, and we were going to stay in the hotel in the estate where it all happened. Awesome.
The quinta (estate) was once a hunting ground for Portuguese nobles in the 14th century, built during the reign of King Afonso IV. Prince Pedro was the son of King Afonso, and heir to the throne. King Afonso had Pedro marry Dona Constança of Castile to form an alliance, which would join two Iberian powers. When Constança arrived in Portugal to be wed, she travelled with her ladies in waiting. All good so far? I know, you’re waiting for the drama! It’s coming.
Anyway, one of these ladies in waiting was Ines de Castro, a Galician woman whose beauty amazed the court. Prince Pedro ended up falling madly in love with Ines, and the feeling was mutual.

Although he was married to Constança, Pedro and Ines carried out a secret romance. While he lived at the estate, Ines lived at the Santa Clara-a-Velha convent just 500 metres away. Legend says that Pedro sent love letters in little wooden boats from the ‘Fonte dos amores’, a stream of water that travels from the estate to the convent. So much better than emails.

When Constança died in 1345, Pedro and Ines lived as a married couple and had several children, which really ticked off the King. He ordered three of his men to kill her, and she was murdered in the woods of the quinta. Her blood trickled into the water, now known as the ‘Fonte das Lágrimas’ (fountain of tears) and the mark of her blood is still seen on the stone. Creepy.

Well, it gets a little creepier. As soon as King Afonso died and Pedro became king, he had the three men who killed Ines brutally murdered and wanted her to be recognised as Queen. He exhumed her body, had her dressed up in finery and placed in the throne, where the nobility had to kiss her decomposing hand.
Ines was first buried in Coimbra, but Pedro wanted a tomb worthy of royalty built for both of them, and buried her body in the Alcobaça Monastery; where he later joined her. You can still visit these tombs today (they are supposed to be very beautiful and impressive!) and many say Ines still roams the estate of Quinta das Lágrimas, searching for her lost love.

As we were a little behind on schedule from a really busy day, we had a few minutes to go to our rooms to freshen up before meeting back in the lobby for dinner. The hotel design is classic, maintaining a lot of the original design and furniture yet the rooms are very modern. Each room has a quote about Ines and Pedro on the wall, which I thought was a nice touch. Here’s hoping Ines didn’t scribble it on there herself.
The rooms are bright and spacious, with white marble bathrooms and lots of amenities, including fancy little toiletries, magazines and a flat-screen TV. You’ll also find a guide in the bedrooms with a list of the Small Luxury Hotels of the World, where Quinta das Lágrimas features.

After a little sprucing up, we were ready for dinner. We went into the city of Coimbra, just 7 minutes by car from our hotel. We drove across the Mondego river. It’s a beautiful little city, with wonderful buildings and monuments. We didn’t spend much time there, but I know I’ll go back. I really liked the smooth stone streets, illuminated by the lamps above; polished from the footfall of visitors and students who have walked and will walk them every day. It’s home to some impressive sights – the university, botanical gardens, the Joanine library, the science museum and a number of churches and monasteries.

We walked down Rua da Moeda until we reached a very quiet looking building, with not very much activity going on. What were we in for?! Being spoiled, that’s what. We went to No Tacho, meaning ‘in the pot’. A brand new restaurant specialising in classic Portuguese dishes that at the time, was not yet open to the public. The windows were still covered with newspaper, which is pretty much as exclusive as it gets. We all found it amusing that one of the journalists on the trip, Marie-line, happened to have a published newspaper article that just so happened to be covering part of those windows. A true celebrity amongst us!
We were kindly invited by friends of Sandra and Vitor’s, local restauranteur and wine specialists who are part of the No Tacho team, either in-house or as suppliers.

We were warmly welcomed with a glass of espumante and out came our first course, affectionally called ‘Grandmother’s chicken soup’. And let me tell you, it was delicious. Sometimes the simplest food is so good, and we all loved this. The tender strips of chicken, the broth and those little pearls made a change from the usual chicken soup with noodles. A comforting dish for a cold night.

‘Cod is God’ was my slogan on the trip. The Portuguese, as anyone knows, take their cod very seriously. They are just crazy for the stuff. Our second dish was Icelandic cod confit (this confit was with olive oil) roast potatoes, carrots and pea shoots. For a brand new restaurant trialing dishes, they totally nailed it. This cod was my favourite on the trip. We tried lots of cod after this evening but this dish remained the star. Simple, well presented, delicious. I like the good wholesome food approach at No Tacho.

Our next course was arroz de cabidela, No Tacho style. This is a very popular Portugeuse dish, which is essentially rabbit or chicken meat (yes, all types) cooked in its own blood. Vinegar is added to the blood so it doesn’t coagulate during cooking. People seemed divided over this dish. I didn’t mind it, it tasted like chicken with a bit of zing to me, although I think the lovely glass of red that went along with it helped me ignore the whole blood thing. Either way, it’s good to try new things!

The next dish was Leitão à Moda da Bairrada; sucking pig Bairrada style. Like cod, the Portuguese are known for their leitão (suckling pig) and this particular style comes from Portugal’s Bairrada wine region. Before roasting the little guy (sob!) on a pit, you marinate the meat in a paste of garlic, olive oil, lard, salt, pepper and parsley.
The meat was good, very tender with crispy skin. It was served cold as due to our long day we arrived a bit late so I would have prefered it warm but it was good to try it. The No Tacho team said it can be enjoyed hot or cold, but once it goes cold, never reheat suckling pig.

Beautiful people, happy faces and full bellies!

I enjoyed all the wines for the evening and the run-through from those from the wineries dining with us. Nothing was too sweet, which is always good for me. Dry is the way to go, don’t you think?
We tried wines from the Bairrada region (but of course!) red from Quinta da Lagoa Velha and from PGA Wines (Pedro Guilherme Andrade) a beautiful red from their 2015 reserva collection, and their espumante, which was Brut (bruto) always the best kind.

Dessert was arroz doce; sweet rice pudding made with rice, sugar, eggs and cinnamon. I really enjoyed our evening in No Tacho, cosy with Portuguese comfort food at it’s best. The service was excellent and everyone was informative, warm and professional. They have great reviews online since their opening and they’re definitely worth a visit.
No Tacho doesn’t have a website yet, but click here for more information on their Facebook page.
The next morning, after a very good sleep in a very comfy bed, I went downstairs for my favourite part of the day. The breakfast buffet! Quinta das Lágrimas is another winner of a hotel in that department, Portugal does the best spread for breakfast. There was a hot buffet, meats, cheeses, cereals, salads, fruit, pastries, juices, espumante (too early but how glam) and of course, a coffee machine.
We fueled ourselves well for a tour of the grounds and the day ahead.

On the tour, we were taken through drawing rooms, a beautiful library and a secret church. The estate is really impressive. A lot of people stay due to the history and love story but there’s a lot more to experience. 54 guestrooms with antique Portuguese accents, full spa and leisure centre, a driving range and a top class restaurant with a wine list featuring close to 600 vintage wines. If you’re one of the fans of Ines and Pedro’s tale, there is a collection of movie posters, comics, puppets and all sorts of memorabilia from various countries who made productions of the famous Portuguese story.
And of course, you can potter around the famous gardens…

On the left, the stream that leads to the convent where Pedro sent his letters. On the right, the mark of Ines’s blood. Ooooh.

My favourite part was this beautiful old gothic door, leading to the forest. We all know what happened there.

After our tour we packed up and shipped out, ready to leave the historical treasure trove that is Coimbra. I’m sure as we said our goodbyes and headed down the driveway, Ines waved us off.

  • For more information on the 5 star Quinta das Lágrimas hotel, click here for their website.
  • For more information on the city of Coimbra, click here for the Turismo de Portugal site.
  • For more information on SimplyB tours, click here.

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