Panel of hand painted wall tiles

5 reasons to visit Coimbra’s Museu Nacional Machado de Castro

Some of you may recall that Coimbra’s national museum has recently opened its doors to the public after years of renovation. As promised, I called in to see what it was like and was very impressed. Here are five very good reasons why you should incorporate a visit to Museu Nacional Machado de Castro into your trip to Coimbra.

1. The views

For a great view of the old cathedral, the higgledy-piggledy houses that spill down the hill from the university and a glimpse of the River Mondego, just stroll through the courtyard and onto the decking of the café. You don’t even have to pay the museum entrance fee to get to the terrace so it’s not a bad place to take a welcome break from walking on cobbled streets and grab a coffee. The restaurant is now open, so it could easily become a popular lunch or dinner venue.

View across Coimbra

Looking out over Sé Velha, the old cathedral, with the Mondego river in the background. This is the view from the terrace of Museu Nacional Machado de Castro in Coimbra.

2. Cool off in the Cryptoportico

Head down the stairs to an underground labyrinth of tunnels and partitions which formed the original city of Coimbra during Roman times. Impressive at any time of the year with layers of brick and stone and soft lighting, it’s also refreshingly cool, making it a great place to escape the heat of the summer.

Roman underground city in Coimbra

Under the museum, you can explore the tunnels and rooms of the ancient Roman city.

3. Stunning Stonework

I’m not usually bothered about stone sculptures, especially the religious kind, but the incredibly intricate and well-preserved collection of carved white limestone is well worth inspection. To enter the sculpture exhibition, you walk past the well-lit remains of an 11th century cloister and gradually progress through the ages and into the main room. This area is particularly well laid out, with part of an elaborately decorated chapel at one end which rises beyond the level of the second floor.

11th century cloisters

The original cloisters from the church of São João de Almedina date back to the 11th century.

4. Odd reliquaries

Among Queen Saint Isabel’s jewels and the bling of ostentatious religious metalwork, there are a few reliquaries. These are shrines or containers for religious relics, such as bones of saints. One that caught my eye was a fancy gold box with a bone inside which came from the monastery at Lorvão.

Bone reliquary

This fine gold reliquary contains the bone of one of the Martyrs of Morocco and was made in 1514.

5. Cracking ceramics

As well as a selection of plates, bowls and vases, you’ll find panels of hand painted wall tiles with some strange-looking animals on them such as dragon-cats. Tiles were not just for decoration or amusement in Coimbra; some of them were used for educational purposes and painted with mathematical principles and equations.

Panel of hand painted wall tiles

These azulejos show dragon- cats, monkey-lions and a flower-breathing lady.

My favourite ceramic, however, has to be the boar’s head tureen.

Boar tureen

I think he’d put me off my dinner with his sardonic expression.

There are plenty more fantastic exhibits, such as the obscenely ornate bishop’s carriage and some amazing furniture and textiles and there will be a series of temporary exhibitions to complement the already extensive permanent pieces. Well worth 6 euros in my opinion!

Useful information

Museu Nacional Machado de Castro is on the corner of Rua São João and Rua do Norte, opposite Largo de Sé Nova.

Buses 28, 34 and 103 stop nearby.

Opening hours: October to March 10:00 to 12:30 and 14:00 to 18:00, April to September 10:00 to 18:00

Entry to the full museum is 6 euros, 3 euros for the Cryptoportico. Free on Sundays and public holidays in the morning and at all times for children under 14.

For more information about the museum, here’s the website.

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