COIMBRA (pronounced queem-bra) was Portugal’s capital for over a century (1143–1255). Its famous university, the Velha Universidade (Old University), founded in 1290 and permanently established here in 1537 after a series of moves back and forth to Lisbon, was the only one in Portugal until the beginning of the last century. It remains highly prestigious and provides the greatest of Coimbra’s monuments and buildings, most notably the renowned Baroque library. In addition, there are a remarkable number of other riches: two cathedrals, dozens of lesser churches, and scores of ancient mansions.
This roll call of splendours is promoted zealously by the inhabitants of what – when all is said and done – is little more than a large, provincial town, with a population of 140,000. There’s an air of self-importance that whistles through both city and citizens, bolstered by Coimbra’s academic tradition and fed by a wide array of shops, galleries, cafés, bars and taverns. It’s an enjoyable visit at any time of year, though liveliest in May, when a week-long party erupts to celebrate the end of the academic year.Read More
At the top of the old town stands the heart of the university enclave, the main magnet for visitors and students alike. The elaborate seventeenth-century Porta Férrea – named for the “iron gate” that once guarded the entrance – provides access to the main part of the old university, the Velha Universidade. Dating from the sixteenth century (when João III declared its establishment at Coimbra permanent), the buildings are set around an open courtyard dominated by the Baroque clock tower nicknamed A Cabra – “the goat” – and a statue of the portly João III.
The elaborate stairway to the right of the main court leads into the administrative quarters and the Sala dos Capelos, hung with portraits of Portugal’s kings and used for conferring degrees. It has a fine wood-panelled ceiling with gilded decoration in the Manueline style. The highlight of this part of the building, though, is the narrow catwalk around the outside walls. The central door off the courtyard leads past the Capela de São Miguel, with its twisted, rope-like pillars, frescoed ceiling, and gaudy Baroque organ. To the left is the famous library, the Biblioteca Joanina, a Baroque fantasy of cleverly marbled wood, gold leaf, inlaid tables, Chinese-style lacquer work and carefully calculated frescoed ceilings. The most prized valuables, the rare and ancient books, are locked away out of sight; no one seems likely to disturb the careful arrangement by actually reading anything.
Their lofty position notwithstanding, the other university faculty buildings have little to recommend them. Most are foursquare marble and concrete excrescences of the Estado Novo period (1940s & 1950s), part of a controversial modernization programme under Salazar. The wide spaces in between are tempered by heroic statues and calçada paving, and only the lure of the student-frequented pavement cafés and bars on Praça da República – down the monumental steps from Largo Dom Dinis – merit the diversion.
Burn, baby burn
Burn, baby burn
In Coimbra the biggest bash of the year is the Queima das Fitas (wwww.queimadasfitas.org) in May, when the ritual academic “burning of the ribbons” is accompanied by the mother of all parties in a week-long, alcohol-fuelled series of gigs, dances and parties. The coloured ribbons worn by students represent the various faculties, and the week’s main parade sees decorated faculty floats followed by black-caped students winding down the hill from the university; every night the focus shifts to the riverside arena where the big names in Portuguese music (David Fonseca, Blasted Mechanism, Xutos & Pontapés) rock the city until the small hours.