Sil­ver­fish fail to feast in a li­brary gone batty

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Travel The Colonial History Test - Wen­dell Watt

JUST to make us fully aware of the treat in store, we have to wait out­side the li­brary for our Por­tuguese guide. Time here is mea­sured in cen­turies, not in frac­tions of an hour.

Fi­nally the guide comes with the key and an apol­ogy in frac­tured English. He opens the heavy doors of the Univer­sity of Coim­bra’s baroque li­brary which, as it is no longer in ev­ery­day use, is closed to ca­sual vis­i­tors. A tour of the beau­ti­ful in­te­rior must be booked.

Coim­bra was set­tled in Ro­man times and is now a pleas­ant univer­sity town some­times re­ferred to as the Ox­ford of Por­tu­gal. It lies 40km from the At­lantic on the Mon­dego River, be­tween Por­tu­gal’s north­ern and south­ern borders.

The li­brary is a des­ig­nated na­tional mon­u­ment of Por­tu­gal. Opened in 1728, it was in its day one of the most fa­mous li­braries in Europe. It is two storeys high and as solid as a vault, with stone walls more than 2m thick and a pil­lared and arched en­trance sur­mounted by the na­tional coat of arms. The in­te­rior com­prises three large rooms di­vided by painted arches, with elab­o­rate ceil­ings and dif­fer­ent colour schemes. Th­ese are like Aladdin’s caves, highly or­na­mented and exquisitely de­tailed, with ev­ery sur­face gilded or painted. The book­shelves are two storeys high, with a gallery half­way up.

Amid the ex­trav­a­gant dec­o­ra­tion, the books seem al­most like an af­ter­thought. Schol­ars are wel­come, but at arm’s length. If the rea­son for the schol­ars’ re­search is im­pres­sive enough, the books they re­quest will be taken to the univer­sity’s gen­eral li­brary and made avail­able there.

This li­brary seems more like an ex­quis­ite mu­seum piece full of an­cient se­crets than a place where in­for­ma­tion is busily ex­changed. Its books were best­sellers be­tween the 16th and 18th cen­turies and cover sub­jects then taught at the univer­sity, in­clud­ing medicine, law, the­ol­ogy, science and the arts.

So much pa­per would be a feast in­deed for munch­ing in­sects such as sil­ver­fish. As a de­ter­rent, the book­shelves are made of oak, a dense wood that al­lows in­sects few hid­ing places and, to ex­tend their mis­ery, gives out a worm-re­pel­lent odour.

If the smell hasn’t put them off, the in­sects’ worst en­emy is a res­i­dent colony of bats. Th­ese are not the big variety but small crea­tures just cen­time­tres long, of re­fined and del­i­cate mien as you would ex­pect in a li­brary like this. The lit­tle bats emerge at night (from some mys­te­ri­ous place that is not ex­plained to us) to feed on the in­sects that have man­aged to sur­vive the oak. So the bats’ night drop­pings don’t dam­age the pre­cious wood of the li­brary ta­bles, th­ese are cov­ered with leather tow­els each night and cleaned next morn­ing.

Our guide’s English isn’t good but he con­veys to us that he loves this li­brary, be­com­ing an­i­mated when telling us about the bats. He says lit­tle about the books. Bound richly in em­bossed and gilded leather, they fill the shelves. None is in­di­vid­u­ally dis­played. Nor are they locked away, and I re­sist an urge to pull one of the pre­cious tomes from its an­cient nook and open it.

To visit the li­brary, also re­ferred to as the Joan­ina Li­brary, email reser­vas@ci.uc.pt or book at the ticket of­fice near the Grad­u­ates’ Hall (Sala dos Cape­los) at the univer­sity.

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