Coimbra is one of the oldest cities in Portugal. Home to the most prestigious university in the country, it served as the first capital of the Kingdom of Portugal and has had a strong monastic presence ever since. Across the river from the main part of town stands the ruined Monastery of Santa Clara-a-Velha. Originally founded by Lady Mor in the late 13th century, it became a favorite of Queen Elizabeth of Portugal, who built her palace next door.
The monastery operated until the early 17th century, when flooding from the Mondego River forced the nuns to move uphill and leave the monastery. And there it sat for 300 years, until it was excavated in the late 20th century.
Santa Clara-a-Velha is most famous for being the execution site for Ines de Castro. In 1340, King Afonso IV arranged the marriage between his son Pedro and Constanza Manuel of Castille. Much to Afonso’s displeasure, Pedro fell madly in love with Constanza’s cousin Ines, and installed her in Coimbra as his mistress. Constanza gave birth to a son and heir to the throne, but after she died in 1349, Pedro refused to marry any other woman except Ines.
Fearing her influence on Pedro and any future sons they might have, in 1355 Afonso had Ines murdered in the Santa Clara-a-Velha monastery. Pedro had her killers brutally executed, and when Afonso died and Pedro became king, the legend goes that he had Ines’ body exhumed and coronated as Queen.
Today, Pedro and Ines are buried together in nearby Alcobaca, but their story has become one of the most well-known tragedies in Portuguese history. As for the monastery itself, it still experiences flooding every now and then, but visitors are now able to access the lower floors of the old monastery, including the choir and old treasury. Santa Clara-a-Velha remains one of the most complete and historically important Gothic ruins in the entire country.
Know Before You Go
Open Tuesday to Sunday 9:00-17:00, last entry at 16:30 (winter hours - 10:00-18:00, last entry at 17:30)
€6 entry fee, discounts available
The ruins are easy to find, just walk across the Santa Clara Bridge (and take a look at the city behind you). The entrance is down the street at the visitor's center, south of the ruins.