Coimbra, city of singing students

Coimbra University, Paço das Escolas.
Paço das Escolas at Coimbra University, with the Biblioteca Joanina (Joanine Library) on the left, a statue of King João III in the center and part of the Royal Palace of Aláçova on the right. The university was founded in 1290, but alternated between Coimbra and Lisbon until moving permanently to Coimbra in 1537 during the reign of King João III.

The university of Coimbra is the oldest in Portugal and one of the oldest in Europe. Among the many traditions it is known for are the groups of students who sing a special kind of Fado.

Fado is a style of song typical of Portugal. In Lisbon it is associated with mournful lyrics featuring themes of the sea and “saudade”. Loosely translated from the Portuguese, it means longing.

In Coimbra, the fado sung by students (fado de estudante) is more about poetry and unrequited love. It grew from the serenades given by students at ceremonies marking the beginning and end of the academic year. It is accompanied by a tear-drop shaped guitar called, the “guitarra de Coimbra.

Students in Coimbra can often be seen around town in long black capes. EV Legters, an American writer who has lived in the city for four years said that prior to Covid lockdowns, they were a highly visible presence.

Coimbra student wearing black cape.

“There were students in robes everywhere, playing and singing. They sound so sincere,” she said. “They can bring tears to their eyes about the nostalgia, their love of the university and its culture.”

Coimbra university is also known for its multi-day parties. The Festa das Latas, or Latada, in October, marks the initiation of new students to the university. Traditionally new students dragged tin cans tied to their legs, “lata” means can in Portuguese. The Latada starts with student groups singing a serenade in front of the Sé Nova, the“new” cathedral. The term new is relative. It was a former Jesuit church founded in 1598.

The other main celebration is the Queima das Fitas, or burning of the ribbons. This is held early in May. It too kicks off with a serenade. This one is in front of the Sé Velha, the old cathedral, a massive Romanesque structure which dates from 1162. Students wear ribbons of different colors representing their faculties; yellow for medicine, red for law, and so on.

Both ceremonies are also an excuse for parades through the streets of the city and many nights of parties that go on to the wee hours of the morning.

Entrance to the Joanine Library, Coimbra University.
Entrance to the Biblioteca Joanina. The library houses around 60,000 books published between the 16th and 19th centuries.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.