Coimbra – The Pride of Portugal

by Chris McBeath

When I think of robes and academia, the staff at Hogwarts comes to mind. Snapes billowing down ancient corridors, bats passing through mournful apparitions, and eclectic treasures appearing at every corner. Then I discovered Portugal’s Coimbra University.

Coimbra University Square; (Photo: Chris McBeath)

One of the world’s oldest universities (est. 1290) may not offer moving staircases or turreted spires, but Coimbra is said to have inspired some of JK Rowling’s imaginings. The medieval city is Portugal’s original capital and its university, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, has traditions that relegate those of Oxford, Cambridge and other Ivy Leaguers to the sidelines. Located midway between Lisbon and Porto, Viking Cruises has made it one of the most intriguing bus transfers for those on their way to a Douro River Valley cruise.

Coimbra University; (Photo: Chris McBeath)

Robes & Ribbons

Coimbra University Robed Student; (Photo: Chris McBeath)

Voluminous black robes are more than just a force de rigueur. Understand the symbolism of the cape’s threads, colours, and vertical rips and you’ll quickly learn about the wearer’s loves, losses, accolades, and achievements. While badges and crests speak to memberships and interests, the ribbon colour denotes the student’s area of study such as red for Law. Every faculty has a different hue and it’s not unusual for students to wear two or three colours as they progress through multiple disciplines.

The robe’s state of disrepair is especially noteworthy — its thick fabric shredded as if by some wild animal attack. These tears though, are time-honoured imperatives. Each must be made with hands or teeth – no cheating allowed – and tell the story of support and love. Friends rip those on the left; family members chew up the right, and those at the back show the wearer is in relationship. The longer the tear, the more involved the relationship and should that love end, the rip is sewn up. Not with any discretion mind you, but with the brightly coloured ribbon from, and sewn by, the one who was dumped! Since some cloaks bespoke popularity contests, it’s with some relief that students celebrate their graduation with a burning fiesta of ribbons and robes that attest to too many broken hearts.

The Biblioteca Joanin, Coimbra University; (Photo: Coimbra University)
The Biblioteca Joanin, Coimbra University; (Photo: Coimbra University)

Books and Bats

Tiny Bat; (Photo: Creative Commons)

The Biblioteca Joanin is an extraordinary place – three elaborately Baroque rooms full of tropical woods, ornamental gilding, frescoed ceilings, and about 250,000 books. Portraits of Deans past follow you around with their centuries-old gaze – all very Hogwarts. Oh yes, and there’s a family of teeny-weeny bats. With a UNESCO designation (ie: no pesticides allowed), these bats play a heroic role in controlling all those pests from nibbling away on old paper and leather. By day the bats roost behind the Rococo bookcases. By night they may eat as many as 500 insects apiece. By morning they have left a thin layer of droppings over everything. Before the doors open, floors are scrubbed and may the Dean have mercy on anyone who forgot to cover the furniture the night before.

The Pride of Fado

Fado Portuguese guitarist; (Photo: Patricia Bannerman)

You don’t have to understand Portuguese to know the sorrowful sounds of Fado. Performed by a lone singer accompanied by two guitars, one traditional and one Portuguese, a teardrop shape with 12 strings, Fado embraces the concept of saudade, a bittersweet yearning for something that cannot exist.

Aficionados consider Coimbra the cradle of Fado, in large part because Portugal’s most tragic love story originates here.

King Afonso VI so disapproved of his son’s romance with Ines that he had her murdered, supposedly next to the Fountain of Tears on what is now the Quinta das Lagrimas. When Pedro succeeded his father to the throne, he took revenge by having the killers’ hearts torn out. Revealing he had married Ines in secret, Pedro then had her corpse exhumed and crowned, forcing the court to acknowledge her as queen by kneeling before her on the throne and kissing her decomposed hand. Their tombs in Alcobaca Abbey are placed foot to foot so that when they arose on the Day of Judgement, the two lovers would immediately see each other. Both tombs carry the inscription “Até ao fim do mundo”, “until the end of the world.”

Their story of love, loss and heartfelt anguish is Fado personified. And in Coimbra, where it is only sung by men, Fado is relished on street corners and public squares. The university even has its own Fado fraternity and like elsewhere in the country, the traditional costume, unchanged since the 19th century, consists of a black suit with that ubiquitous black cape.