From Porto we headed south to Coimbra, home of Portugals oldest University. We visited here on our last trip to Portugal, but didn’t make it in to the famous library because of the crowds, so that was definitely on our list for this time! As we checked out the ticket situation we learned there was a “combined” ticket which included the famous Library, the Palace School, Science Museum, and Cabinet of Curiosities. We really weren’t sure how many museums we wanted to commit to because we had several days of mild, sunny weather but who can resist a Cabinet of Curiosities? Not us.
Our hotel brags about the view from their rooftop bar, and the benefit of a December visit means you get the nighttime scene! Those of you who know we keep toddler hours likely aren’t surprised we missed this view when we were here when the days were much longer.
The Cabinet of Curiosities is in a science building and you start out in one of the classrooms watching a film that tells you – in Portuguese – about the creation of the display. While we really couldn’t understand the film, it looked like some people at the University realized they had several hundred years of stuff that had been collected and stored, and maybe they should put some of it on display. Anyway, the classroom was obviously old and the chairs were pretty fancy.
On the way to the Cabinet of Curiosities they walk you through a gallery filled with minerals and other geological samples. They had a number from the United States and elsewhere around the world. I thought this one was lovely.
Inside the Cabinet of Curiosities. A good sized room lined with two stories of glass fronted cabinets and larger samples hanging from the ceiling. There are no labels; each section might have a theme, but it wasn’t always obvious. We have since learned that these cabinets were a thing in the 18th and early 19th Century to show off the variety of things being discovered.
The “theme” of this section was things that scare people! As you can see, there is really nothing to give you any context about what you are looking at. Also, the lighting is very dramatic! The University spent a few years preparing this Cabinet and it opened in 2022. Here’s an article that gives a nice summary https://www.uc.pt/en/article?key=a-aecdff5827
The movie showed how the enormous crocodile was restored and then wheeled through the halls to be hung from the ceiling, so we felt like we really got something out of the movie experience despite not really understanding the information they were sharing. As you can see below the large reptile, the collection spans many academic disciplines and cultures.
Across the street from the Cabinet of Curiosities is the Chemistry Lab Building. As with so many places in Portugal, the building is as much of the experience as the exhibits. The University dates back to the Middle Ages and has been in Coimbra since the mid 1500s.
A lecture hall in the Science Building, my short legs would have had plenty of room, but Dan would have some banged up knees if he had to find a seat for a lecture here.
In the Pharmacy Lab. Here they made medicines to distribute during a terrible cholera outbreak.
The main Library door. The tour starts in the lower levels, walks you through the old “prison” area and then up to book storage before you reach the main library area. There are no photos allowed in the main library, but it very impressive both architecturally and by the volume of old books in the collection. Efforts to digitize the contents of the library are ongoing, and books can still be checked out. I am not sure what status you need to have to check out a 300 year old book, but apparently it can be done! The other fun fact is that there is a colony of bats that live in the library and are used for pest control! They drape the fancy tables with leather blankets at night to protect them from bat droppings and the bats protect the books from insects.
In the area of the library below the main section is what was the “public area” which was available for people to come in and read books. You can see a lot of the architecture here, including the stone mason’s marks on some of the stone work.
Creating the supporting arches for these buildings is quite the engineering feat, and is also an artistic accomplishment when done by the master bricklayers who built these buildings. Yes, I spend a lot of time looking up in these old buildings.
Coimbra is built on the hillsides that rise up from the banks of the River Mondego, so most days, you climb up to check out the sights. The University is up on the hilltop, our hotel is down by the river. Needless to say, we logged a lot elevation walking around. The Library, the Castle School, and St. Michael’s Chapel – all on our combined ticket – were perched high above the city.
The pipes o the organ in the chapel, as well as some beautiful tiles.
St. Michael’s Chapel has a very elaborate alter. The Chapel itself was smaller than you might think given how ornate the alter is.
The Palace School is in the actual Palace and fort built originally in the 10th Century and used by the first King of Portugal Alfonso Enrique. In the 1500s, when King Joa III moved the University from Lisbon to Coimbra it was housed in the Palace. This is the Armory, and the University still uses those staffs for ceremonies.
The Throne Room is a large, impressive room. The table and chair sitting on the floor are facing a row of impressive chairs. This room is still used today for Ph.D candidates to defend dissertations.
Again with a fancy ceiling!
As several Kings of Portugal used Coimbra as a residence, there are many ornate buildings sprinkled around the city. As you can see from the wear on the stonework, this building has been around for quite some time.
Proof that Coimbra is, at heart, a college town – a 24 hour pizza vending area!
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Adventures of Dan and Lisa
When the boat broke down the nice lady from England exclaimed "oh goody, an adventure!" That changed the possible problem into a great story and improved attitudes. It has become the motto for our travels. We hope you enjoy the stories as much as we enjoyed the adventure.
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