Hallowed Halls of Learning

Coimbra, Portugal
Jan 20, 2018

As the morning fog drifts through parts of the city at the bottom of the hill, the buildings at the top of the hill are bathed in sunshine. The Alcacova palace, converted to the University of Coimbra is bathed in fitful sunshine. The ornate entrance, doorways to separate buildings may have a museum-like quality but this is no museum. The hallways inside are thronged by students, intent on last-minute cramming for an upcoming exam while in another wing, a professor takes rollcall.

It says much for a city, indeed a country, when ornate and beautiful buildings that had once been palaces, are ear-marked for use as universities. And the one in Coimbra is one such. Begun in 1290 AD, this is the oldest University in Portugal and ranks as one of the oldest in the world that has been in continuous operation. Originally started in Lisbon, its permanent move to Coimbra was made in 1537 AD.

Since the days when it taught only Law and Theology, The university has expanded into the usual disciplines, housed in separate buildings. A long avenue leads out of the ornate gate, lined by modern buildings housing departments of Medicine, Physics, Chemistry and Mathematics. I spent a happy morning wandering in and out of buildings and paid homage to King Dinis for his enlightened views.

Steep steps stagger down the hill past notable landmarks like the Almedina arch and tower and there is the usual scattering of churches. The main avenue is a disappointing stretch of usual tourist kitsch slowly encroaching into neighboring areas. The narrow winding lanes behind Praca Comercial are slightly better. Not for long though, if the number of buildings draped in scaffolding and frenzy of jackhammers are anything to go by. Having expected a lot from Coimbra, I felt strangely let down.



Where the Ancient, Medieval & Modern live Entwined

Evora, Portugal
Jan 17, 2018

Close to Evora, in a field, stand some stone megaliths.They are a mute testament to the Celtic tribes in the Alentejo region dating back five millennia. But this is not the only legacy they left behind. The very name Evora, is derived from the Celtic ebora, meaning “of yew trees”. The Yew was considered magical by the Celts, sacred because of its connection with the dead and used for summoning spirits of ancestors and communicating with the Otherworld. Not surprisingly, yew trees were associated with the Celts, sometimes synonymous with the tribes.

Like other parts of the Iberian Peninsula, this area too saw the advent of the Romans. Settled by them around 57 AD, mentions of Ebora Cerealis, are found in Pliny the Elder’s Historia Naturalis, so called because of its abundant wheat fields. They too left their legacy and some of these remain to this day. The Corinthian columns of a roman temple, probably built in the first or second century still stands in what was the heart of the old town, surrounded by Roman walls.

There are arches dotting the town, many built upon earlier roman ones and a roman bath that lies under what is today’s Town Hall is still being excavated. New lives have woven into the old and many of the arches have seen homes built within them, morphing with time and demand. Some doors use the old arches and some narrow entrances, while others are more conventional. This is a city where most doors must be custom-made, at least in the historic center. How refreshing in our cookie-cutter age!

The tides of time wore on as the fifth century brought the Visigoths and a period of decline. But barely three centuries later came the Moors, reigning here between the eighth and twelfth centuries. The narrow streets meandering off in labyrinthine webs are the legacy of the Moors and astonishingly, have not only survived, but remain in use today.

Some are barely as wide as an arms-span, while others are just about as wide as a small car. A nightmare for motorists but a delight for pedestrians, they wind this way and that, inviting random exploration with the reward of hidden surprises. The Moorish fountain still spouts water as it stands within the old city walls. An aqueduct that carried water to the city, built in 1537 still functions today, and links to this fountain.

Wrested from the Moors in 1165 AD, by Gerald the Fearless, Evora has remained in Christian hands since. The largest square is named after him with a requisite church at its head. The walls that surround the city dates from this medieval period and are surprisingly intact. Instead of armed horsemen riding beneath banners, it now sees cars and buses zipping through its gates. The town also sprouted many churches in this period, most of which stand today and are in use.

The lofty tower of the cathedral rears up above all, tolling the hours. The church of Saint Francis is one of the most lavishly decorated but it is the attached chapel here that of more intriguing, if gory interest.

Enter, and you might take it to be normal mosaicked walls with the usual arches. But look closer – the walls are embedded with human skulls and bones. The story goes, that dissatisfied with the increasingly mercenary tendencies of the populace, three monks in the sixteenth century, created this to bring home the transient nature of life. Driven home by the inscription above the entry: We bones that are here, for yours we wait.

Somewhere along its checkered history, Evora acquired a reputation as a center for learning and continues today to be home to one of the major universities. In 1656, a library was built atop the ruins of the old castle. It holds books printed in sixteenth and seventeenth centuries as well as more recent additions, totaling a staggering six hundred thousand. The original University of Evora was housed in one of the most beautiful buildings, founded more than five centuries ago. Today the University has expanded into a number of departments scattered around the town but this remains the oldest and most beautiful of them all. Who would not want to learn in such surrounds?

Sintra might be beautiful but it has a museum-like quality whereas Evora lives and breathes. The past and the present are woven together seamlessly, and continue as they have for millennia. There is none of the brashness of youth though and life here moves at a unhurried pace. At odd corners of streets are plazas, called largos.

They are scattered with cafés, some under leafy trees. They see a constant parade of students, locals and the odd tourist, sipping a drink or an espresso, eating a snack and chatting. Older citizens seem to routinely gather on park benches to spend time catching up on gossip. Delightfully unhurried is the way of life here, a forgotten skill in some parts of the world.

Edge of the World

Cabo da Roca, Portugal
Jan 14, 2018

The tip of the westernmost part of continental Europe juts out into the Atlantic Ocean and waves pound the base of the cliffs. They dash onto the rocks throwing spray up in a cloud. The wind is sharp and cold and slices like a knife. It is a fitting place to call the end of the world.

And so it was thought in ancient times. A giant monument with a cross atop marks this place and a quote from the poet Luis Camoes reads “Where the land ends and the sea begins”. Edge of the world indeed.

Enchanting Sintra

Sintra, Portugal

Jan 13, 2018

Barely forty minutes by train from the bustle of Lisbon lies Sintra, but it may as well belong to another world.

The craggy towers of the Moorish castle look down on its many palaces and fanciful fountains dot the path up to the castle. The view from its top extends far beyond the plains, to the sea beyond.

Checkered is its history and many are the splendors of its castles and palaces, its chateaus and gardens. Deservedly deemed a UNESCO world heritage site, Sintra enchants without even trying.

Somnolent Silves

Silves, Portugal
Jan 11, 2018

In the south of Portugal, on the bank of the Arade river, Silves sits nestled among groves of orange trees. Its heydays when it was the capital of the Algarve in the Moorish times, are long gone.

Today, the red stone castle looks out on its narrow, winding streets, locals snooze in the sunshine, a few tourists wander in a desultory fashion and Silves lies somnolent. There are plenty who rave about the Algarve but it is not for the likes of me. I visited Lagos, further south and beat a hasty retreat.

In a City called Olissipo

Lisbon, Portugal
January 9, 2018

The mosaic pavements, slick storefronts, hum of traffic and rattle of streetcars may make Lisbon appear a modern European capital but it has roots that stretch far back. Arguably among the oldest cities of Europe, second only to Athens, this city has its beginnings among the Celts.

The spacious natural harbor attracted Greek and Phoenician trading posts as far back as 1200 BC and they, in turn, were quickly followed by a long stream of others – Carthagians, Romans, Visigoths and the Moors.

It lay firmly in the hands of the Moors until 1147 AD, when after a long siege of the castle atop its hill by Afonso I, it returned to Christian rule and remained so. The rise of the Portuguese empire in the fifteen and sixteenth centuries saw wealth from its colonies pouring into Lisbon, gilding the capital. But like all other ancient lands, it has seen more than its fair share of anarchy, bloodshed, natural disasters and the dubious distinction of the longest dictatorship in the world.

The lean years of the recent past are history today as Portugal re-surfaces again. The massive funds from the European Community are put to good use as Lisbon’s buildings get much-needed facelifts. There are problems aplenty still, but its neighborhoods slowly emerge into the twenty first century with fresh new faces.

A Week in Berlin

Berlin, Germany

Jan 4, 2018

The rain that had meant soggy days in Porto followed me dutifully and I was treated to more of the same for the entire week in Berlin. But this side trip to Berlin was mostly to visit friends that I haven’t seen in a while so it hardly mattered. In between lunches and dinners and new year’s eve fireworks I squeezed in a few hours of sightseeing under marginally brighter skies. Apart from the iconic landmarks, I could scarcely recognize Berlin, so much has it changed in the years since I last visited.