“We are poets,” a Coimbra woman said to me. “We look at the ocean and we make fado.” I suspect they say this the length and breadth of Portugal but, even if the former capital is 31 miles (50km) from the Atlantic, and two hours north of Lisbon, it sums up its atmosphere nicely. Coimbra has a melancholy beauty all its own, and seems to yearn for its more glorious past.
Coimbra’s university, founded in 1290, is Portugal’s oldest and most distinguished, and a third of the city’s 35,000-strong population are students. They lend an oddball vitality to the city. I encountered a handful in academic gowns on the banks of the Mondego river, ordering a group of first years to do press-ups in the grass. Freshmen endure such ritual humiliations until the first week in May, when the end of the academic year is marked by a gathering outside the old 12th-century cathedral (the new cathedral was consecrated in 1640) and fado is performed on the steps.
The fado of Coimbra is unique – sung only by men, and considered more refined than that of Lisbon. It’s lovely to hear, even if you can’t understand a word the singer is tearing from his anguished soul. Traditionally fado is only performed after 10pm, but you can catch hourly performances at the Fado Centre in the middle of Escada do Quebra-Costas, which translates roughly as Backbreaker Street.
Coimbra is built on a hill, you see. The royal palace at its summit, inhabited by monarchs from the 12th to the 15th century, became the home of the university in 1537. If, like me, you can’t imagine the words “library” and “thrilling” in the same sentence, check out the baroque library. Quite marvellous – apart from the cathedral-like room itself, with its triumphal arches, walls of ancient tomes and shelves, pillars and tables embellished with gilt chinoiserie – is the fact that a colony of bats is nurtured within it to keep the insect population down.