As you step out of the train station you think, hmm what have I done? Fear not, as you ascend to the Praca do Commercio (shopping square) and then further up the hill to the University you become further and further enlightened to the charms of Coimbra.
Once Portugal’s capitol, Coimbra is home to one of the oldest universities in the world. The university sits atop the hill with amazing views of the city, Mondego river and the countryside beyond. It’s a great spot for catching sunset or wandering around. It’s Patio das Escolas square, upon which the library sits, is reminiscent of Hogwarts in Harry Potter and you kind of expect a quidditch match to break out at any time (or maybe JK Rowling made a visit here? She did live in Porto, after all. Hmm…). This mental image is helped by the heavy black traditional capes and uniforms worn still this day, with pride, by students on campus and about town.
Coimbra is also home to it’s own version of Fado (Portuguese music, see our post on Lisbon) sung, traditionally only by men in this college town (probably because for a long time men were the only students). We caught a Fado show in a tiny bar with eight or ten little tables at the end of the night and the glass ceiling seems to have broken because the singer (a female) was amazing.
On our second day we toured the Chapel (by ourselves and mere moments before a crush of camera wielding Chinese descended upon us and obliterated the peaceful silence) and Biblioteca Joanina (the library). The library is something special and deserves a visit. They let about 60 people in at 20 minute intervals. You have 10 minutes on floors 1 (student prison) and 2 before (just a plain old hundreds years old library) they let you up to the library for which the Biblioteca is famous and the most oft visited site in Coimbra. There are three salas (rooms) lined with bookshelves. There are Asian inspired paintings on the wooden edges of the bookshelves which are worth taking a few moments to study and the ceilings have three murals, one per room, painted using an illusionist technique to represent:
1. The synthesis of knowledge is depicted as the study of religion, art, medicine and law in a work called Encyclopaedia (third room).
2. The University is depicted with images of the attributes of honor, virtue, fortune and reputation (the middle room).
3. The ceiling of the first room depicts library itself with representation from each of the “four” continents: Asia, Europe, Africa and the Americas.
Bats live inside the library, kept there to ward off the moths that would destroy the books. This library rivals the long room at Trinity College in Dublin for you librophiles. No pics allowed, so you’ll just have to make the trip yourself.
For the balance of our time we toured the Igreja de Santa Cruz, which is quite something and like most European cities where the Moors once ruled it was built on top of Moorish buildings. It’s exterior and interior are both quite remarkable and different from other churches we’ve visited (both on this trip and others).
We also visited the Botanic Gardens at the base of the hill in the shadow of the University. Established during the enlightenment, you can view species of plants from all over the world including a bamboo grove and garden of cacti.
For eating, we tried Dux for lunch in which we were the only tourists. We overbought and overate and it was delicious. Try the scampi and the Fiduea.
We had only about 24 hours in Coimbra and could have easily spent several days.