Halfway between Lisbon and Porto in the central region of Portugal is a medieval city called Coimbra. Perched on a hill overlooking the Mondego River, Coimbra (pronounced as kweembra) flourished under Moorish rule for over 300 years until the Christians ousted them in the 11th century. Coimbra was the medieval capital of Portugal from 1139 to 1255 until Afonso III decided to move the capital to Lisbon.
Coimbra is also Portugal’s equivalent of Cambridge or Oxford, renowned for its university – Universidade de Coimbra – the oldest and most distinguished university in the country. University of Coimbra was Portugal’s first university and originally established in Lisbon in 1290, after which it was moved to Coimbra in 1537 where it still stands for the past four centuries.
The student population is about 24,000 which constitutes nearly a third of Coimbra’s overall population. As a result, the university is the lifeline of the city and the presence of the students lends an exuberant atmosphere – boisterous nightlife and youthful activities typical in any university town. However, the change in mood is quite notable especially during the summer when thousands of students return to their hometowns and Coimbra reverses from a vibrant to a sleepy town.
Owing to a large student population, Coimbra is liberal and forward-thinking. At the same time, the city also maintains traditions rigorously – university traditions comprising rituals, sets of codes and practices that govern all aspects of student life. Some of these traditions are:
Traditional academic dress
You will be able to spot the students in Coimbra by their traditional academic dress of black suits and capes. They resemble like oversized bats as they flit in and out of the cobblestone streets of the medieval quarters. The capes have badges sewn inside, each represents a faculty. It is also a tradition that the cape is not to be washed throughout the student’s time at the university to symbolize the memories that they have collected.
Students of other Portuguese universities also wear the black suits and capes but Coimbra students in particular dress in this traditional attire more frequently.
Initiation rituals (praxe)
The life of a student in Coimbra is mostly dominated by initiation rituals called praxe in Portuguese. Also known as ragging or hazing, praxe is an initiation process into university social life that freshmen are subjected to. The practice of praxe was originally from and developed in University of Coimbra hundreds of years ago, thus the praxe rituals in Coimbra are unique which set them apart from other Portuguese universities.
The initiation rituals are generally “harmless” such as baptism into academic life in Mondego River, dipping in fountain water, walking in the streets with cans tied to the legs, chanting, singing and other raucous activities. I saw a number of seniors ordering freshmen to do push-ups at the university courtyard.
That said, praxe is controversial due to incidents reported in which praxe was extreme whereby students were physically harmed or died. As a result, there are fraternities in the university such as República dos Kágados that are anti-praxe for which they advocate for personal and political freedom.
Queima das Fitas (Burning of the Ribbons) and Serenata Monumental
To celebrate the end of the academic year and to prepare for the month that precedes exam finals, Coimbra students burn ribbons that represent their academic faculties. This ritual is called Queima das Fitas (Burning of the Ribbons) and is held during the first weekend of May. The students burn their ribbons in the chamber pot used in praxe during their first year in university symbolising the end of the academic year.
The rituals last for eight days, one day for each faculty, and during this period, there are concerts, dance performances and parades which transform Coimbra into a lively and vibrant place (studies are forgotten for a week!), so much so that the rituals have become one of the biggest student festivities in Europe.
To kick off the Burning of the Ribbons festivities, throngs of students in their black capes, former students, locals and tourists gather at the steps of the Sé Cathedral (Old Cathedral) at midnight on Friday to hear the traditional student fado serenade called the Serenata Monumental. Fado is a traditional folk music in Portugal that is melancholic by nature often relating to love, loss and sadness accompanied by Portuguese guitars and mandolins. The Serenata Monumental is a serenade to all students, remembering the love, friendships and solidarity formed among them. Since the academic year is about to end, they are feeling sad about leaving Coimbra and their friends, or that they may not see each other again once they graduate.
Note: If you are planning to travel to Coimbra during the first weekend of May, please book your accommodation way in advance for the city will be absolutely crowded for Queima das Fitas festival!
To know the sweetness of fado music, here’s an old YouTube video of the Serenata Monumental in 1989. Please have some tissues ready before you watch the clip!
Fado is said to be the music of the Portuguese soul, its melody is described using the Portuguese word “saudade” which means longing or a feeling of loss. Fado is popular in Lisbon and Coimbra but the musical styles in which this folk music is played and sung in both cities are distinctly different:
- Lisbon fado is sung by anyone regardless of gender but Coimbra fado is sung only by males (In the Serenata Monumental video clip, only the men sang while the women mimed the lyrics).
- Lisbon style is about improvisation during performances but Coimbra fado is more classical and is rehearsed before performances even if it’s for a small group of friends.
- To applaud a fado performance in Lisbon, the audience clap their hands whereas in Coimbra, the audience cough as if they are clearing their throats! Ahem!
If fado is regarded as music of the Portuguese soul, then Coimbra Fado is the soul of the University of Coimbra students. It has strong ties to the academic traditions of the university. The fadistas and musicians are only males and they must wear the traditional academic attire of black suits and capes. They sing fado only at night on the streets, on the steps of the Old Cathedral or under the windows of a beloved.
If you wonder how does the university look like? Well, the campus is open to the public especially the 16th to 18th century buildings set within and around the vast university courtyard:
- Sala dos Capelos in the Royal Palace
Sala dos Capelos is the main room of the University of Coimbra and is still used for academic ceremonies.
- St. Michael’s Chapel
St. Michael’s Chapel dates back to the 16th century, the Baroque organ has 2,000 pipes and is still operational.
- University Clock Tower
Built in 1537 on the basis that “there could be no order without a clock”, the university clock tower has had regulated academic life in Coimbra. Bells would ring out to signify the end of the day’s classes, and according to the old tradition, a freshman cannot be on the streets after 7pm or face prison. Therefore, the clock was nicknamed ‘cabra’ which means goat or, pardon my french, bitch in present lingo.
- Biblioteca Joanina
Many tourists flock to the university campus to see the opulent Biblioteca Joanina (Joanina Library) of elaborate fresco ceilings, gilt bookshelves, and rosewood and ebony tables. Unfortunately, photography is not allowed inside the Baroque library.
It is said that the author J.K. Rowling was inspired by the black capes of the university academic dress and the magnificent Joanina Library that she incorporated those elements in Hogwarts School of the Harry Porter series.
Beyond the university, Coimbra has much to offer to visitors ranging from medieval churches and monasteries to botanical gardens and contemporary bars on the banks of Mondego River. Most foreign tourists overlook Coimbra by making a day trip from Lisbon or Porto but to truly discover this charming university city, it’s best to stay a night or two here.
Note: To know more about university life and Fado in Coimbra, sign up for a ‘Fado of Coimbra’ walking tour with Go Walks Portugal. You will also get a reserved seat at the 6pm 50-minute concert at Fado ao Centro.
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