Of 168 fairytales conjured up by Hans Christian’s imagination, none can compare to the Portuguese legend of Inês de Castro, the fair maiden of Coimbra.
On his visit to the city, his deepest feelings were stirred by the Quinta das Lágrimas (House of Tears) where her brutal murder is said to have taken place. The medieval and neo-gothic gardens are still open to the public and are reputed to be haunted by the lady’s spirit. Emerging as an apparition from a bubbling spring, although parts of the story are fanciful, much of it is based on fact.
In his travel guide, Hans Christian explains the events that resulted in the tragic death.
“Against his father’s wishes the Portuguese Prince Pedro secretly married Inês, a lady-in-waiting at the royal court. In due course the King found out and had the lady and her children murdered at the Quinta das Lágrimas. Forcing his son to marry another, only when his father died did Pedro try to rectify the situation. He had the coffin opened, the decomposed body placed upon the throne and Inês declared as the real Queen. Every courtier was then obliged to kneel before the skeleton and kiss its bony hand.”
Hans Christian reminds his readers that the famous Portuguese poet, Camões, immortalised this 14th century story in his epic work of words entitled Lusíadas.
Clearly, as early as 1866, translation and exchange of literature between Portugal and Denmark was taking place. A Professor, who acts as Hans Christian’s guide around Coimbra’s university buildings, informs him that he has read some of his fairytales including “The Most Beautiful Rose in the World”. The Professor also tells him that more of his stories are under consideration for translation as they appeal to the Portuguese people.
Coimbra was the first university to be established in Portugal in 1290 and was moved to the current site during the 16th century. Hans Christian was an honoured guest and given access to the chapel and library with its Rococo decorations and gilded ceilings. It was with great pride that the Professor showed him manuscripts and first editions of precious books, including the Lusíadas.
“I saw two rare Bibles and seen through a magnifying glass each page was a little masterpiece of art and technique. The scrolls and flourishes made up of written words, the words of the Bible inscribed in Hebrew.”
The high point of his visit was to the Great Hall. A ceremony was taking place and he recounts: “A young man was getting his doctor’s cap. The new doctor knelt on a hassock near the royal throne. Balconies overlooking the hall from the ante-rooms were filled with ladies. A band was on the ground floor and I was most courteously received.”
Today, for €8.50, the university tour includes a visit to the self same Great Hall where hired headsets bombard the public with facts and figures about archways, lintels, painted ceilings and layers of gold leaf.
The radio-guide then sets off on a comprehensive journey, taking parties of tourists round the World Heritage Site. A truly mind-expanding experience but one that makes no mention of a university tradition when fourth year graduates burn academic ribbons in their chamber pots. It would appear Hans Christian missed out on that as well!
More than 22,000 students reside at Coimbra University but, unlike 150 years ago, most do not wear cloaks and gowns. Hans Christian writes in detail about their appearance and goes on to express his philosophy on youth and education. His own schooling had been haphazard and fragmented and perhaps there is a feeling of regret.
“Everywhere are students, here a solitary one, bare-headed and reading his book, there are several of them arm in arm. Their costumes are picturesque reminding us of Faust and Theophrastus with long black gowns and short black capes. Some wear caps like Polish bonnets. Often in the streets there is music of guitars and song, sounding in serenade. With either a guitar or gun over their shoulder, carefree youths jog out of the old town on hired nags, out into the fresh woods, up into the hills, to pleasure and adventure, and the heart of youth stores up memories for the days of age to come.”
In 1866, Hans Christian was 51 years old. He had spent a lifetime longing to be famous. Now he was, his name known across Europe and America, but youth had passed him by. Often suffering from self-doubt, he was still ‘The Ugly Duckling’ or ‘The Pine Tree’, stretching out for something new.
Feeling nostalgic as he left the city, he concluded: “It is a place where one should stay, not just for a few days, but for several weeks, live with the students. As the steam engine puffed and off we went over the River Mondego, with a last look at Coimbra, the coloured houses on the hill shone like a great bouquet on top of all its greenery.”
The scene is surprisingly similar today.
Next time to Sintra.