Ancient Universities

Salamanca street scene

Salamanca street scene

During our travels here in Portugal, we have discovered that it is the public universities that are held in highest esteem.  They are the ones that students want to attend.  They are cheap and outstanding.  The private universities are more expensive but if you have more money that brains, they are the place for you.  The same seems to be true in Spain.

On our drive from Lisbon to Porto, we stopped in Coimbra to visit its well known, public university.  The university was established in 1290 in Lisbon and moved permantly to Coimbra in 1537 (there wasn’t enough space in Lisbon and the reigning king gave the university his palace in Coimbra for the school).

When we arrived, two students explained the significance of the students’ capes. I’ll spare you all of the details but suffice it to say that it is laden with tradition and highly prized.  It cannot be washed except by rainfall or by immersion in the river that flows through the city.  It is plain black and the outside has to remain that way to make certain that from the outside all of the students look the same.  But not quite, because the cape can have rips on its bottom.  Rips on one side are by the student’s family members, the other side by friends, and in the middle by a boyfriend.  You can have patches on the inside from family and friends, signifying who knows what, but the stitches securing the patches must not be seen on the outside.

Enough, I said I was going to spare you the details (like what happens if you break up with a boyfriend who tore your cape).

The highlight of the Coimbra visit was the time we spent in its library, the Joanina Biblioteca.  It was custom built as a library beginning in 1718 and is unbelievably beautiful and clever. One tiny example:  The builders knew that a certain kind of insect (larva) was death on books.  In order to eliminate/reduce the danger posed to the library by this insect, bat houses were built into the library behind the gorgeous moldings.  The bats that populate these houses are tiny and come out at night and eat the moths that would lay the eggs that would eat the books.  Of course, bats poop.  So, every night before the library is closed, the tables and floors are covered with leather sheets, which are cleaned and put away each morning.  Bats that die behind the walls can be removed because the walls are actually double.  It is amazing.  No photos allowed.  No one actually sits in the library to read its books, that is done in the new library.  Well, no one except Umberto Eco, who was granted the privilege as he researched some book of his.

Salamanca was an excursion from the river.  As I mentioned in a previous posting, it is a beautiful town.  The university is older than Coimbra, maybe 12th century.  One 16th century classroom has been preserved and makes me appreciate the desks that I had at school.

One interesting note:  In long ago times, when a student managed to achieve the status of doctor, which was extraordinarily difficult, the student had to host a variety of festivities to celebrate the fact, so it was also extraordinarily expensive.  One of the many things the newly minted doctor had to host was a bull fight.  After the death of the bull, the host used the bull’s blood to write, on a wall somewhere in the university, his name and the fact that he had been victorious in his doctoral examination.  This was the only written evidence of his accomplishment. Needless to say, they switched to diplomas some time ago.

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