Books and Bats
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
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.