A tiny theatre secreted in a half-ruined gothic chapel sat at the crest of a hill. There was a lunar eclipse outside, casting a ghostly glow across the cobbles, and a deathly silence but for the gentle plucking of a lute. Inside it was dark – a single shaft of light illuminated a caped figure on the stage. He rose theatrically, threw back his hood, flung his arms wide and began to sing.
The melody was pained; the words spoke of lost love and regret. The music was fado, one of Europe's most heartfelt, melancholy and beautiful styles.
Nowadays Portugal is so celebrated for its fado that people come to hear it from all over the world. If this were Lisbon I'd be one of a gaggle of inquisitive foreigners. But fado has a second capital – Coimbra, just an hour or so to the north. And here in the À Capella fado club there wasn't another tourist in sight.
Since arriving I'd been amazed that a city such as Coimbra has remained undiscovered for so long. I'd come for the music but even without fado it is magical – as Portugal's first capital it's replete with gorgeous buildings. Narrow streets wind their way from the River Mondego up a craggy mount crowned with the baroque splendour of one of Europe's oldest universities. Here, 13,000 students give the town a creative buzz.
The next day I took breakfast in one of their favourite haunts – the Café Santa Cruz. Sunlight streamed in through enormous art-nouveau windows, lighting up the medieval fan vaulting of the interior. I drank a steaming cup of the best coffee I've ever tasted, accompanied by a small, sweet pasteis de nata (custard tart).
The place was bustling with students and a couple at a nearby table caught my eye. They seemed surprised to see a tourist – especially one who spoke Portuguese and liked fado – and began to tell me about student life.
"Have you heard about the repúblicas, our colleges?" asked Miguel. "I live in the most famous one, where Luís de Camões, the author of our greatest poem, lived."
His girlfriend, Ana, looked scornful: "I prefer José Saramago."
We chatted for a while and they invited me for more coffee in the scruffy common room of their república, a tall baroque townhouse. As we drank, Miguel picked up a guitar and began to play.
"Lisbon fado came across to Portugal from Rio de Janeiro. Our fado comes from the romantic European troubadours and from the real-life love story of Dom Pedro and Dona Inês that played out in these streets 700 years ago."
He pointed out of the window to a striking, whitewashed baroque manor house hidden in the woods on the other side of the river.
"That's the Quinta das Lágrimas," he said – the Mansion of Tears. Prince Pedro – son of King Afonso – fell in love with a Spanish lady-in-waiting and they used to have secret trysts in the Quinta's woods".
Then Miguel pointed to a ruined convent on the bank of the Mondego. "But as Inês was Spanish the king disapproved of their affair so strongly that he had her killed in the Convento de Santa Clara. As she died she cursed Portugal and we were plunged into a bloody civil war that ended only when Pedro killed his father and had Inês exhumed and crowned queen."
"We Portuguese love two things," smiled Ana. "Our tragedy and our tradition."
Coimbra's streets are steeped in the latter, as I soon discovered. Back outside I found myself lost in a narrow cluster of alleys that felt as Muslim as a medina – even though they were filled with hairdressers and bakeries staffed by Brazilians and Chinese. I got lost in the maze and emerged in a little square dominated by an imposing church – the Igreja de Santa Cruz.
The cloisters and towers were covered in lavish carvings in the Portuguese Manueline style, combining the filigree of Moorish mudejar with nautical themes such as ropes of seaweed and sea monster gargoyles. Two more Portuguese royals lie entombed inside, including the country's first king, Afonso Henriques, the scourge of the Moors. In the 12th century, when Coimbra was his capital, everything south of the Mondego was Muslim. Afonso liberated Lisbon, Santarem and much of central Portugal long before the Spanish freed southern Spain.
After climbing up the alley beside the church I was soon beneath the walls of the medieval university. Through the imposing 17th century Porta Férrea stone gates, I left Coimbra's Moorish roots behind and was now surrounded by imperial Iberian baroque.
Inside the gates was a vast square – the Paço das Escolas – paved with flags and watched over by a towering clock and a series of whitewashed buildings. The views over the terracotta roofs and the winding Mondego to the olive fields beyond, were magnificent. This seemed the perfect spot for a late lunch so I tucked into a baguette stuffed with Presunto ham.
Although the university was founded in 1290, it is most famous for the buildings bequeathed by Kings João III and João V in the 16th century. The jewel in the crown is the Biblioteca Joanina library, which has one of the most magnificent baroque interiors in Europe.
From a square noisy with students, I slipped into the still, quiet interior, which smelled deliciously of old books and leather. Shelves of volumes stretched for hundreds of metres all around and, where there were no books, there was an endless filigree of minutely detailed wood carving, slathered in gilt and offset by rich, red velvet.
By the time I left the university the sun had set in a rich panoply of oranges and lilacs. After a fabulous supper I headed off to meet Miguel and Ana. The bars along the river were alive with African-Portuguese and Brazilian rhythms, and I found them dancing feverishly to a Rio samba band.
"This is a long way from the fado of last night!" I yelled to a sweaty Miguel.
"Maybe so," he said, "but samba is Lusitanian too – just listen to the words. Samba is the sadness that balances life, a sadness always tinged with hope."
This line was still echoing round my head when I left, happy and content, at first light. As I waited for a taxi I reflected on the Portuguese spirit: it is not sadness that defines it, but joy – if always garnished with sweet melancholy and longing.
Further info: www.uc.pt/coimbra
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