Visit: 24th October 2015
After a pleasant night in the quaint Portuguese town of Guimarães we set off on the train for the university town of Coimbra. Located about halfway between Lisbon and Porto, Coimbra is the country’s newest World Heritage Site – having been inscribed in 2013. As you can see above, however, they have wasted no time in placing commemorative marks of that recognition all over the town.
The weather was not on our side that weekend, and our time in Coimbra was spent almost entirely in rain. Upon arrival I spotted a small bar that sold EU-protected pastries by the name of Pastel de Tentúgal, which we bought along with some coffee. Similar to Ovos Moles de Aveiro – another Portuguese snack – this traditional pastry contains a sweet but solid egg custard-type filling.
After visiting the town’s museum we trekked up to the top of the hill, where the ancient university is located. Coimbra has long been one of Portugal’s most important cities, fortified by a thick wall that still exists in places. During the Dark Ages it was the capital of Portugal before the country achieved independence. Following that event – when the city of Guimarães took its mantle – Coimbra countered the inevitable decline in its fortunes by establishing itself as a centre of learning.
One of the best reasons to visit Coimbra is to see its fantastic library (above and below). It is a masterpiece of the Baroque, which I’m afraid my surreptitious interior photograph doesn’t do justice to. Walking through the library’s doors I was hit by the ‘wow factor’ that comes surprisingly infrequently considering the number of WHSs I have made it to in recent times. The Joanina library strikes me as the type of place that cartoonists and film-makers imagine when asked to come up with an archetypal prestigious library.
There was no tour guide when we visited, so it was only by reading to the bottom of a laminated handout that I discovered the unusual technique the librarians use for keeping bookworms at bay in this room full of ancient tomes. The builders in the first instance created the bookshelves from oak, whose sap is a woodworm repellent. More surprisingly, the library is also home to a colony of bats that nest behind the gilded carvings at the top of the arches. Each night the bats wake and feast on any woodworms that have the temerity to make themselves obvious. The bat droppings are obviously a problem, but they are dealt with by covering surfaces each night and by employing a team of cleaners to give the room a once-over each morning.
The €9 entry ticket also allows access to some of the academic function rooms, such as the Hall of Capelos, with its ceiling shown below, in which the most important university ceremonies take place (investitures, degree awards etc).
There are good views from the university out over the town. Below you can see the Romanesque Old Cathedral of Coimbra. In the name of this World Heritage Site you’ll notice the terms ‘Alta’ and ‘Sofia’. Alta refers to the old town, where most of the university buildings are located (including everything covered so far).
Sofia refers to the area around Sofia Street at the foot of the hill. I ensured we passed through it on our way back to the railway station – but we ended up bemused as to why it is included in the inscription. I probably should have allowed more time in Coimbra in order to look more carefully for the colleges on Sofia Street, because a brief walk down it on a rainy October afternoon did not give us any understanding of why it is considered culturally significant.
By 6.30pm we were back at the station for our trip back to Porto to spend the night. I stood and drank a small beer in the station bar whilst the bartender loudly stacked plates. I decided to stand outside instead. You can still cross the tracks on foot at Portuguese stations, with only a traffic light and aural warning system to warn passengers of impending express trains steaming through. With that in mind I limited myself to just the one beer…