I’d booked our flat in Coimbra by the map: it was close to the railway station and very close to the university and the cathedral. What I hadn’t realized that the distance was mostly steep uphill.
The other thing that we realized only after reaching Coimbra is that the most important thing in the town is the university. It stands much higher up the hill even than the cathedral! The featured image in the post is a panorama taken from the top level of the university building, not the tower. And you can clearly see that the cathedral is far below.
The hierarchy is clear even inside. The Great Hall of Acts in the university (photo above) is where important oral examinations are taken, for example the examination for a doctoral degree. It is lined with portraits of the kings, and details of who made the paintings, who did the woodwork, etc, are all recorded. The great importance given to learning is even visible in the coat of arms which is in the thumbnail picture above.
We had to decide on what tour to take inside the university, and opted to go everywhere in the main building except climb the tower. It is also possible to take a longer tour which includes the Royal Palace, the Natural History Museum and the Old Physics Laboratories. These are supposed to be worth seeing, but we were a little short of time. After the hall we visited the chapel of St. Michael. This bright and very ornate room comes with azelujos, of course. The large organ is decorated in what is called the "Chinese style". This turned out to be largely because scenes from China are painted in gold on it.
The high point of this tour is supposed to be the Baroque Library. Since the number of people in the library is strictly controlled, you are given an entry time when you buy the ticket. We queued up to enter the grand room. We thought it was baroque, but not very large. It would be right at home in a movie with a teenaged magician looking for old spells. The press of people included a guided tour which took up the center of the small room, leaving the rest of us quite constrained. We walked around as best as we could, but it was not really possible to figure out which books were on the shelf. It was not the sort of place where I could have done much reading: it was too dark and ornate.
We escaped to the middle level, which had the hushed and clean book-lined atmosphere of a modern library. It seems that most books were actually stored here, and were taken upstairs only on request. This is what we call "closed shelf" today. Some of their more remarkable holdings were on display. Since Cervantes died exactly 400 years ago, several copies of his books were on display. I saw a book by Cervantes published in 1617, but it was not a book I knew. The oldest edition of Don Quixote which I spotted is from 1744 (see photo) . It is interesting that this edition was published 139 years after the first edition. Don Quixote still has a score of 3.8/5 on Goodreads. That is something!
Another level down a little gift shop softens your entry to the only university dungeon in the world. Unseemly behaviour in the library, or disrespect shown to teachers and learning could land you here once upon a time. I’m sure the place was damp, cold, and dark. There was little you could have done in there except to meditate upon ways of making sure that you were not incarcerated again. I wonder why they gave up the practice. Like much that is modern in Portugal, I’m sure that an answer would lead back to the late 18th century and Marquez de Pombal.