One of the highlights of any visit to Coimbra is the Universidade Velha, or Old University. Coimbra University is one of the oldest academic institutions in Europe and probably the most important university in Portugal. A UNESCO World Heritage Site, it is a beautiful and historic University and well worth the visit.
When we set out for Universidade Velha, we knew only that it was on top of the hill that makes up Coimbra’s Old Town. Unfortunately, we chose the hardest, albeit most picturesque way, to approach the University. We entered through the Torre da Almedina and climbed the steep series of stairs known as “the backbreaker”, Rua Quebra Costa.
Rua Quebra Costa is picturesque. We entered through the Barbican Gate and wound our way up the path toward the Torre. Just after the gate we came upon a beautiful sculpture celebrating Portugal’s national music, Fado. After passing through the Torre we found another beautiful piece of artwork, a bronze statue called “Tricana de Coimbra”.
We struggled up the steps, passing the Old Cathedral and the Museu Nacional de Machado de Castro, stopped to catch our breath at the New Cathedral, and eventually made our way to the Old University. It was a trip worth making, but only once. Next time we’ll take the bus to the University.
The Universidade Velha is centered around the Paço das Escolas, or Patio of the Colleges. This was once the Royal Palace of Alcáçova and, beginning in 1131, the home of Dom Afonso Henríques, Portugal’s first king. Almost every king of Portugal’s first dynasty was born here. Interestingly, the first Portuguese king not born in the Palace was Dom Dinis, who founded the University in Lisbon in 1290.
We entered the Paço das Escolas through the Porta Férrea, or Iron Gate. Designed by 17th century architect Antonio Tavares, the gate was the first major architectural work following the University’s acquisition of the Royal Palace in 1537. It’s an elegant structure, with figures representing the University’s major schools at that time, Law, Medicine, Theology and Canons, as well as figures honoring the two kings who figure so prominently in the University’s history, Dom Dinis and Dom João III.
There’s a second entrance to the Paço das Escolas located next to the famed Biblioteca Joanina. The Minerva Stairs were built in 1725 under the supervision of Architect Gaspar Ferreira. The stairs are still one of the main entries into the Paço das Escolas.
Once through the gate you’re struck by the beauty of the Old University. Two things stand out over all others- the bell tower and the statue of Dom João III. The statue, designed by Francisco Franco and erected in 1950, shows a dignified Dom João III looking towards the Palatial home of the University since he ordered it moved to Coimbra in 1537.
The bell tower is the patio’s most prominent landmark. Known as “the Goat”, it was erected in the first half of the 18th century and is the work of Italian architect Antonio Canevari. The bell, which calls the students to class, rings 15 minutes behind the other clock towers in Coimbra. The purpose of the delay is to keep from confusing the town’s inhabitants and the University’s students regarding the various duties signified by the bells each day.
The tower is roofless; it once doubled as an astronomical observatory. Visitors can climb the tower; I’m sure it provides phenomenal views of Coimbra, but we chose not to make the climb.
The main attraction, for many people, is the Biblioteca Joanina. One of the most beautiful libraries in the world, it was a 17th century gift to the University from Dom João V, for whom it is named. Four huge columns frame the front doors of the baroque structure, but this is not where you access the library. Tours of the library start at the bottom of the Minerva stairs, where you enter the Academic Prison. It’s the last existing medieval prison still existing in Portugal and was in use until 1832. Originally the prison for the Royal Palace, it was later used to hold students who committed disciplinary offenses. By the way, the university had its own legal code, separate from the general law of the kingdom.
After a quick tour of the academic prison we’re allowed to climb the stairs to the middle floor, called Depository 4. This is now a museum. Originally, only librarians and the Royal Prison Guard had access to the floor (the guards accessed the Academic Prison from here). Access to the books stored in Depository 4 were restricted to a select group of staff.
The highlight of the library is the magnificent “Book House”. The top level is a series of three chambers with two floors. 72 gilded book shelves hold about 60,000 priceless books, including a copy of Camões’s Lusiads from 1572 and a Latin Bible from 1492. Each room has a fantastic ceiling painting and at the far end of the third room is a beautiful painting of Dom João V. It’s so beautiful that I can’t imagine anyone actually reading in the library.
There are two colonies of bats who live in the library. Their job is to eat the insects that could harm the books. We didn’t see any of the bats, but there are plenty of places for them to sleep during the day.
I’m sure that some people stop their tour after visiting the Biblioteca Joanina, but those who do are missing out. Next door to the library is the Capela de São Miguel, an ornate Baroque and Manueline chapel built in the 16th century and remodeled in the 17th and 18th centuries.
The altarpiece dates from 1605 and in 1663 the interior was covered with tiles. There’s a magnificent baroque pipe organ, built in 1733 by Friar Manuel Gomes to replace the old one, that consists of around 2,000 pipes. The organ is still used on special occasions.
The chapel is full of outstanding religious artwork, including a painting of Our Lady of Conception, the patroness of the University, and another of Our Lady of Light, the patroness saint of students. It’s a beautiful structure. I was inspired enough to try out my limited knowledge of the Portuguese language. “A capela é muito linda,” I told the student at the door. I apparently used it correctly, because he smiled and replied in English, “Yes, it is.”
After a quick break in the cafeteria for a snack and a glass of wine, we moved on to the Royal Palace. The entry to the Royal Palace is the Via Latina, a magnificent staircase built during the late 18th century. It seems to be a popular spot for selfies or group photos, depending on whether you’re an introvert or an extrovert. We’re not really into photos of ourselves so we climbed the stairs and entered the Palace.
There are several really nice rooms in the Palace. First up was the Arms Room, which houses the weapons of the former Royal Academic Guard. The weapons are used today only for formal academic ceremonies such as the opening of the school year and the awarding of PhDs.
Next to the Arms Room is the Yellow Room. Each school has a different color. Coimbra’s School of Medicine’s color is yellow. The Yellow Room is where the School of Medicine’s faculty gather for events.
The Sala dos Capelos, or Great Hall of Acts, was originally the Palace’s Throne Room. Today it is the space where most official ceremonies are held and where PhD oral exams are conducted. It’s a magnificent space lined with portraits of all Portuguese kings except those who ruled during the sixty years when Spain ruled Portugal.
The Private Examination Room was once the room of the King of Portugal. This is the place where graduate students held their Doctoral exams. Traditionally, these were private exams and were done in secret and at night. The paintings lining the room’s walls are portraits of former rectors.
After a visit to the second-floor balcony overlooking the plaza we made our way back down to the Paço das Escolas and took in the view of the Mondego River and Coimbra from the far end of the plaza. The Universidade Velha is just a small part of the current University, but it’s a huge part of its history. There was so much more to see- the Botanical Gardens, for example- but we’ll have to do that on our next visit to Coimbra.