Coimbra is the latest addition to the Coimbra UNESCO World Heritage site list and a very special one too as it is my hometown.
I had spent much of the morning at the belvedere of the church of Santa Clara, admiring the bird’s eye view to the Portuguese City of Knowledge. I fringe my eyes, as the midday sun shines a spotlight on the amalgam of white facades, terracotta roofs, church tops and bell towers that make up the city’s skyline. On the summit of the hill opposite, the old university complex is grotesquely undersized by faculties built in the 60’s; A dream of Olympus, they called it!
Very little is left of its 13th-century foundations. Most of the Old University Complex was incorporated into the Royal Palace in the middle ages when Coimbra was the Portuguese capital. Continuously refurbished throughout the centuries, this multi-layered heritage centerpiece has, throughout its history, been the academy of choice of the nation’s most influential summa cum laude.
I am not one of these esteemed alumni, but growing up in this city allowed me to share a precious brotherhood connection with strangers, especially now in September when a new batch of freshmen arrive. For me, this is ten times more rewarding.
The main faculty boulevard bears witness to the centuries old pledging rituals that this academy is known for. Older students wearing their black traditional attire and meticulously arranged cassocks, introduce the newcomers to the art of social ice-breaking, by making them measure the length of the boulevard with a toothpick. Some methodically count the white stones of figures present in the Portuguese Pavement. Others make life marginally easier for themselves and simply climb the statue of the university’s founder, King Denis, to salute the Dean as he walks by.
At the end of the boulevard, I pass through the Porta Ferrea, a five-meter high cast-iron gate, embellished with figures and symbols of wisdom, which guards the entrance to the complex. Inside, a vast courtyard is surrounded by ancestral buildings where, still today, the Faculty of Law and the university’s offices operate. On my right, the 30 meters high University Tower tells the time with a 15-minute delay. A rule imposed by the student body as leeway to those arriving late to class.
Inside the Joanina Library, next door, the air smells of knowledge. “If you look closely, you will notice that their eyes follow you as you move!” said the library tour guide about the figures on the frescos that line the ceiling. Her enthusiasm is contagious and I proudly pitch in that it is one of the top 20 in the world.
Outside, in the courtyard’s belvedere, I find I am no longer able to admire the lofty canopy of the adjacent botanical gardens. A lingering pain has set into the back of my neck, an obvious consequence of my prolonged admiration of the library’s frescos.
Suddenly the courtyard fills up with people, elbowing each other towards the rising sound of a Fado refrain and the distinctive chords of the 12-string Coimbra guitar. Silence sets in the moment that deep male voice hits the first lyrics of an improv serenade. Coimbra, very much like its Fado, tells deep stories of love, meaningful companionship, and nostalgia about those who choose this quiet town to become Men and Women.