Two subtle forces in my life directed that I spend a rest day in Coimbra, my father and my wife. My dad was an avid student of history even if he could never devote himself to it fully, such as teaching, which he’d have done well. My wife is a university professor, so educational institutions, especially eminent ones, have been in my consciousness since we’ve been together. Coimbra reeks with history, going back to Roman times, and its large, distinguished university is among the seven oldest continually operating in Europe, dating to its founding in 1290.
I don’t do tours, but wanting to be efficient in my discovery of the city and the university, I asked for guidance and was lucky to find a guy who was very proud and informed about his city, the night desk clerk at the hostel where I had checked in late the previous evening. After a remarkably sound night’s sleep in an upper bunk with three roomies, I climbed down quietly early the next morning and relished having the communal bathroom to myself. If I know anything, it’s this, twenty and thirty somethings on holiday don’t get up at 7am. The place had a first-rate breakfast buffet in a sunny room overlooking nearby neighborhoods below, so I enjoyed a good meal – all alone as usual – and soon headed out to explore.
Coimbra is a city of around 150 thousand, spread out over several hills, but the core of the city I wanted to see is fairly compact on the most prominent of the hills. A fifteen minute walk, mostly downhill from the hostel’s perch (recall it was once a very notable house, so it had a prime location) took me to the focus of my interests, the university. Unlike in the US where universities are typically centered around a well-structured campus, European universities are more free-form as buildings and grounds may be scattered, though generally in one area of a city. You definitely do not find them by looking for a football stadium. While Coimbra’s university followed what I just described, there was, in fact, a “quad” for one of the oldest sections, so a structure that we Americans could easily identify. And an incredibly impressive quad it was. After purchasing a ticket (long lines form later, I was told) to enter some of the facilities, I passed through the Porte Ferrea to enter this section of the school. What appears before you is a massive flat square of light brown compacted sand with numerous concrete walkways criss-crossing the entire space which is surrounded by impressive old structures – connected to each other – on three sides. The fourth side is lined by a waist-high wall overlooking a large area of the city and outskirts below and across the Rio Mondega. You now realize that the quad is on an immense terrace. To your right, across the quad, is the university’s landmark tower and to the left is the must-see highlight, the Joanina Library. My ticket is for a viewing that starts in 40 minutes, so I explore other buildings and and sights. Words fail me in describing the sense of history and accumulated knowledge that this place exudes. I can only recommend seeing it for yourself if the opportunity arises, as it did for me on this Caminho.
And speaking of accumulated knowledge, there’s that library, dating to the mid-1700s. It’s not large, so only ticketed groups of about 40 visitors at a time can enter for a brief walk-through. It resembles a small cathedral without the religious icons, butwith ornately carved woodwork, painted ceilings and imagery that evokes learning on the very highest order. The rooms are connected by a front to back passage, and as you enter each, you’re overwhelmed by floor to high-ceiling stacks of leather-bound books lined up on guild decorated shelves behind wire-mesh grids. Each room and each section of the stacks bears an identifier that reflects an organization, though different from the Dewey decimal system with which we Americans are familiar (or are we still, in the age of Google?). Photography is not allowed, so I’m only showing a photo I took of a postcard. I ask an attendant about the languages in which the books are written. He responds, Latin, Greek, French and, of course, Portuguese. Researchers may still access these books but only by special request and then the books are brought to them in a controlled off-site space. We read that the obvious enemy of the books is humidity which can be controlled now by technology. Less obvious are bugs and worms, but these are controlled by another way… small bats that live in the upper reaches of the library and that feed on the insects. Bat droppings are a consequence, so all horizontal surfaces are covered up each night. With that knowledge, I exit the library and continue my wanderings. I pay my respects to the statue of Dom Joao III, a king who presided over all of this in the 16th century. I note that his bare legs resemble those of all us good Caminho pilgrims. Perhaps he also walked to Santiago in his day.
On leaving this impressive part of the university, no evident students in sight, I come upon a group of young women, all students, dressed in the traditional black, setting up to perform as a musical group they call “Tuna.” Groups like this appear later in other sections of the city and I’m imagining thru may be like sororities or fraternities in the US, but with a narrowly limited purpose, music and dance. I stay to listen and contribute, and I’m loving the dedication and joy they display. It’s clear I’m not alone, just this once.
Nearby the university is the other place I want to visit, the intact excavated remnants of the original Roman settlement here, the crypotoporticus of the Augustan Forum of what was once called Aeminium. This is the lower structure, an arcade formed by arches, bearing upper structures such as the forum itself. The latter is no longer there, but the foundation arcade is, and it’s a history-nut’s dream to walk through it, imagining those who walked and worked here during its functioning period 2000 or more years ago.
Having satisfied both forces in my life that guided me here, I remember it’s also a rest day, so that’s my mission now. I respond to my personal force which is slow and relatively easy for the afternoon and evening