We began the day with a pleasant two-hour train ride from Lisbon to Coimbra, where the University of Coimbra has been located since it was relocated in 1537. Several years back we spent 5 days in Oxford. While a comparison is justified given the age and origin of both univerisites, the Coimbra is no Oxford. In part that is due to António de Oliveira Salazar, the dictator who ruled Portugal from 1932 to 1968. He decided many of the university's historic buildings should be replaced with the Fascist architecture favored by Benito Mussolini. A true shame, which serves as a reminder of what dictators can do. Beware of Donald Trump, a man with no taste or sense of history.
On our way up the hill to the university, we stopped at Sé Velha, a Romanesque cathedral. Adjacent and connected to it is the Santa Cruz Monastery, which includes the Claustro do Silêncio (pictured above). As usual, my favorite part of the complex was the cloister, which had very green grass and in its central square and small arches and columns. The cathedral can reasonably be compared to the Hagia Sophia. The outer portion is comprised of a series of square shapes, thereby hiding any hint of the domed compartments within.
Following our visit to the church and the cloisters, we took a wrong turn on our way up the hill to the university, but we eventually recovered, reaching the large quadrangle where the older buildings are situated. We spent most of our time exploring the those buildings, including St. Michael's Chapel and the Biblioteca Joanina, which is consistently ranked one of the most beautiful libraries in the world. It contains somewhere between 40,000 and 60,000 books, depending on who is counting. Many are in Latin, Greek and Hebrew. Most are notable for their ornamental bindings and coverings.
The library is spread over three rooms. The interiors are wood, but portions have been painted to give the appearance of marble. Its style is baroque, with gold leafing, and Chinese-inspired wall paintings.
Legend has it that only 10 people are allowed in the library at a time, but when we visited, the number was closer to 25, but only through timed admissions. Humidity and insects are the library's natural enemies. In an effort to keep humidity out, a doorkeeper uses a schedule to regulate when the main door is opened. To keep insects from eating the glue used to bind each book, the library relies on a family of bats who live in the structure. To protect the wood tables from bat dung, the staff uses leather covers that spread out each night and are cleaned each morning.
The basement of the library contains a small prison, which historically was used to deal with unruly students. Confinement in solitary is one way to deal with talkers.
We also visited the examination room, which is where students took their exams. That may still be the case, but it also is used for weddings and other ceremonies. It could have been used as a set for one of the Harry Potter films.
After spending a couple of hours exploring the university and having a awful meal in its cafeteria (some things don't change), we make the short walk to the Museu Nactional de Machado de Castro, a truly fantastic museum housed in a modern building that sits above a Roman cryptoportico, which is a labyrinth-like series of rooms with vaulted ceilings and passageways. Beautifully lit. The museum's collection contains oriental rugs, religious relics and statues, jewelry, paintings, and many other objects. All are of the highest quality. The explanations and arrangement are outstanding. This is a first class facility.
Following our visit to the museum, we stopped in a tile shop, where Evelyn had a lengthy conversation with a craftsman who paints tile plates and large murals. A very talented guy.
We then walked down hill, to Fado de Coimbra, which is a nonprofit institution that keeps the tradition alive. Unlike Fado in Lisbon, only men perform Fado in Coimbra, which apparently is a nod to historical practice. In Coimbra, it is the students who sing and play the stringed instruments, a practice that also acknowledges tradition. Four students in black capes performed for a little under an hour to a packed house. Some refer to Fado as a Portuguese version of the blues. In actuality, it is more akin to light opera. Moreover, its focus is on wooing the woman rather than on traditional blues subjects that usually center on the breakdown of the relationship once the wooing had stopped.
For dinner, we took our hotels recommendation, eating at Restaurante Solar de Bacalhau, where Evelyn ordered grilled sardines. They were excellent, although she couldn't finish the large portion. These were not the small sardines that are eaten whole. Picking out the bones was a lot of work, but the smile on Evelyn's face indicates it was worth the effort. By this point in the trip, I was tired of fish and Portuguese food, so I took a break, opting for a margherita pizza.
By now it was 10:30PM, so we headed back to the Hotel Oslo, which is conveniently located a block from the train station. It recently underwent a major renovation, so the rooms were in great shape. I loved the rain shower.
Copyright 2016, Jack B. Siegel. All Rights Reserved