If you are a bibliophile, a visit to the historic Joanina Library at the University of Coimbra should be added to your bucket list.
We do not specifically seek out UNESCO World Heritage sites but to date, the ones we have visited have not disappointed. The University of Coimbra is one of Europe’s oldest universities, an important center for arts and culture and in 2013 was named a UNESCO World Heritage site. When you arrive in Coimbra, look up to the top of the ridge and you will see the university located high above this picturesque town. It is an arduous hike up too! We spent two rainy days visiting Coimbra; the first day exploring the university and the second, seeing as much of the town as possible.
Universidade de Coimbra
The University was founded in 1290 but its location alternated between Lisbon and Coimbra before permanently being established in Coimbra in 1537. It is the oldest university in Portugal. It was the only University in the Portuguese-speaking world until 1911 and it is one of the oldest universities in continuous operation in the world. Within the university grounds, in addition to the buildings holding regular classes, there are museums and churches, the fabulous Joanina Library and a Royal Palace which housed the Royal Court of the first Portuguese dynasty (1143-1185). We were able to visit most of these sites.
Today there are more than 20,000 students studying here with the goal of attaining a bachelor’s (licenciado), master’s (mestre) and/or doctorate (doutor) degree.
We did not witness University of Coimbra’s quirky tradition called ‘Queima das Fitas’ (Burning of the Ribbons) but wanted to share what we learned about this custom that began in the late 19th century.
Every year students celebrate the end of their university classes with 8 days and nights filled with balls, concerts, parades and more. To begin the week of festivities and parties, graduating students dress up in their faculty colors and gather for a traditional nighttime student fado serenade. Townspeople and tourists are welcome to witness this popular event.
The most important event however is the final night when ‘the grelo’ (a student’s badge with a ribbon of the color of his / her faculty) is burned in the same black chamber pot that had been used during their first year’s initiation rites. The ribbons are burned to symbolize their new status as a graduate.
If you happen to be in Coimbra in May the colors of the faculty ribbons to watch for are yellow (Medicine), red (Law), light blue (Sciences), dark blue (Arts), red & white (Economics), orange (Psychology & Education), purple (Pharmacy) and brown & white (Sports).
The Science Museum building was built in the 18th century and today incorporates all the previous museums collections. We found the physics museum collection of scientific instruments dating from the 18th and 19th century the most fascinating. There are also large collections of botanics, zoology, anthropology and mineralogy and more. Many of these collections date back to 1772, when the teaching of these sciences became major fields of study.
The Joanina Library is a Baroque library and called one of the world’s most beautiful libraries. Built between 1717 and 1728 in the historic center of the University of Coimbra right next to the university tower, it is the most prominent structure seen from the town below.
This dazzling library received its first book in 1750. Today the priceless historical collection includes nearly 250,000 books primarily on medicine, geography, history, the humanities, science, civil and canon law, philosophy and theology dating from the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries and thought to be the best works available in Europe at the time. In addition to books, the Joanina Library has newspapers, magazines, manuscripts, a collection of old maps and an extensive set of musical documents from the 16th and 18th centuries.
To preserve these treasures, and for security reasons, photos are not allowed. So, with no photo of our own, we pulled a few from the library’s website because we wanted to share the magnificence of this library and why it is a UNESCO World Heritage site.
Joanina Library, since the sixteenth century, has been in charge of preserving its thousands of volumes so that neither the paper nor the leather bindings are devoured by insects, known as “bibliophages”. The exterior walls of the library were built up to 4” thick and a teak door installed to maintain consistent temperatures and humidity throughout the year. The interior shelves and bookcases were constructed of oak as the dense nature of oak makes it difficult for these insects to penetrate and the odor oak emits is somewhat of a repellent.
This library is one of two in the world that cultivate a colony of bats within the library to protect the books. Each bat can, in just one night, hunt as many as 500 insects that fly between the books. But then, every night, before closing the library, hundreds of volumes must be protected by draping leather blankets over them preventing the books from deteriorating from the feces of the bats.
Chapel of São Miguel
A sign on St. Michael’s chapel door asks you to please knock. We did and a minute later a student kindly opened the door inviting us inside this petite chapel.
The chapel is from the early 16th century and is one of the more ornate we have seen in Portugal. No somber colors here; the walls and ceiling are brightly colored with 17th-century azulejos (tiles) giving a sense of space and light. The beautiful baroque organ is from 1733 and it is still played to this day, nearly 300 years later.
Monastery of Santa Clara-a-Velha
Today a ruin, the Monastery of Santa Clara-a-Velha, built in the 1300’s, was frequently submerged by the flooding river Mondego. After repeated floodings, by the 1600’s the site was abandoned and the convent nuns moved to higher ground. We were only able to partially visit this site before catching our return train to Lisbon. Excavations continue on this site so the monastery’s story may not yet be complete.
Sé Nova means “New Cathedral” albeit deceiving as the church is nearly 500 years old.
This church began as a Jesuit temple, but when the Jesuits were thrown out of Portugal in 1759, it was chosen as the new cathedral of Coimbra. Significant pieces were brought from Sé Velha de Coimbra, commonly referred to as the Old Cathedral, and our two favorites are the beautiful 17th-century choir stalls and the marvelous baptismal font, carved from stone in the Manueline style in the early 1500’s.
Portugal dos Pequenitos
Portugal dos Pequenitos translates as ‘Portugal for the Little Ones’. So yes, it is a children’s park.
We chose to visit because there are miniature replicas of the most famous monuments from throughout Portugal. We have spent the majority of our time getting to know Lisbon and without knowing when a return visit to Portugal may be, we thought at least seeing miniature replicas of other major sites might be informative.
The amazing attention to detail on the inside and outside of each building and monument was a pleasant surprise. Included are miniature copies of original gardens, pathways, statues and water features. One building has a great way to teach a little history with dozens of 11.5” dolls displayed wearing Portuguese historical costumes.
The park is located across the bridge on the left bank of the Mondego River, nestled between the Monastery of Santa Clara-a-Velha and two other larger churches. It opened to the public in 1940 and after paying an entrance fee there are three main sections to visit.
The first section has dozens of kid-friendly sized homes highlighting the traditional architecture and colors used from various regions around Portugal.
The second section includes much larger monuments from all over Portugal with many that adults can walk through and explore.
The third section has pavilions dedicated to the former Portuguese colonies including Brazil, Macau in China, Goa in India, East Timor in Indonesia, Angola, Guinea-Bissau and Mozambique in Africa and the islands São Tomé, Príncipe, Madeira, Cape Verde and the Azores. Inside the pavilions are artefacts and treasures from each of these locations.
This park may be for children but we were not the only adults exploring it. There is much to enjoy here and we left with a clearer picture of Portugal’s vast former empire.
It is often the small details we uncover as we travel that we find entertaining. Within the Joanina library the gem we found was the history of the postcard.
The first known picture postcard in which the image functioned as a souvenir was sent from Vienna in 1869. The postcard idea quickly became popular throughout Europe and the world. Portugal’s first illustrated postcard dates to 1894 and would have been printed with drawings by António Augusto Gonçalves, an Art Professor from the University of Coimbra. Although we did not see postcards from the 19th century, the library does display black and white postcards dating from the first couple of decades of the 20th century.
Did you know that the study and collecting of postcards is called deltiology? We have been mailing postcards to our family so we may have created some deltiologists within our ranks.
Saúde from these Conimbricense,
Ted and Julia