Think of your favourite cities to visit.
What do they have in common?
Vibrance. Culture. Events. Economic stability. A unique sense of place.
Chances are they’re university cities. Like Coimbra in Portugal, where Magellan and I were last year on homecoming weekend in early September.
Coimbra University, founded in 1290, is Portugal’s oldest and most distinguished. It has a spectacular location at the summit of the city. And regal architecture as many of its buildings were the palaces of Portugal’s first monarchs when Coimbra was the country’s capital. Named a UNESCO site in 2013, Coimbra University has also been immortalized—it was the inspiration for Hogwarts, the school in the Harry Potter series by J K Rowling. She visited Coimbra University many times when she lived in Portugal.
You won’t find Harry Potter books in the Biblioteca Joanine, considered one of the most beautiful libraries in the world and our favourite building here. But don’t let that stop you from touring this magnificent library commissioned in 1717 and originally known as the Book House. It contains 60,000 books, mostly written in Latin before the 18thcentury.
Imagine studying in any of the three rooms, walking on stone floors with geometric motifs, gazing at trompe-l’oeil paintings on arched plaster ceilings, taking a book from walls covered with oak shelves decorated with gold leaf and sitting at tables adorned with gilt chinoiserie. (We didn’t ask if today’s 35,000 students from 80 different countries get to use this library.) Our guide translated the Latin inscribed on one wall: “These shelves are adorned with, fortunate, books.” Indeed.
But not all of its books are lucky.
Although most insects are repelled by the scent of oak, some, mostly moths, gather at Joanine every night for a feast of paper. The officials have figured out a symbiotic way to control them. A sanctioned colony of bats comes in every night and feasts on the insects. However, the bats leave behind their feces, not a good thing for books. So the workers cover the library’s wooden surfaces with leather maps to collect most of the bat droppings and clean up the rest before the public arrives.
And look at this for more creative thinking. The new Sapientia Hotel we chose to stay at on the university grounds has used a book theme for its décor.
Magellan wanted to see the Science Museum, built in the 18th century as a place to teach experimental chemistry. Even though he’s colour blind, or maybe because of it, he (and I) enjoyed the permanent exhibit “The Secrets of Light and Colour.”
“See, the ancient Greeks were colour blind too,” he said. I like even more obscure details. Like that it took until the Middle Ages for the colour orange to be named. Among the inventions we saw there—or anywhere—this was the strangest:
One of the former palaces is now St. Michael’s Chapel, its walls and floors a showcase for Portuguese tiles, its ceilings painted with sea scenes.
Walking down to the lower part of the city, we happened upon àCapella, a Fado Centre housed in a 14thcentury chapel that used to be a Medieval Jewish synagogue. Shows run daily at 9:30 but this being Saturday night and the university’s homecoming, àCapella was fully booked.
Continuing down the hill, we heard music. In a plaza near the Old Cathedral (Sé Velha), seven musicians were seated on a make-shift raised platform, playing and singing Fado. We sat down and ordered drinks. The flamboyant leader, a guy with thick jet-black curls to his shoulders, sang out “We’re thirsty.” Magellan went inside, asked the bartender what the band was drinking and ordered beer for them. “What is your wife’s name?” the leader asked. As a thank you, they performed a typical Fado song.
“What was the song about?” I asked. “A sorcerer, a witch. But a good witch who brought enchantment to people.” Their story? The seven of them had all gone to university at Coimbra and had played music together. “Now we live in different parts of Portugal. We have jobs and families and we don’t get together anymore. We decided to come back for homecoming weekend and play together in this group or in smaller groups in various spots around the city this weekend. If you’re at the university tomorrow, you might see some of us.” We also learned that Coimbra has its own unique variety of Fado referred to as the “Portuguese blues,” sung only by men and considered more refined than what you hear in Lisbon.
Have you heard that saying that showing up is ninety percent of success? When the band moved on, Magellan and I returned to àCapella. Someone hadn’t shown up so we got the last table, ate a nice dinner and listened to music until the place closed. It felt like a homecoming.
The Sapientia Hotel, which opened in 2017, is at Coimbra University, making it easy to see the sites.