If you think that attending daily lectures at university is not a hardship, you’ve never been to Coimbra. And I don’t mean the level of education, although it ranks pretty highly, but the way up the steep narrow hill that poor students have to climb every day that takes your breath away and challenges even the best shod feet.
Even though the university’s hilltop location can be dated to the 13th century, the area was permanently settled in 1537 when King John III commissioned a palace to be built which has been a place of learning for over half a millennium.
The complex, which was included in the UNESCO heritage list in 2013 dazzles and delights – its sheer size and architectural grandeur cannot fail to impress. Pass through the university gates and you enter an immense square, lined by the various faculty buildings, and with
a spectacular view of the Mondego River. Every so often the bell tolls from the University tower reverberating throughout the buildings and grounds, measuring time and creating order in the students’ lives.
The real gem, the university’s library, is worth waiting in line for. Biblioteca Joanina was founded in the 18th century by John V. Its richly decorated furniture, walls, and ceiling are a perfect example of baroque style, and a wonderful example of Gesamtkunstwerk, a total work of art, in which all elements interlace, creating perfect unity. An astonishing 200,000 volumes of old books impress; a little reading room, secluded behind exotic wood doors, looks like a perfect place to hide. If you get a bit of a Harry Potter vibe here, you won’t be surprised to know that the university of Coimbra, its customs, the outfits of the students, and the library itself influenced Potter author J.K. Rowling.
Down to the town
The architecture outside the old university complex is far away from a fairytale. Raw materials, geometrical orders, and gigantic structures stripped of any decorations are remains of the Estado Novo, the time of fascism. While those buildings can awake bad feelings, they are part of Portuguese history that is not that well known to people from other countries. While in Coimbra, be sure not to miss its botanical garden. It was founded in 1772 by Marquis de Pombal. Over the years, the collection of plants, mostly imported from colonies, grew, making the garden a wonderful place to teach botany. Now the garden is open to all visitors, who can immerse themselves in nature. The bamboo forest, alleys decorated with sculptures and atmospheric stairs, hidden alleys, and a white greenhouse make this a very romantic place.
Head from there towards the Science Museum. You can travel in time to the era of Enlightenment here. The museum shows various scientific instruments that were used at the university. While I was not amused with the stuffed animals, I loved the beautiful botanical drawings of various plants.
The Chemical Laboratory is the most important part of the museum. Created in the 18th century, it’s great proof of the contemporary thinking that was emerging in Portugal at that time. Interestingly, the laboratory was created after the 1755 earthquake, when tragedy had to be explained and processed by rational minds.
On your way down to the centre, you might see many stray cats wandering around. The walls are covered with graffiti. Some of them are just doodles, other masterpieces. If you enter an area that looks a bit shady, don’t worry, it is most probably a part of the Coimbra Republics (Repúblicas de Coimbra). The first houses here were commissioned in the 14th century by King Denis. Since then, till today, those houses and their residents are connected with progressive, bold ideas.
For years, Coimbra was shaped by the university and its students. The academic tradition also influenced fado. Coimbra’s fado is different to that of Lisbon or Porto. Primarily, it was performed by students, in groups, but the main difference is that the original Coimbra fado is sung by men only. Additionally, musicians use a special guitar, designed in Coimbra.
Sad nocturns, heartbreaking love songs, and moody ballads are just a few examples of what Coimbra’s fado has to offer. The music was a tool that local artists used to oppose Salazar’s regime. If you want to hear more, book a concert in Fado ao Centro, where you can hear the music and learn a bit about the history of this genre and the city. Maybe you are going to be lucky enough to hear a group of guys wearing black capes, serenading a girl.
Once you get down from the town’s hill, you must visit Monastério de Santa Cruz, a beautiful example of Manueline architecture. After that, it’s time for a coffee. Café Santa Cruz is one of the most beautiful cafés in the world; that’s my opinion, but I’m sure you will share it with me. The building used to be a part of the monastery, yet in 1920 it was adapted to create a unique restaurant/café. Vaults, interesting ceilings, big mirrors, and wooden counters give this place a unique appearance, but the design is not everything. Older men who work as waiters add a specific charm. You might wait for your abatanado for half an hour, but here you can truly understand and appreciate the meaning of the word tranquilidade. Sometimes the café organizes free fado concerts with excellent signers and a laid-back atmosphere.
Whether you’re a Potterhead, fado lover, art historian, or athlete, you’re going to love Coimbra. Smaller than Porto and Lisbon, it is on the list of the must-see places in Portugal. One thing is for sure, even if your legs hurt like hell the next day, it will have been worth it!
Words: Anna Zielazny
Read about where to stay and eat, in the July issue of AlgarvePLUS.