5 September 2016,Coimbra, Portugal - A day in the University Town


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September 5th 2016
Published: September 19th 2016
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5 September 2016, Monday, Rest day and exploring Coimbra. Still walked 4.62 miles.

Karen here. Today's blog is long and deals with the wonderful university with its stunning library, reflections on books, keeping in shape when your university is at the top of a hill, and the old cathedral with few Biblical scenes to be found.

Our rest day in the lovely university town of Coimbra will be spent traveling up the hill to the university - and then down the hill. These students must be in very good shape!!

We saunter back to the main plaza that welcomes travelers crossing the Ponte Santa Clara Bridge. Harlan finds a narrow, straight up alley way and off we go.

We arrive, huffing and puffing, in a square, that fronts the entry portal into the original palace grounds, now the university.

I have researched the Internet the night before and know I want Program 3 tour that includes the former library. We also buy a separate ticket to climb the bell tower----we fear we are not getting enough exercise! We also rent audio guides so we can proceed as our interest dictates.

We have bought our tickets
Art alley examplesArt alley examplesArt alley examples

Don't walk this street at night or alone
in the 'new' general library. It was built in the era of the dictatorship and is austere and has little architectural interest.

We enter the university through a most sumptuous arch and find ourselves in a huge, almost bare, gravel courtyard with buildings on three sides. We spot the bell tower in the corner and decide it is wise to traipse upward before it becomes very hot and a long que forms. We must wait as this is a very narrow space in which we climb and spiral upward - one way only! We reach the top (177 steps according to Karen, 179 steps according to Harlan, 184 steps according to Jo) and are greeted by a university employee- a former student of the university.

The views are spectacular and one can see up and down the beautiful Mondego River. We see the old and new cathedrals, botanical garden, huge convent area we passed as we approached the city from the other side of the river, and the lovely Ponte (bridge) de Santa Clara that carried us across the river. We also determine the direction we will head tomorrow.

Next we head for the Capela (chapel) of St. Michael. A bell is rung in the corridor outside the chapel to indicate to the attendant inside that visitors await. Only a certain number can squeeze into the cordoned off area. Salazar, the dictator, had plans to raze this diminutive beauty but, thankfully, lack of money foiled his plans.

The highlight of this chapel is the 2,100-pipe, 18th c. German-built organ noted for its horizontal "trumpet" pipes.

Now, the visitation of the Coimbra Library, the real reason for all our uphill labor! I always seek out special libraries and the desk clerk, at the hotel, approves of our interest by saying it is the one site we should visit in Coimbra.

The building is on three levels, the top level being the same as those on the courtyard and housing the 'Royal' collection. During the Age of Discoveries, when Portuguese navigators plied the waters of the world and had naval dominance, while also returning with the booty of those expeditions to assure their economic dominion over all other nations, Portugal reigned supreme.

Naturally Portuguese rulers wanted to show off their wealth and one way was to have the trappings of intellectuals. This archival library is phenomenal with over 56,000 volumes, many irreplaceable.

The idea was to create a safe 'Book House' where natural elements such as dust, humidity and insects would not prevail over centuries. So we have walls that are very thick and a front door made of teak that is impervious to the elements. Ah - and the most ingenious idea was the installation of two colonies of bats that took care of the insects at night! Of course one had to deal with the bats 'call to nature' and leather cloths cover the beautiful surfaces at night. Bookshelves are made of oak for longevity.

There are three main divisions on the 'showroom' floor; the divisions are connected by wide arches and all leads to the large full frontal portrait of King Joao V, paying tribute to his work and expression of his power, being the main benefactor of the initial collection. He commissioned the library in 1717. You can see this gigantic portrait as one enters the front door. Many have commented that the portrait takes the place of honor as would an altar in a church.

Portuguese artisans are noted for the fine art of painted wood upon which gilded (the gold from Brazil) decorations are hand painted. In this case the details are Chinese in theme and quite delicate. It speaks of Portugal's wide spread colonial empire.

Reading tables, inlaid with South American exotic woods and ornamented with silver ink wells, are reminders that Portugal's wealth was imported.

There are three large ceiling paintings. They have been painted in the illusionist style called 'trompe l'oeil.' The optical illusion effect is striking.

Behind hidden doors in the arches are stairways that can take one to the upper stacks of books in the balconies where there are also roller ladders for access to the highest volumes.

The middle floor had also been called 'depository 4.' It was once restricted to staff. Currently there is a fascinating exhibit about the Jesuit order and their introduction into many of the colonial sites of Portugal's empire. Always with their theological mandate in mind, they would usually gain a foothold in an area and support of the local ruler by also introducing the latest in scientific knowledge, a matter of interest to the local leader.

The bottom floor housed an Academic Prison. The University had privileged status as a guild private in nature and took care of its own disciplinary matters. We have a long chat with the cashier. He is a graduate of the university and we talk of the Portugeuse educational system. He also speaks beautiful Spanish, which is rather unusual in Portugal. One would think considering the border situation more would be bi-lingual. The situation is that for a great distance of the border there is not a significant population base. Another is the historical love-hate relation of the two countries. His father was the accountant for a spa, thermal waters resort on the border, hence proximity led to his acquiring Spanish, as well as several languages. His English was 'the Queen's English.'

Now, the 'book librarian' speaks. I do appreciate technology and how it has put knowledge in the hands of so many - even though, often, that knowledge is not authentic or verified. However, there is something indescribable in holding a tome in hand that cannot be matched by a computer. Our granddaughters, age two and four, have mastered the keyboard but still love their voluminous collection of books. I hope they will always have a book at hand - anyplace. My favorite spot for 'bibliotherapy' is in a bath full of bubbles. One of Madeline and Lili's favorite spots is the kitchen table! Nothing better than eating a peanut butter and jelly sandwich while listening to Daddy go through his antics in reading a library book. And nothing surpasses Mommy, after a long day's work, curling up at the end of the sofa with her two girls and quietly (as opposed to Dad's histrionics in story delivery) enjoying a tale. Long may it be!!

We are weary. We run into Jo who is headed for a pharmacy and work on her blog. I tell Harlan our ticket let us into one more area but I cannot think what it is. I was just so focused on getting to that library. Several days later we are chatting over a meal. Jo had been debating whether or not to go up to the university and then she decided to keep us company. She said she was absolutely blown away when the huge, thick, teak door swung open and the 'book house' was viewed in all its splendor. Well, I felt the same way when first I walked through the doors of The
Newly minted graduateNewly minted graduateNewly minted graduate

Europe's third oldest university has long standing traditions, including the 'Burning of the Ribbons.' The ribbons had been used to bind and carry books. Graduates wear black capes.
Library of Congress! The experience just bowls one over, no matter how culturally jaded one might be.

Well, now, what did we miss? We return to the general library to the ticket counter and a young man says we are entitled to view Sala dos Capelos or the Ceremonial Hall. I try to not be offensive when I ask the young man if it is worth seeing. Well - of course it is!! So we tell our tired feet that we will never have to do this tour again and 'buck up!'

The Sala dos Capelos was originally the Throne Hall. During the years Coimbra was the capital of the country this was originally the Royal Palace. Most of the kings of the first dynasty were born here. The university courtyard is surrounded by buildings representing an unusual mix of political power, culture and knowledge.

So, the former Throne Room is where most of the official ceremonies of the university are now held. PhD oral exams are still held in this room. The room's design has changed little from 1655.

There is a stunning ceiling painted with geometric designs and from the walls hang portraits of
The "Iron Gate"The "Iron Gate"The "Iron Gate"

This is the entry gate to the old university's courtyard.
all Portugeuse kings, excluding the dynasty of the Philips during the period when Portugal was under Spanish rule!

Time to head for the hotel and a swim! As we tumble down the hill, we stop to see the old cathedral, the Se Velha. It dates back to around 1162 and was built on a former ecclesiastical site that goes back to the 9th c. It was built in a Romanesque fortress style. This style was undoubtedly chosen as the Reconquest, or taking back of this land from the Moors, was still a period fresh in the minds of the inhabitants. As a consequence it is rather a dark space with small windows very high up. However, there are several beautiful features. Much of of the wall space is covered with tiles from Seville. They have a special glaze and glisten in the dimness. There is also a beautiful Gothic cloister, the oldest extant one in Portugal and it is lovely with velvety green grass instead of the usual stone.

After dinner Harlan and I take a twenty minute walk to find the B train station. The A, near us, is for local rail traffic only. The agent is helpful and I feel confident I can make the necessary maneuvers to be on the train to Mealhada in the morning


Additional photos below
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Entry door into King John's LibraryEntry door into King John's Library
Entry door into King John's Library

Massive, thick teak door helps in the climate control of the building.


1st October 2016

Loving your blog!
Greetings from Iowa !! Coimbra sounds like a great spot to spend a day! We are enjoying hearing about your journey! Buen Camino!!!

Tot: 2.794s; Tpl: 0.059s; cc: 12; qc: 50; dbt: 0.0434s; 2; m:saturn w:www (104.131.125.221); sld: 1; ; mem: 1.4mb