Velha Universidade information
In every way the city’s high point, the Old University consists of a series of remarkable 16th-to-18th-century buildings, all set around the vast Patio des Escolas , entered by way of the elegant 17th-century Porta Férrea , which occupies the same site as the main gate to Coimbra’s Moorish stronghold. The highlight is the magnificent library.
In the square itself is a statue of João III , who turns his back on a sweeping view of the city and the river. It was he who re-established the university in Coimbra in 1537 and invited big-shot scholars to teach here in what had previously been a royal palace.
The square’s most prominent feature is the much-photographed 18th-century clock tower . This tower is nicknamed a cabra (the goat) because, when it chimed to mark the end of studies, the first-year undergrads were pounced upon by swaggering older students and humiliated without mercy – that is, unless they leapt their way home like mountain goats in order to avoid them.
From the courtyard gate take the stairway on the right up to the rather grand Sala dos Capelos (Graduates’ Hall), a former examination room hung with dark portraits of Portugal’s kings, and heavy quiltlike decoration. The adjacent passageway affords visitors excellent city views.
Back outside, to the left below the clock tower, you’ll find the entrance to fanciful Capela de São Miguel , an ornate baroque chapel with brightly painted ceiling, ornate tilework, Manueline features and a gilded organ. Concerts still take place here on occasion – ask at the turismo .
However, all else pales before Biblioteca Joanina (João V Library) next door. A gift from João V in the early 18th century, it seems too extravagant and distracting for study with its rosewood, ebony and jacaranda tables, elaborately frescoed ceilings and gilt chinoiserie bookshelves. Its 300,000 ancient books deal with law, philosophy and theology. A lower floor has more tomes and the Prisão Acadêmica , a lock-up for misbehaving students.
Visitors are admitted in small numbers and on a timetable, and you may find that some rooms are closed during degree ceremonies. Buy your ticket in the shop in the square just outside the Porta Férrea. Individuals and small groups can generally get in with minimal waiting time.