Coimbra, Portugal, and its baroque library

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We found the town of Coimbra simply because we wanted to find somewhere interesting to stay to break up our drive from Lisbon to Porto. The drive is only about 3 hours on the autoroute, but it is more fun to discover new places than just to pass through. With a little research on TripAdvisor, it seemed that Coimbra would be a good option: only an hour or so from Porto, a very old university town, and out in the countryside.

From Wikipedia:
The University of Coimbra is a Portuguese public university in Coimbra, Portugal. Established in 1290 in Lisbon, it went through a number of relocations until it was moved permanently to its current city in 1537, being one of the oldest universities in continuous operation in the world, the oldest university of Portugal, and one of the country’s largest higher education and research institutions.

We arrived late in the afternoon, finding our little studio vacation rental and its welcoming owner easily. We had spent a busy hot sunny day in Sintra outside of Lisbon, and were a bit tired and dusty. Our host recommended a walk up the hill into the town, and a restaurant for dinner. We thanked her as she left. We freshened up, and as the sun set, trod up the stone streets into the old town. The meandering streets were mostly quiet. The sunset lit the views across the red-tile roofs, the river valley and the rolling countryside. A heavy romanesque church sat silently and sideways against a loose sloping plaza. Startling mid-twentieth-century university buildings topped the hill, garish against their much older neighbors. The recommended restaurant had a table for us, and offered a dinner of local tapas and wine: pleasant enough and filling. We always enjoy walking in historic streets after dinner when they are warmly lit by street lights, when there are fewer people, and when there are little noises of restaurant liveliness and real life behind the shutters. We usually have just a little wine in us, so perhaps that contributes to the ambiance.

First thing the next morning, as I was starting to wonder what we might do in Coimbra — I wasn’t that enthused by what we had seen the evening before — Mike said the he had been looking into what turns out to be a famous library up on the hill. The photos showed an exuberant baroque interior. Our host had marked on the town map the location of the library and the ticket office, so we decided to head up the hill straight-away, before breakfast, to see what’s what. Very glad we did!

We discovered a luminous vast plaza overlooking the valley, a gorgeous ensemble of university buildings, the stunning 18th century library, and more.

We arrived a few minutes before the opening of the ticket office. The sky was completely clear. The sun blazed against one side of the plaza, and cast striking shade and shadows over the rest. We were the only two people in the huge square for quite a while. Once we were able to purchase our tickets, we were warned to be at the doors of the library at exactly 9 am. If we were a minute late, the doors would be closed once again. Obedient tourists as we are, we stood at the door at 9. At exactly 9 (the church bells were ringing), the immense door swung open, and a small woman silently and seriously ushered another tourist couple and us into the library. She shut the door right behind us. From the very bright square outside, it took a few minutes for our eyes to adjust to the dim interior. Little by little, the tall, three-chambered library emerged, quiet, poised. We were almost alone: it was just ours for about a half an hour. We had been admonished not to take any photos. But we couldn’t be completely obedient tourists, so we snuck a few shots, worried that that typical iPhone fake-camera-shutter noise would catch the attention of the attendants. No problem, as it turned out; the two women were happily deep in their own conversation the entire time.

One story about the library comes in response to the question about how can the 300+ year old collection of rare books not decay to dust? Portugal enjoys a range of weather through the year, from cool wet winters to hot dry summers, and a healthy insect population. The thick stone walls of the library moderate the temperature variations in the library. But what about insects that love to feast on paper and book bindings. The answer is a community of tiny bats. They roost among the baroque details of the library decorations during the day. At night, they emerge to feed and preserve the books. The only problem is that all the tasty insects turn into bat poop. Every evening, the library attendants (the human ones) cover the tables and furniture with sheets of leather. We saw the leather rolled up on some of the tables. We didn’t see any bats, however.

Some more historical information about the library, from the World Monuments Fund:Built in the early eighteenth century at the behest of Portugal’s King John V, the Joanine Library was constructed to house the book collection of the University of Coimbra. The structure was built in the university courtyard on the ruins of a medieval royal prison. The exterior is characterized by stone walls, brick vaults, and a timber roof covered by clay tiles, and throughout the 1720s bronze workers, glaziers, painters, and other craftsmen ornamented the interior. The stone floor is patterned with geometric motifs, and the plaster ceilings are decorated with allegorical trompe-l’oeil paintings. The library was finished in 1728 and housed its first books in 1750.

Today it is one of the most significant archival libraries in the world. It contains some 56,000 volumes, many of which date from the sixteenth to eighteenth centuries. The library represents the importance of education and knowledge and was inscribed on the World Heritage List in 2013. It maintains its original function while also serving as a museum and cultural events space.

We completed our tour, visiting the adjacent fine chapel, and some of the university’s very old formal convocation and examination rooms.

While the library was certainly a pleasure to inhabit, it was the plaza, with its one side open to the distant hills, that remains vivid and wonderful.

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