July 8: Portugal—Coimbra; Tomar; Obidos
Coimbra-City of Knowledge
Celts, Romans, Visigoths, Moors and then in 1064 city conquered by Christians. First King of Portugal, Dom Afonso Henriques born in Coimbra. Capital during Middle Ages. 17th Century, Jesuits arrived and since then the University with colleges of law, medicine, humanities has been the most prestigious in the country, now with nearly 30,000 students (particularly from Portuguese speaking countries). Standards are exceptionally high for entrance and to continue studies.
The town is the University. As it is summer, there are mostly tourists, but one can easily imagine the energy when classes are in. For those students who cannot afford the very expensive apartments, there are what we would call sororities and fraternities. However, in these students do all of the cooking, cleaning, maintenance, etc. They live within a very strict ethical code overseen by their peers.
We happened to catch a group of pharmacy students singing and dancing, performing in the University square to raise funds. Pics show how all students dress for class. You can sure see where Rowling got her ideas for Hogwart students! The Fado sung in Coimbra is different from other parts of the country. Only men sing—songs of romance to their ladies. If she is interested, she will flash her lights three times. If she’s not, perhaps he just moves on to the next.
The other Fado songs are about freedom—a strong thread in the culture of this town based on its history of being conquered followed by its more recent purpose of serving as the Country’s seat of knowledge.
One room in the University is used for major University and country/political events. It was not hard to imagine Ralph sitting behind the desk in the straight backed chair defending his dissertation before the robed, solemn faculty sitting in the elevated, railed ‘balcony.’ There’s even a green chair the Kind sits in when present for special occasions.
While the size, architecture and purpose of the University are impressive, they pale in the magnificence of the University’s library. Over 40,000 books, manuscripts, historical documents are being preserved (and used with very special permission) in an architecturally beyond description building. The frescoed ceilings in the three consecutive rooms with arches between, convey that the collection is from throughout the world encompassing all philosophies and sciences and should further good in society.
Two interesting notes about the Library. The architect, from the beginning meant the building to be an archive for hundreds of years. The walls consist of two, two-foot thick walls with a two-foot air space between them. Bat colonies were introduced and to this day live in the air space. At night they leave their protected environment and fly through the library eating the bugs that can do damage to books. With first light they disappear into the walls. Special wire screens and table coverings protect the books from the bat poop.
Second fact…The Library’s basement houses a jail. To keep the (smart but still young) students out of town jails (where they might mingle with undesirables beneath their standing), the University kept them on campus. The cells have no light and little air. Sound echoes. Cannot imagine anyone straying from the proscribed strict academic and social regimen more than once!
Tomar and Templars
From Coimbro an hour drive to the Convent of Christ in Tomar was the second delight of the day. Another history lesson from our terrific guide George. The Templars were a 10th century catholic military organization to protect pilgrims on their journey to visit holy places in Jeruselem, but later spread to Western Europe. They became an elite military force helping first Catholics and then kings of various regions gain control of lands and peoples. Eventually the Pope felt betrayed and ordered the eradication of the Order, which just changed its name to the Order of Christ and continued its work.
So anyway, the Templars made Tomar their base of operation and in doing so created an amazing fortress that stood up to a 20 year siege from the Moors. The surrounding sloped rock walls made the place impenetrable. Within the castle walls is the 11th century Convent of Christ—a magnificent round church modeled after one the architect had seen in Jeruselem. Pictures do not do it justice, but it with the 16th century addition to the church and a connected Convent make this stop an amazing architectural World Heritage Sight delight.
Henry the Navigator was among the Templar leaders who ruled from the complex. Among his contributions to Tomar was building a synagogue for the Jewish population to reaffirm the area as being welcoming to all people. When the Jews were forced to accept Christianity or be killed, the population that did not convert fled to Africa/Morocco. The synagogue was used for a variety of purposes over the ages including a warehouse and grocery.
In the 1920’s a man purchased the property and began to restore the synagogue to honor its history. Today a wonderful 80 something year old woman who has volunteered in the single room synagogue for 30 years serves as hostess. Today there are only two Jewish families in Tomar. There are other enclaves throughout Portugal, but the Jewish population remains small.
Another 45 minute drive and we found arrived at Obidos and our accommodation for the night. Well, that’s not quite right. After the 45 minute drive, 10 minute very steep climb on foot (because of the medieval festival in the small medina that had the main (very narrow) road closed, welcome by a crazy team we called Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis, another extensive climb…THEN we arrived at our rooms in our second Pousada (Castle) of the trip.
Not at all what we were expecting after the grandeur of the first Pousada, the rooms were OK (with first king-sized beds of the trip), but it was the service (from crazy manager to very attentive chef/bartender) that really stood out. Thank goodness we didn’t have to haul any of our luggage!
As we were in Obidos for only one evening, we chose to wander into the two street wide by perhaps ½ mile long medina for a late supper. Found a great Italian maybe six table (counting inside and out) café. Then back up the hill and stairs for a glorious Cabernet night cap.