Part university town and part world heritage site, we knew we couldn't get to know the whole city in just a day trip, so the reflections here are just that - fractal impressions of a city that even we could tell has rich, multi-layers of culture.
Our first stop was the University itself. Established in 1290, it is the oldest university in the Portuguese-speaking world. The highlight of our tour of this place was the Baroque library (Joanine Library). Built between 1717 and 1728, it is one of the richest libraries in all of Europe.
|Door to the library. They only open it every |
20 minutes to let people in, in order to control
the humidity that enters.
Walking in, you certainly feel it. The intricate wood paneling and and painted gold gives the place an otherworldly feel. The books are all carefully locked away, but we can peer through the mesh and read some of their Latin titles. They are mostly hard-covered brown books of varying thicknesses. The worlds of knowledge contained inside is baffling to think about - it contains over 56,000 books from the sixteenth to eighteenth centuries. The library itself was built on the remains of an old medieval prison, which you can also descend into and tour.
|Inside the library - image retrieved from Google|
We didn't seem them, but bats inhabit the library and they are quite welcome because they eat any insects inside that might threaten the books. A fascinating form of pest control, and it just adds to the mystique of this old library.
The rest of the university tour included a visit to a chapel in which there was a spectacular Iberian organ. I've never seen one before, and apparently Portugal only has four of them left. I was dying to hear what it sounded like, with those strange-looking horns coming out of the front. Apparently you can YouTube someone playing it so I'll have to do that...
Our lunch stop is a modern cafe called Montadinhos. They serve all kinds of tapas-style offerings, and we happened to be lucky to come on a Wednesday, which is one of the two days a week that everything on their menu is 1 Euro. It's mostly mini sandwhiches, but they have an impressive list of of probably close a hundred different kinds, so I do some quick translating for J and we select a bunch to try, as well as a few other things. They even have little sandwhiches with different sweet fillings for desert, served on chocolate bread. The glasses of beer were also a Euro each. The vibe in the cafe was of a younger crowd. This is a university town after all, and we enjoyed blending in with the locals as we ate our lunch.
|The horns of the Iberian organ|
The other thing I found interesting about Coimbra was the graffiti - all available blank walls seemed to be full of political graffiti. Mostly Portuguese, but quite a lot in different languages (10% of Coimbra's students are international, so this makes sense). The quotes were gritty, thoughtful, intellectual, and unapolagetic. I find graffiti fascinating because it gives voice to the inner workings of a city that might not be visible to tourists passing through. It is freedom of expression, and what a city's inhabitants chose to write on its walls reveals something of its soul and character. Clearly, Coimbra has a politically charged student body that you wouldn't necessarily know just from strolling around the historical areas of the campus.
After Coimbra, we headed to the nearby town of Conímbriga. In this town lies incredibly preserved Roman ruins, dating from the first to the third centuries. I was entranced, walking around the impossibly old stone structures, looking down at the intricately and astonishingly well-preserved mosaic tile floors, and imagining what it must have been like to live in homes like these...
My mind's eye saw regal personages having elaborate dinners in the dining halls, heading with towels towards the bath halls; slaves cooking and setting up food for their masters, sweeping the pathways; shop keepers tending to their basement stores.
We walked slowly, occasionally reaching out to touch the stone walls, in awe that structures built by people almost 2000 years ago could still be standing, unearthed for us to wander through and experience. I couldn't tear myself away; we could have wandered for hours if we'd had the time, lost in the mists of ancient memories.
Portugal, you are not done surprising me. I am falling in love all over again.