THE UNIVERSITY TOWN OF COIMBRA
In Portugal there’s a saying that goes something like this: “Porto works, Coimbra studies, and Lisbon gets the money”. We’ve experienced the (relaxed) industriousness of Porto for ourselves already, and so set out to explore studious Coimbra today. Just an hour by train from Porto, Coimbra is like the Oxford or Cambridge of Portugal; the university here is one of the oldest in Europe and is considered Portugal’s most venerable. As well as the University of Coimbra, we also got to explore the town’s atmospheric historical centre and enjoy the vibrancy of this small, but lively, university town.
We left Porto under gloomy skies and not long into our journey it started to rain. The further South and inland we travelled, the wetter it got, until we finally arrived in Coimbra amidst an autumn storm. Hardly the welcome we were hoping for, but you can’t help the weather! So, after dropping our bags off at the hotel, we set off to see the old town anyway, making sure to take all our wet weather gear with us.
Coimbra’s old town is built atop a hill by the Mondego River, essentially at the geographic centre of Portugal. It’s position at the crossroads, between Lisbon to the South and Porto to the North, made Coimbra strategically important. So much so that it was the capital of the Kingdom of Portugal for more than century during the Middle Ages (1131 to 1255).
During the late Middle Ages, when the political centre of the Kingdom of Portugal moved South to Lisbon, Coimbra evolved into a centre of culture and learning. This was in large part helped by the establishment the University of Coimbra in 1290, the oldest academic institution in the Portuguese-speaking world. For more than 700 years life in this city of 150,000 inhabitants has revolved around the state-run university.
Today the various faculties of the University of Coimbra are housed in a number of buildings, spread out across town. Once, however, the entire university campus consisted of just 4 buildings: the Old Library, the Grand Hall, the Chapel of San Miguel, and the lecture rooms. These 4 buildings cluster around a large central square, Paco de Escolas, and together comprise the oldest part of the university.
These oldest parts of the university are open to the public for visits and were once part of the royal palace of the Portuguese kings; they were gifted to the University in 1537 by Dom João III and are still in use today. A statue of the king stands in the centre of Paco de Escolas in recognition of his substantial gift.
We started in the great hall where formal university ceremonies have been held for the last 500 years. The ornate decorations and dark wooden panelling lent the hall an intense, formal air that would be quite intimidating, no doubt, to a student defending their Doctoral thesis or a graduate receiving their degree.
Beside the hall stood the University Tower (Torre da Universidade), added in 1733 to house the large bell which summons students to lectures.
The Chapel of San Miguel is the university’s church. It was built in 1517 and is beautifully decorated with ornate azulejos. Much of the chapel is “under wraps” at the moment due to renovation work, but what we could see was lovely.
The highlight, however, was the Old Library, which was built in 1717 and is located on the ruins of the former Medieval royal prison. The magnificent interior was richly decorated and is recognised as one of the best preserved Baroque libraries in Europe. The sumptuous bookcases contain some 250,000 books, representing an incredible accumulation of knowledge for its time. (Unfortunately we weren’t allowed to take photos of the interior of the library, but a couple of photos from the university’s website are below.)
Leaving the Old Library we stopped to admire the view from the edge of Paco de Escolas, and noticed a bank of very dark clouds moving in our direction. Keen to find shelter before the rain began in ernest, we headed downhill, away from the university and into the maze of streets that characterises Coimbra’s old town. Here we found a lovely little café to sit in for lunch, whilst watching the storm roll across the sky.
It rained heavily for ages, turning the steep cobbled streets into rivers and leaving pools of water everywhere. Eventually though the rain eased off and the clouds thinned, freeing us to do some more exploring through the streets of Coimbra’s Medieval old town.
The old town walls, built during the 12th century, were still visible in places, and there are a few buildings from this era still standing today – including one of the original city gates, Porta de Almedina.
One of these is the 12th century Sé Velho, the town’s original cathedral. With its crenelated battlements and thick walls, the Sé Velho looks more like a fortress than a church. It’s simple Romanesque interior and ornate alter piece attest to its religious function however.
Attached to the cathedral was the old Gothic cloister that housed a number of old tombs and long-empty chapels. Some of these chapels obviously haven’t been used in many years their walls were covered in moss and corners full of cobwebs.
Coming out of the old town we found ourselves on the flat, open boulevards of the newer part of town where there were lots of people strolling around or sitting in cafés enjoying a Sunday afternoon drink with friends.
There were also groups of students walking around wearing the traditional black and white uniforms and black robes of the University of Coimbra, as well as a number of them wearing all sorts of weird and wonderful outfits. They were whacking tin cans with sticks, chanting, and running through the streets making a lot of noise. Asking around we found out that today is the culmination of a week-long party known as the Festas Das Latas (i.e. The Tin Can Party). This is the week new students go through all sorts of initiation activities (hence the weird and wonderful costumes, tin cans, and noise), and today is culmination of it all. It certainly made for some interesting people watching!
Having seen all we wanted to see of Coimbra for one day we found a café to sit at and enjoy the passing parade of students. As the sun set we headed down to the Mondego River to go for a stroll along the waterfront.
Enchanted by the city and its university life, we’ve had a great day here in Coimbra. It’s obvious that the University of Coimbra has shaped the town around it, ensuring the city has an energetic air about it that we really enjoyed. Join us tomorrow for more from this part of central Portugal!