Black Capes and Bats At Coimbra University in Portugal
Updated: Dec 20, 2019
"The only thing that you absolutely have to know, is the location of the library."
-- Albert Einstein
Swish, I flicked my imaginary black cape over the stones in the courtyard of Coimbra University. Oh, to be a student again ...
Eh, not really, I couldn't stand someone telling me what to read and when. But the place appealed intensely to my nerdy imagination and nostalgic memories of college and law school.
My daughter and I had seen some amazing sites on our recent geographical cure. Our 10 day itinerary for Portugal is here. But we were perhaps most bowled over by the architectural splendor of the UNESCO-listed Coimbra University. And the swirling black cape uniforms of its students. They looked very Harry Potter-esque and we were a tad jealous.
Coimbra University, an Unmissable UNESCO Site in Portugal
Perched on the town's hilltop, Coimbra University is an ancient site. It's one of the oldest universities in the world, older than Oxford University. Coimbra itself is known as the “Athens of Portugal” for its knowledge and culture. Its university was founded by royal charter in 1290 in Lisbon.
King João II transferred the university to Coimbra in 1537. He was a dedicated king, and even got into hot water for overspending on the university instead of foreign conquests. But he attracted great masters from all over Europe, making Coimbra University a prestigious school.
Coimbra University sits on top of the Alcaçova hill. If steep hills aren’t your thing, you can hop on a bus to the university. Take the one marked "Botanica," directly across from the tourist office. It only costs 1.60 euros. We took the bus up and then walked back down. But if you like climbing, it's a steep 30 minute walk down narrow winding streets past beautiful sites.
Once there, you queue up to purchase your ticket. Get Program 1, which includes all sites. No other ticket includes the Joanina Library, and you can’t miss that. It’s the highlight. 60 people are admitted every 20 minutes to the library, so pay attention to your admission time.
You can't purchase tickets online for Coimbra University, unless you are doing a guided tour. Which wouldn't be a bad way to go for this historic site. But there are placards, at least in the palace rooms, giving you information on what you're seeing. You're also given a couple brochures with descriptions of the many wonders.
You first pass through the ornate Porta Férrea into a large courtyard called the Pátio das Escolas. The grand architecture of the place is immediately apparent. The João V statue lords over the entire place.
Porta Férrea was built in the 17th century and is decorated with symbols of the university. It's topped with two female figures of wisdom and images of King Dinin and King João III.
The Royal Palace is a real treat. The first room you enter is the Hall of Arms, or the Sala dos Archeiros. This room houses the weapons of the Royal Academic Guard. Today, the weapons are used only by Halberdiers during formal ceremonies, such as the beginning of classes or the investiture of a new rector.
The palace's showstopper is the Sala dos Capelos, or the Great Hall of Acts, whose current design dates from 1655. The word "capleo" refers to the black capes the students wear.
This grand room was originally meant to be the throne room, and it still feels palatial. The wooden ceiling is fantastical and dates from the 17th century. The upper walls are decorated with fabric representing the monarchs of Portugal.
Notably missing are the Hapsburg monarchs from 1580-1640. That omission is the result of a political rift where the university threw its support behind João IV, then a Duke of Braganza, not the Hapsburg kings.
This room held the most important academic ceremonies, and still does today. In particular, it's where doctoral theses are defended. It seems difficult enough to defend a PhD thesis without intimidating monarchs watching you. Perhaps the black capes serve as a bulkwark against intimidation.
This is a room full of history and power. It felt very solemn and significant to us.
You then move on to the Salo do Exame Privado, or Private Exam Room. This was another stunning room. It's where students took oral exams, in secret, and always at dusk.
It also has a fantastical painted ceiling dating from 1701. How I love those; they're so unique. The room is lined with 38 portraits depicting the rectors from the 16th to the 18th centuries. The lower walls are lined with blue and white Coimbra tiles.
Don't forget to climb the palace's Tower, erected between 1728-33. It has two bells. Once is nicknamed the "Caber," or bitch, because it wakes students up and calls them to classes (that's pretty much how I feel about my iPhone alarm). The other is called O Cabrão, or old goat, and is used for ceremonies.
The 184 step climb is not for the claustrophobic, with an exceedingly narrow stone staircase. The tower has a separate 1 euro fee, but you have unrestricted panoramic views of Coimbra and the Mondego River. If you don't want to climb, you have similar views from the palace balconies.
We couldn’t go inside any lecture halls because classes were still in session on May 3. There are over 20,000 students at Coimbra University, from 80 countries.
Saint Michael's Chapel
Our next stop was St. Michael's Chapel, which you enter through an intricate Manueline doorway, bordered by two pillars and intertwined with sea symbols. At the center is the Portuguese royal crest. I had never seen Manueline style architecture before Portugal, and I confess that I love the curving romantic style.
The chapel is small but richly decorated. It was built in the late 15th and early 16th centuries. It's dedicated to the Archangel Michael. It was originally conceived as a palace chapel in the reign of King Manuel I. The walls are spectacular, clad in “azulejos de tappet,” carpet tiles forming a repeating pattern.
The 1605 main altar is a gaudy Mannerist affair, dating from the 17th century and dedicated to Our Lady of Light. And there is an equally gaudy gold organ with 2000 pipes and trumpet blowing angels, built in 1733 by Manuel Gomes. Some of the pipes jut straight out right into the room; they aren't just parallel.
I thought the gaudiness actually detracted somewhat from the incredibly unique hand painted ceilings and the tile covered walls.
The Magnificent Joanina Library
And now for the main event. The chapel is just a warm up for the extravagance of the university's over-the-top library. Think Baroque delirium.
You enter the library on the left side of the main entrance via the Minerva Stairs where you're greeted by a statue of Minerva, holding a book and sceptre. You must enter during your designated time slot, no exceptions. So queue up a little early to make sure you have some uninterrupted views.
There are three floors, the most famous being the Noble Floor, or the third floor.
The first floor of the library features the “Academic Prison” or student jail. It dates from when the university ran its own police force, wholly apart from the legal code of the country. If a student broke a rule or damaged a borrowed book, he was sent to the prison. However, that didn't mean he skipped lessons. The prisoner went to lectures in the morning and then returned to his cell.
It’s the only remaining medieval prison in Portugal. But imprisonment ended in the 19th century, and it then served as a book deposit.
The second floor is a basic library. Originally, access to students was denied. It was only for the use of professors and librarian. If you look closely, you'll see an ancient copy of Don Quixote.
The magnificent Nobel Floor is jaw dropping. The tour guide opens the grand double doors and you are ushered in, as if entering a sacred temple. I gasped, and my first impression was that there was gold everywhere.
The famous library was built from 1717-28 during the reign of Joao V. It was designed by Gaspar Ferreira in Baroque style and is known as the Baroque Library. It has a large central hall with a nave like structure divided into three main rooms, clad in beautiful gilded bookshelves. It looks and feels more like a museum than a library.
There are arches between each grand room, topped with shields showing different university schools. The walls are two inches thick to protect the books.
Each room has a beautiful tromp l’oeil ceiling with an intricate allegory. Tromp l’oeil is a technique that makes a flat ceiling look domed. They are the work of Portuguese artists Antonio Ribeiro and Vicente Nunes.
The ceiling of the first room depicts the library itself and bears the legend "Bibliotecae Imago." In the central ceiling (shown above), the university is depicted, surrounded by the attributes of honor, virtue, fortune, and reputation. The ceiling in the third room represents the synthesis of universal knowledge.
In the third room, there's also a large portrait of King Joao V by an unknown artist. I was honestly too besotted with the ceilings and surroundings to give it more than a second glance.
In each room, there are long tables, made of and inlaid with tropical wood. They were designed and built by Italian woodcarver Francesco Gualdini, who also constructed the sumptuous bookshelves.
The library has a collection of 200,000 ancient books and a collection of illuminated manuscripts. Livraria Lello bookstore in Porto grabs a lot of publicity as the inspiration for Harry Potter. But you certainly get a Hogwarts' vibe here. You can easily imagine teenage magicians nosing around trying to find old spell books.
The books are maintained mostly by bats. Yes, bats!
The library is infested with a colony of small pipistrelle bats and that’s what it intends. They are welcome guests. Their task? They emerge at nightfall and consume flies, gnats, and other bugs that might threaten the priceless books or manuscript pages. A tiny bat can eat up to 500 paper eating insects a night.
They may have taken up residence approximately 300 years ago when the library was built. The librarians at least trace them to the 19th century. The library still uses special fabric to cover the inlaid wooden tables to protect them from the bats. You won’t see them while visiting. They reportedly only come out at nightfall or on rainy days.
And those black Harry Potter type capes?
My daughter stopped a couple Coimbra students to ask about them. Students can wear them whenever they want, not just for special occasions.
Some have frays or tears on the hem. The left side of the cape has tears made by family members. The right side has tears made by friends or lovers. If the relationship ends, the tear is stitched up with bright thread. “Tears” is an important word. The capes are wool and extremely sturdy, and the tears have to be made with hands or teeth, no scissors or knives.
We just missed the student festival known as the Queima das Fitas, or the Burning of the Ribbons. It's a week long celebration marking the end of university life for graduating students. It's is one of the biggest student parties in Europe.
The week kicks off with a Fado serenade by the old cathedral. The students then participate in a ritualistic burning of the ribbons. There are 8 different colored ribbons representing the different academic programs.
When you've had enough of books, black capes, and magic, take a stroll in the Botanical Gardens. They were created in 1772 by the Marquess of Pombal.The purpose of the garden is to supplement the studies of medicine and natural sciences at the university.