The University of Coimbra in Portugal seems to prove the adage “everything old is new again”.
Capes were just featured on the runways of New York’s Fashion Week. Consumers value products free of chemical pesticides. E-book sales are declining as readers return to print. Ribbons are a hot topic on Pinterest.
The University of Coimbra never knew capes went out of style. They use tiny bats in the library, instead of pesticides, to keep insects from eating their irreplaceable collection of ancient books. And students mark the initiation of their academic life, as well as the end of it, with ribbon ceremonies.
This is where we confess that we had never heard of the University of Coimbra until Viking River Cruises took us to see it when we went on their Douro River Valley cruise.
They have a very sneaky way of teaching you interesting history when you just think you’re having fun. It seems downright un-American to come back from a vacation smarter but damned if it doesn’t usually happen with them. That’s exactly what happened as a result of the excursion to Coimbra.
Capes and the University of Coimbra
When we walked through the ancient gates of the university on a hot August afternoon we were introduced to a young man wearing a very heavy, black wool cape.
We assumed the cape was something to show tourists and explain traditions. But it turns out to be much more to the present and former students of the University of Coimbra. Understanding the cape’s symbolism should be at least a 6 credit course (at least for us).
The young man (an 11 year old medical doctor) we met showed us various badges on the left front flap of his cape. The patches signified various memberships, accolades and achievements. Also on the left were lots of vertical tears in the cape. Those were made by his friends when he completed his undergraduate studies. On the right side is where his family ripped his cape when he graduated. “Ripped” is an important word here as these are extremely sturdy capes and the tears have to be made with hands or teeth, no scissors or knives.
The back of his cape had a long tear up the middle because he’s engaged and not available. (Blonde shudders to think if she’d had one of the capes when she was in college. It would have been turned into fringe in an alarmingly short period of time.) If a relationship ends then the slit is stitched back up with bright thread. We saw several capes of students and former students who had obviously been “popular”.
The capes were originally worn because of the strong Jesuit influence on the university.
But if you went there now without a guide and with a fascination for Harry Potter you might think the capes mean the students are Hogwarts (Hogwartians?).
We don’t know anything about Harry Potter so can’t say if that’s good or bad. However, it’s rumored that the author J.K. Rowling based the Hogwarts’ capes on the ones at the University of Coimbra where she visited when she lived in Portugal.
We would have assumed that after the graduation cape-ripping frivolity that would basically be it for the cape and it would go into a drawer and be forgotten about. Wrong again.
Our guide told us how she cherishes her cape and when we went to lunch at a restaurant run by graduates of the University of Coimbra the staff laid their capes on the ground for us to walk over. This is a way to show hospitality (although we wonder if the Portuguese dry cleaning industry might be behind it.)
Several other people we met over the course of our time in Portugal also referred proudly to their capes. Whodda thunk it?
Ribbons and the University of Coimbra
Another tradition still practiced is getting and ultimately burning ribbons. They sure know how to have a good time in Portugal!
When a student begins his studies at the university he (or she, but that gets clumsy) gets ribbons. Initially it’s sort of starter set. One is in the school’s dark green, other colors are for different faculties; Law, Humanities,Economics, Science and Technology, etc.
To tell the truth we don’t know what happens to the ribbons in the years between being a freshman and graduating. But we do know what happens when the students graduate.
They observe the ancient, revered student tradition of getting dangerously drunk in public in what is known as the Queima das Fitas, or the burning of the ribbons, to celebrate graduation. The celebration is for a week in May. It includes floats, parades, fado singing by men using naughty lyrics and excessive alcohol consumption while everyone parties like it’s 1999. (Apologies to Prince.)
Oh, and they burn their ribbons then.
Bats and the University of Coimbra
You cannot just pop into the library to take a look. You have to be escorted by a guide who makes you behave and, at least in our case with the local guide provided by Viking River Cruises, tells you the history of the library.
The library is elaborately Baroque and full of tropical woods, gilding and about 250,000 books. There are cleverly concealed movable ladders to reach the higher-up books and a sensible method of cataloging where each book is physically located. The library is virtually new as it was built in 1720 during the reign of João V.
Our guide clearly enjoyed asking us how we think they prevent insects from destroying the books. The University of Coimbra is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and that designation prohibits them from using pesticides. It does not prohibit pests from chewing away on old paper and leather.
We were all clueless as to the technique being used and fairly amazed when we were told that it’s bats. Not just any old bats. These are teeny-weeny bats that live in the library and come out at night and eat the intruding insects bent on book destruction.
One of these bats eats as many as 500 insects a night.
Each morning, before the library is opened, someone has the enviable task of cleaning up the resulting bat guano.
Sounds like a crappy job to us.
Bada bada bing!
FCC Disclosure: We were the guests of Viking River Cruises so we made all of this up out of a sense of obligation. Or it’s true and we didn’t have to write anything at all. You can figure that out – we have to sweep up bat guano.