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.