Coimbra: Conímbriga Ruins and Coimbra University

A journal entry is born
A journal entry is born

My activities today included visits to the Conímbriga Roman Ruins and the University of Coimbra. You’d think if I spent a couple of hours wandering around the university, and paid €15 for the privilege of going into some of its buildings, they’d have the common decency to confer an honorary doctorate on me. But no such luck.

By the way, and apropos of nothing, I posted a picture of the view from the rooftop deck of my hotel in Coimbra yesterday. Today, I wrote a portion of this journal entry up there, as evidenced by the picture to the right that was, unlike yesterday’s picture, taken somewhat back from the deck’s railing.

It doesn’t happen all the time, or even very often, but life is good some days.

Conímbriga Roman Ruins

Conímbriga Roman ruins
Conímbriga Roman ruins

A few years before the zero-year that came to be because the Christian cult later reset the calendar, the Romans established the city of Conímbriga, a little more than 17 kilometres (a little over 10.5 miles) from Coimbra by road.

That is, 17 kilometres by modern roads. I don’t know if a road existed between Conímbriga and Coimbra in the time of the Romans. Nor do I know if Coimbra existed back then. I don’t know a great many things. Of the astronomically large number of facts I don’t know, those are two of the more trivial ones.

More Conímbriga Roman ruins
More Conímbriga Roman ruins

The Romans abandoned Conímbriga 468 years after the zero-year established by the Christian cult, i.e., 468 AD or 468 CE, whichever you prefer.

Today, we’re left with the extensive ruins excavated on the site.

For the most part, all that remains is just a lower portion of the walls of the former buildings, baths, cistern, and forum. But there are a lot of them. A few of the ruins also have some tile mosaic floors in situ. Most of those mosaics are in somewhat rough shape, except for those in the House of Fountains (see below).

A thick, protective city wall still stands largely intact in places.

Still more Conímbriga Roman ruins
Still more Conímbriga Roman ruins

Walking through the ruins, one can envision the Roman city that once stood on the site. That is to say, one who is better at visualizing such things than I am and who possibly saw artists’ recreations of Roman cities can envision it. I couldn’t.

Don’t get me wrong. I very much enjoyed walking through the ruins. It covers a large area and it is fascinating. But I saw the outline of former buildings, not an apparition of the full-built city.

House of Fountains

House of Fountains
House of Fountains

The highlight of the ruins is the “House of the Fountains.” It belonged to a rich Roman. Now it is ruins. But the intact tile mosaics, which are in quite good shape, were both decorative and told stories. There is also a small garden in the house.

The garden includes a water feature consisting of some small short, narrow channels and a small, modern fountain. I don’t know if the Romans had fountains that gently sprayed water up out of a small pool, but I didn’t get the sense of an old Roman house from it. Then again, I’m not a rich, old Roman. Maybe my mental images of their former homes are wrong.

The other thing that distracted from the ancient Roman vibe of the place was the modern roof erected over the House of Fountains, I suppose to protect it from precipitation. Posts hold up the roof, but there are few walls. A strong wind would blow precipitation in. So, I don’t know how much protection it provides.

Conímbriga Museum

The Conímbriga Ruins site includes a museum. It houses a collection of artifacts excavated from the site. Included are coins, arrowheads, pottery, metal tableware, personal grooming implements, medical instruments, weights and measures, tools, sculptures, mosaic floors, and architectural elements.

There were probably a few other objects that I forgot to jot down. You’ll just have to visit for yourself to check up on me.

Ruins: It’s not just Conímbriga

Yes, yes. Even more Conímbriga Roman ruins
Yes, yes. Even more Conímbriga Roman ruins

In addition to the Conímbriga Roman ruins I visited today, I have been to Roman ruins in France, England, and, of course, Italy, including the Roman ruins headquarters, Rome. In some places (not Conímbriga), there are a few Roman aqueducts with sections that are still largely intact. And there are a few old Roman buildings that are somewhat more than just low outlines of their former selves, for example in Pompeii. But, for the most part, Roman structures are now ruins.

They really couldn’t take care of their stuff, could they? Didn’t their mothers ever tell them to handle things with care so they’d last?

I mean, really. A little bit of vigilance goes a long way. Maybe they would still have all of their structures if they’d been more heedful. Heck, who knows? Maybe the Roman Empire would still be a thing. And when transportation improved from what it was in their time, perhaps they could have expanded the Roman Empire around the world and we’d all be Romans.

Sure, there are probably drawbacks to living under a Roman emperor. The risk of being thrown to the lions comes to mind. But there would also be benefits. Some of them are huge. For example, there’d probably be great Italian restaurants everywhere. That would make up for a lot of any hardships living in a Roman Empire might bring.

The University of Coimbra

The University of Coimbra is old. Very old. However, it can’t claim to be the oldest. Founded in 1290, the University of Coimbra was modelled after an even older one, Bologna, Italy’s university, which was founded in 1088. (One regular reader of this journal will probably be pleased that I mentioned that fact.)

The University of Coimbra is at the top of a high hill. Or maybe it just seemed high because I walked up. I’m not a young person anymore.

People who know me no doubt expect that I’m about to present a pun about higher education at the top of a hill. No, I won’t. That’s way too obvious for even me to resort to it. So, no, I won’t make any puns about the university providing higher education because it’s at the top of a hill. Not at all. You can’t make me.

That out of the way, let’s continue.

The University of Coimbra opens some of its more interesting buildings and rooms to the public for a fee. I took advantage of that.

The Royal Palace

I know what you’re thinking. What business does a subheading of “The Royal Palace” have being subordinate to a heading of “The University of Coimbra.” Then again one or two professors regularly read this journal. They’re probably thinking, “It’s damn well about time royal palaces were subordinate to universities.”

Be that as it may, one doesn’t usually expect royal palaces to be part of universities. And, the truth of it is, it’s no longer a royal palace. But it once was. And now it’s one of the University of Coimbra’s buildings.

Grand Hall
The Grand Hall
The Grand Hall

The former palace’s throne room is now the university’s Grand Hall. The university holds ceremonies, such as graduations, there. The public wasn’t allowed into the hall itself when I was there. We had to look down on it from a corridor on the second floor. (Second by North American counting, first by European counting.) Windows in the corridor beside the Great Hall on that level look down on the Grand Hall, which spans two floors in height.

I’m not sure if the university normally allows the public into the Grand Hall. When I was at the university, several fresh-faced young adults wearing black academic robes loitered around the large square in front of the former Royal Palace. It’s possible that today was graduation day. The hall might have been reserved for them, although it was empty when I looked down on it.

Private Examination Room
Private examination room
Private examination room

What was a stateroom in the old palace is now a private examination room. Ornate decorations still in place make the former stateroom very, well, stately.

The text provided in that room said that the exams are oral. And, during an exam, the only people in the room are the student and the academics examining him or her. The text didn’t mention anything about it being a thesis defence, but that’s what it sounded like to me. Neither of my degrees required a thesis, so I haven’t experienced a thesis defence. But, from what I’ve heard about them, that sounds like it. It certainly doesn’t sound like any of the full-class, written exams I took.

View from the catwalk
View from the catwalk

A narrow catwalk hangs off a portion of the second floor (numbered the first floor in Europe) of one wall of the Royal Palace. It bends around a corner to hang off a portion of an adjoining wall as well. There’s only one door to the catwalk. So if you go out there, you have to turn around and walk back to leave.

The floor of the catwalk looks quite solid, but the metal railing appears a tad flimsy to me.

The catwalk is above the ground and the palace is at the edge of the plateau on which the university sits. As a result, the catwalk delivers fabulous views of Coimbra. It also delivers heart palpitations and rivers of sweat to acrophobia sufferers. I speak from experience here.

St. Michael’s Chapel
St, Michael's Chapel
St, Michael’s Chapel

The former palace, now university building, also contains a small, richly decorated chapel. Namely, St. Michael’s Chapel.

My middle name is Michael, but I didn’t try to use that to get special treatment in the chapel. That’s just the self-effacing sort of guy I am.

I don’t know if the university uses the chapel for any academic purposes these days. Maybe students use it to pray to pass their exams. Studying would probably be infinitely more useful when it comes to that, though.

King João’s Library

Academic prison
Academic prison

The University of Coimbra has an 18th-century library. It’s a bit confusing. Some of the signage and literature (with English translations) refer to it as “King João’s Library.” Others refer to it as “the Baroque Library.”

For a while, I thought they were different buildings. I eventually determined that the signs and literature referred to the same structure. I’ll refer to it as King João’s Library here because that’s the first reference I saw.

King João’s Library has three floors. From bottom to top, the Ignoble Floor, the Undistinguished Floor, and the Noble Floor. Alright. I just made up two of the three names. The top floor is called the Noble Floor. The other two names are my invention, but I think the university should adopt them.

Entry to King João’s Library is quite formulaic. If you visit, you have to buy a timed ticket. At your appointed time you enter on the lower level. You have five or ten minutes (I forget which) to look at that.

They then open the doors to the second level. You get a little while to look at that floor. Then they open the door to the stairs that lead to the gem of the King João’s Library, the Noble Floor. You then have ten minutes to spend gawking in that room before you have to leave the building through a door on that floor.

Relax. King João’s Library is built into a hill. Despite leaving two floors above where you entered, you don’t have to jump out from a height.

The Ignoble and Undistinguished Floors
Middle level of King João’s Library
Middle level of King João’s Library

Why did I call the lower level the Ignoble Floor? The top floor being called the Noble Floor had something to do with it, but that’s not all. The bottom floor literally was for ignoble people.

The university used to be self-governing. The lower level of the library was a prison where students could serve sentences for crimes rather than being put in with the general prison population.

The university lost its self-governing status some time ago. (I forget when.) Consequently, it can no longer jail students. I imagine some of the faculty are upset about that.

For the public, e.g., me, the middle level is little more than a waiting room where they are held until the previous group clears out of the Noble Floor and the new group can be let in.

This middle level contains some old, tall, wooden shelves holding old books, but the room bears little adornment.

The Noble Floor

The Noble Floor is, not to put too fine a point on it, very noble. The colour green dominates, but it shares space with dark wood, a lot of gold leaf, and some red colours.

There are even more colours on the ceiling. It is beautifully painted with figures meant to represent the ideals of the university.

The Noble Floor’s height is probably equivalent to two floors’ worth of slightly high-ceilinged normal building storeys. Bookshelves climb the walls to the top of the Noble Floor.

Access to the high-shelf books is via a catwalk halfway up and by short ladders on the floor and catwalks.

Access to the catwalks is through stairs hidden in short walls perpendicular to the outer walls forming the length of the room.

Entrance to the stairs is through doors in end-pillars on the short perpendicular walls. Unless you get close, the pillars look very much like marble. They’re not. The marble is a trompe l’oeil painted on wood pillars. The entire Noble Floor is constructed of wood.

I’d love to show you a picture of the Noble Floor. It’s gorgeous. But that’s the only floor of King João’s Library where they forbid all photos and videos.

Chimico Laboratory

Lecture hall
Lecture hall

The ground level of the Chimico Laboratory, i.e., the Chemistry Laboratory, contains two sections, one on either side of the entry, that contain exhibits for the public. One side contains a lecture hall with old wooden student benches and a wooden lecturer’s table up front.

Exhibits about the Jesuits and the college they had there surround the lecture hall on three sides.

Hokey researcher dude
Hokey researcher dude

The other side contains exhibits about the research of light and matter over the centuries. The displays included text, graphics, and some interactive kiosks. There is also one large, hokey, papier-mâché old-time researcher with a huge mortar and pestle. It’s made to look like he’s mixing up goodness knows what concoction.

I think the exhibits in the light and matter section are temporary, but I’m not sure.


I included the picture to the right, taken in the light and matter exhibit, for the benefit of any young folk who might read this journal entry. It is a picture of a blackboard. A blackboard is a display technology that predates not just Powerpoint, but even overhead projectors. (Although there was some overlap of the ages of blackboards and overhead projectors.)

If you’re too young to know what overhead projectors were, you’ll have to wait until I visit a museum that displays them to give me an excuse to talk about them.

With blackboards, you used a stylus called “chalk” to write or draw on the blackboard in real time. Chalk styluses typically wrote in white, but they also came in different individual colours, mostly pastels.

When finished with the blackboard “screen,” you erased it with a device called a “brush” and drew or wrote your next screen. Amazing, really. I don’t know what happened to them. I mean, other than ending up as museum displays.

Botanical Garden

Flowers among trees
Flowers among trees

The University operates a botanical garden a short distance from the main campus. As you might expect from a botanical garden, it has a lot of plants because it would be ridiculous for it to have a lot of, say, classic cars. That would be called a car museum, not a botanical garden. Stick with the program, people.

Oh, wait. I was the one who got lost in a ridiculous thought, not you. Never mind.

Bamboo grove
Bamboo grove

I found my walk through the botanical garden quite relaxing. Then again, I’m on a different relaxation scale than most people. I consider myself relaxed if I worry only 55 seconds out of every minute instead of 60. Your mileage might vary.

And, with that, the day is done. Well, except for, see the picture at the top of this entry, then dinner, and then finishing this entry.


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