Higher education in the high town

We have a great view of the university from our room. It sits atop the Alta, the upper part of Coimbra. Today we explored it up close.

To avoid a long hike up the hilly cobblestoned streets, we took the handy elevator/funicular combination, which got us right into the university area. There are fraternities here, which are communes of students from the same towns, and which are decorated in a way that leaves no doubt about their inhabitants.

Today there was a half-marathon going on, which seemed to be more about having fun than a competition. Lots of participants, lots of high energy. The race began among the more modern buildings of the university, done in high fascist style.

At least the oldest parts of the university were saved from the bombastic architecture of Portugal’s dictator, António Salazar, about whom enough said. Modeled after the University of Bologna, they occupy a three-sided royal palace, overlooking the city. The university was established in 1290, and was modernized in the Renaissance style in 1537 by King João III, whose statue has pride of place in the courtyard. Yes, he looks like Henry VIII, his contemporary. João let the Jesuits run the school, which became the center of the Inquisition.

The large section that was primarily the palace contains a grand hall, which is used for major academic ceremonies. Other rooms are also used for examinations, and the views are what you would expect from a former palace. There is also a royal chapel, which gilds every lily that isn’t tiled.

The real centerpiece is King João’s library, now one of Europe’s best surviving Baroque examples, and home to over 55,000 books. It is very carefully guarded and tourists are limited to specific times in small groups. Photography is not allowed, but these pictures lifted from the web show the elegance of this center of learning.

Nearby is a museum housed on a former bishop’s palace, though no ecclesiastical touches remain. The sculptures and the  collection of paintings and carvings dramatize how creative the 14th, 15th and 16th centuries were in Northern Europe. The tiles illustrating mathematical theorems were used as teaching tools in the colonies.

We saw some great views of the city today, and some charming corners. This is one of our most interesting stops so far, by far.

Don’s Food Corner

While fresh fish is clearly at the center of Portuguese cuisine, it’s the salted, dried cod that seems to be where the soul of the Portuguese people lies. There’s a long and complicated history behind the Portuguese obsession with cod and their reported 1,000-plus recipes for it. Until today we’ve avoided cod in favor of the spectacular fresh fish. But today, faced with a restaurant menu that offered over a dozen different cod-centric dishes, we decided to try it. (Warning: Tripe is the specialty of Porto and when we get to Porto we will not be trying it. Sorry to let you down.)

The cod dish we tried — Jo ordered it and I ended up eating it — was called bolinhos de bacalhau com arroz de feijao, which was translated on the menu as “codfish cookies with bean rice.” It actually turned out to be four fried codfish croquettes with a large bowl of rice and red beans cooked with a loose tomato broth that had been flavored with tiny bits of smoked sausage. The verdict? To our taste it seemed like eating gummy balls of reconstituted dried fish, which – I think I can go out on a limb on this one – is exactly what it was. I appreciate the rich history and culture behind this and other cod dishes, but it must be an acquired taste that I think we will not be in Portugal long enough to develop. The Portuguese might be equally puzzled during a trip to Ohio with Velveeta-based mac-and-cheese. I’m not sure we will be revisiting the beloved cod, but who knows? Stay tuned.

Our other meal choice today was grilled salmon. Huge, juicy and nicely seared.

Jo also tried the vegetable soup. And here it was completely different from all the other pureed versions we’ve seen in the southern part of Portugal. There were actual pieces of savoy cabbage in what seemed to be a tasty tomato-based broth.

We aren’t starving, but no major raves for today.


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