03.01.2015 - 04.01.2015 15 °C
Coimbra was the capital of Portugal for a bit over a century, from 1131 to 1255, and was a Roman town before that. These were not the reasons I chose to stop off on the way to Lisbon: every so often people on the internet put out collections of the most spectacular libraries in the world, and one which regularly features in such collections is the Biblioteca Joanina, which is part of the University of Coimbra. Built in the early 18th century, it has been described as a "baroque fantasy of exotic carved wood, intricate arches, and gilded patterns". The University itself was started in 1290, oddly enough in Lisbon, not Coimbra, but apparently the students and the populace of Lisbon didn't get on and it was moved to Coimbra in 1308. It ping-ponged back and forth between the two cities a couple of times before finally settling in Coimbra for good in 1537, in the former Royal Palace. Surprisingly, apart from a 200 year period starting in the 16th century, it was the only Portuguese university until the early 20th century.
I arrived on the Saturday and had a good look around the outside of the university but because I'd got a bit lost getting there (which is pretty stupid since it sits directly above the centre of town), I decided to put off the pleasure of touring the university until the next day. Unfortunately, the library had a very strict no photography policy, and several people were chastised for not observing it. I did manage to sneak a couple of photos onto my tablet under the guise of typing notes on it but couldn't really get any photos which really demonstrate the luxuriousness of the library. Luckily there are photos on the internet which I have been able to snaffle. This is still a working library, although the texts are rare and, I suspect rarely consulted: having big groups of tourists coming through every 30 minutes or so (they only allow entry at fixed times) would be quite a distraction for any user.
Downstairs, there was a feature I have never seen in any library I have ever visited: a small and very dark prison for students (and "scholars" i.e. staff!) who broke the rules - makes the 50 cent a day fine for late returns of library books look ridiculously lenient. There was another collection of books on this floor as well - totally unglamorous but still hard to get photos. The library is named after King Jao III, who made things happen so that the University could settle on its present site: his statue is just outside.
The old part of the University is on a quad (although one side is open to give views of the river) but the general public can only go in and see the chapel (when there is no service underway) and the main building of the old palace, which had a big (and very dark) room in which they conduct examinations, as well as a smaller room to examine senior students. In this building I noticed another unusual feature: back when the King was in residence, there was a ceremonial guard, the Royal Guard of the Archers (although they were actually armed with halberds i.e. an axe blade topped with a spike mounted on a long shaft, which has a hook or thorn on the back side of the axe blade for grappling mounted combatants). When the King left, his halberdiers went with him, but the University formed a replacement guard to police the University - which it retains to this day.
Most of the teaching and research work of the University is done in a modern campus alongside this quad.
Down the other side of the hill from the university, there is a nice looking botanical garden and a very visible sign of the Roman period: an aqueduct.
One thing that struck me as I walked around was the enormous number of churches - just outside the University, there were three clustered together, and several others not so far away. It turns out that these were originally established as University colleges - using the same model as Oxford and Cambridge - but the system of colleges was abolished in the 19th century. Many of the buildings are still in use as churches, although some have found other uses - including the Santa Cruz Cafe set up in the church of that name, at the upper end of the main pedestrianised shopping street.
The food, unfortunately, was not great but it was a nice space in which to enjoy a beer after my walking about. Walking in Coimbra is not as easy as in some places, because of the University being on top of the hill and the various steps, near vertical laneways and passages to get about - but they were enjoyable to explore because they contained interesting wee shops and bars.
Because Coimbra has been around for a while and is a significant city, it has a variety of interesting buildings - some obviously past their best but manifesting a sort of faded elegance (except for the last building).
Others have been kept up, and remain very stylish.
Some were standouts - particularly the Colégio Rainha Santa Isabel and the Fundação Cefa. It struck me as appropriate that in a country which takes its sports and religion seriously, the Coimbra sports stadium (a cathedral to sports if you like) and the Coimbra Cathedral were side by side.
I would have liked just a little bit more time in Coimbra - I had a fairly quick walk up the pedestrianised shopping street, but it looked like it would have been worth a dawdle and I barely touched on the river. Still, it was a fascinating place to spend 24 hours.