Smoke filled the air as we motored on to Coimbra. The closer we came to the city, the more ominous the smoke became.
On the way we could see how fire had ravaged parts of the forest. We knew about the forest fires prior to our departure. The worst seemed to have passed. Now that we were on site, we could note a different picture. Segments of the road were blocked off taking us through a number of detours.
Near Coimbra, thick clouds filled the skies to the left and to the right. We witnessed the fires raging about 20-30 KM north and east, forming a ring around the city. From our hotel room we watched how one fire would abate and another would ignite with full force. Coimbra was enveloped in a shimmering greyish smog. I was thankful that we hadn’t been caught in the midst of it. The roads leading north cut through dense forests, and it wasn’t difficult to understand how people that were fleeing the fires, were engulfed by them when they couldn’t outrun the flames. They had nowhere to go.
University of Coimbra
After being duly impressed by Évora, we were wowed by Coimbra, the original capital of Portugal. This vibrant university city is home to one of the oldest universities and houses the famed Biblioteca Joanina.
Walking through an ancient Roman aqueduct we entered the old part of the city and the university grounds.
There was so much to take in that we couldn’t decide where to start. Map in hand, we headed for the general direction of the university. We admired the layout and inscriptions of the faculty buildings that framed spacious avenues, forming a striking counterpoint to the grounds of the historic university.
Once we passed the archway unto the Paço das Escolas (Palace of the Schools), we had crossed over to another world. This former Royal Palace, dating 1290, became definitively established as university in 1537 (it had gone back and forth a few times between Lisbon and Coimbra).
To one side, a dual staircase which leads to several majestic halls: the Great Hall of Acts, the former first Throne Room of Portugal, now a ceremonial room used at the conclusion of doctoral exams. The Private Examination Room; as the name indicates, where the doctoral exams were held (in secret and at night). Prior to that it was the King’s room. The Arms Room, which holds the weapons of the previous Royal Guard. The Academic Prison below the Examination Room, was where academics were held. The university had an autonomous court that functioned outside the general law of the land.
On the other side, the Iron Gate with the two principal kings or the university, over which stands Wisdom, the university’s emblem.
In times past, the remarkable tower was intended as an astronomical observation site. Now Coimbra’s hallmark stands watch over its campus. If you look closely, the top of the tower looks like an owl.
Our access time to the library was nearing and we lined up to visit the Biblioteca Joanina. It was named after King João V who funded the library’s construction in 1717. The Baroque style, conceived by architect Gaspar Ferreira, is a sight to behold. Each doorway leading to the next rooms, show off each of the faculties coat of arms. We admired the allegoric scenes on the ceilings, which had been painted by Ribeiro and Nunes. Manuel da Silva provided his artistic touches of the guided and lacquered bookshelves.The desks and shelving was made from Brazilian wood and crafted by Italian artisans.
According to our guide, the Joanine library contains 250,000 books, among which a good number are handwritten, and date from the 15th to the 19th. Century. It is considered one of its kind in the world.
To preserve this antique collection, a constant temperature between 18 to 20 degrees Celsius needs to be maintained. The outside 2,11 meter thick walls form the first barrier against unwanted temperature swings. The next barrier is provided by the solid oak bookshelves, which make it impossible for insects to pierce the wood. Besides, the scent of the oak is a natural worm repellent. Our library guide explained how a bat colony resides within the library walls. At night they feast on unsuspecting insects. I guess this is what happens to insects who ignore the warning signs, and get sidetracked by wandering into the hallowed halls!
We weren’t surprised that this historic library is seen as Portugal’s national jewel.
Chapel of St. Michael
Another patient queuing up, taking turns to see this 16th. Century Chapel built in Manueline style but well worth the wait. Inside, we were taken aback by the grandeur of the art work packed into a relatively small space. The painting on the ceiling dates later, to the 17th. Century. The Baroque organ with Chinese motifs dates, has 2,000 pipes and is still fully operational.
Everywhere we walked, Coimbra showed off its street decorations and enticed us with its architecture.
With regret we bid adieu to this wonderful city as too soon we had to make our way to O’Porto, our next leg in the journey.