Travel

A journey to see the majestic libraries of Coimbra, Portugal, may make the visitor wonder at the hand of fate.

By Beau Kondos.

The Johannine Library and Mafra Palace

Biblioteca Joanina, in Coimbra, Portugal.
Credit: AGB Photo Library / Alamy

The Johannine Library, known as Biblioteca Joanina to the Portuguese, is surprisingly dark and the musty scent of aged oak dominates the cool air. Slivers of light peek through the partly open curtains, catching on gilded plaster reliefs, floral carvings and book spines that glint mysteriously among the rustic red baroque architecture. It takes herculean willpower to not pluck a leather-bound volume from the shelf in order to uncover its secrets.

“Watch out for the bat droppings,” Ricardo says with a smile. Ricardo is a Portuguese architect turned rideshare driver whom I met through a service for travellers undertaking long-distance intercity road trips. When, on our arrival in the university town of Coimbra, he discovered I had been lured to his country by its majestic libraries, Ricardo appointed himself as my unofficial tour guide.

“Bats live in the library to eat the insects that feed on the books,” he explains, pointing to a towel neatly folded on one of the trademark Portuguese marquetry tables. “They cover the tables at night to protect them from the bat droppings.”

Resident bats are another secret hidden among the ornate woodwork of Biblioteca Joanina, which was named after the library’s sponsor, King João (John) V. I scan the ceiling, but in daylight hours it is covered only with divine frescoes. A large portrait of João V is the library’s shrine-like centrepiece and a book of braille detailing the intricacies of the cherubs scattered on the portrait’s wooden frame sits on an altar beneath the king.

Stillness permeates this space and it’s difficult to place whether this sensation is tied to a presence or an absence in the room. Perhaps it is partly due to the photo ban preventing tourists from puncturing the air with offensive bursts of light and sound. But it feels like something more and sparks of rapture crackle in my heart.

I comment on the excessive marble archways between the rooms, and Ricardo scoffs.

“They are not marble,” he says. “They are wood coated with imitation paints. The Portuguese are master craftsmen.” With a wink, he adds, “That’s why I’m an architect.”

Our 15-minute visit feels like mere moments before we are ushered down the stairs to the lower level of the library. A second Gothic stairwell coils down into an academic prison with two windowless cells.

“The university was once completely independent,” Ricardo says. “It had its own police force and passed its own legal judgements.”

The mediaeval cells are forged with solid walls rather than iron bars. One wall slopes inwards, amplifying the sensation of an invisible cloud pressing in on me. Condensation weeps from the lower parts of the stone walls and this far underground there is no sign of the 32-degree heat outside.

After leaving the Joanina, we pass university students who appear to have stepped out of a J. K. Rowling novel, braving the summer heat in their traditional uniform of black vests, blazers and cloaks. Rather than casting spells, they conjure a pained love song from their Portuguese guitarras, which remind me of a flattened version of my father’s bouzouki.

“They are playing traditional Fado,” Ricardo explains. “It comes from the word for fate or destiny.”

I recall the sensation of bliss while basking in the shimmers of gold inside the Joanina, and the romantic notion of destiny somehow seems more plausible in Coimbra. I gush about the experience to Ricardo, praising the shrine to knowledge commissioned by the king.

“King João also built the Mafra Palace you will visit tomorrow,” Ricardo says. “It was built on a promise to God that if his wife gave birth to his first healthy child, he would gift the Franciscan monks with a monastery built within the palace.”

The following day I complete my trip to Lisbon and farewell Ricardo to take the bus to the Mafra Palace.

Many open doorways align along the lengthy wings of the palace, each offering a glimpse of seemingly endless worlds. The rooms are furnished with various luxuries and one appears to celebrate death and power with an assortment of game mounted on the walls, fashioned into tasteless mirrors and an excessive chandelier. Through the final set of doors the palace’s grand library is revealed.

A patchwork of rose, cream and sky-blue marble stretches across the floor of the expansive library. Unfortunately, a barrier stops visitors from venturing in more than a few paces. The bookshelves are frosted in hues of beige akin to stale icing on a forgotten cake. Although the spines of the books gleam with gold, the library lacks the lustre of the shrine in Coimbra.

Thirsting to immerse myself in the history of the room I ask the attendant why the picture frames above the shelves remain bare. She explains they were to house portraits of great writers, but the library never reached completion.

“The Franciscan monks did not build the library,” she explains. “They were evicted by King João’s son, Joseph, who gifted the entire palace to Portuguese aristocrats.”

I discover it was the aristocrats who built this grand library. They had coated the wooden shelves in a white treatment, ready to be smothered in gold with the aim to literally outshine Biblioteca Joanina. Following the fate of their predecessors, the aristocrats were cast out before the library could receive Midas’s caress.

On my final day in Lisbon, the soft tones of Serge Gainsbourg entice me to the doors of Ler Devagar, a multilevel bookshop with an old newspaper printing press at its heart.

Whizzing and buzzing sounds pique my curiosity, and I ascend the stairs to the platform holding the heavy machinery of the old press. The source of the sounds is not the press itself, rather a miniature diorama showcasing Charlie Chaplin caught in a cacophony of tiny screeching gears and the twinkle of a children’s music box.

An old man, with large cheeks that remind me of a child’s, floats from the diorama over to a caterpillar fashioned from tennis balls. His hands flit over the creature that comes to life with a flick of a switch. It appears I have stumbled into a kooky inventor’s workshop of gizmos and gadgets.

The man introduces himself as Pietro Proserpio and welcomes me to his art exhibition that has found permanent residence in the bookstore. He continues the tour I have interrupted, sharing the story behind a structure featuring a red fan at its peak.

“I call this fan love,” Pietro says. “The fan makes wind. And love is like the hot wind of the desert. Like the fresh wind on the lakes. And the kisses the wind gives to the sails of boats.”

A smile crawls across my face. Although this is far from the most impressive collection of books in Portugal, I am entranced by the gusto of a passionate storyteller who retains his spark from his first telling to his last. Pietro commands a stillness similar to the one I experienced in the Joanina, without an ounce of gold.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jul 20, 2019 as "Page buoys". Subscribe here.

Beau Kondos
is a Melbourne-based writer, and the author of The Path of the Lost.