Douro- Day 2 on Viking Helgrim


Yes, Virginia, there IS a real Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, and it’s in Portugal! On our way from Lisbon to Porto, 130 miles north of Lisbon, the Viking bus that was taking us from our Lisbon hotel to our ship in Porto made a lunch stop in the ancient town of Coimbra.

image from Julie HatfieldThere, on top of a mountain, as we stepped out of the bus, were a group of University of Coimbra law students dressed in their school uniforms: long black robes with black capes over their shoulders. (“The Jesuit colors of black and white,” our guide informed us.) Instead of wands in their hands, the students held brightly colored plastic pencils, which they were selling to tourists to help pay for their room and board at the university. No need to feel sorry for them, our guide noted. Portugal’s 34 percent tax makes their yearly tuition negligible (under $2000 per year). And for that they get to study in the most illustrious and historical university in the country. Established in 1290, as a Jesuit college, the university was secularized when the Jesuits were expelled from Portugal in 1767.

The traditions surrounding the black school uniforms of the University of Coimbra are as powerful as those around the Hogwarts’ school uniforms. In their freshman year (65 percent of the student body is now female), Coimbra students are required to purchase their uniform, but may not put it on until they have completed that year. Then, when seniors have finally finished their studies and presented their thesis – completely spoken in Latin – they traditionally rip off their black robes, sometimes physically tearing them to shreds, and hang a piece in the window of the library. Some students, our guide told us, are so happy to have completed their academic work they tear those robes off and run naked through the campus to celebrate. Harry Potter would be positively shocked.

Putting one’s robe on the floor for someone to walk over – Sir Galahad style — is a sign of respect. As we entered the restaurant in Coimba for lunch, student restaurant employees threw down their robes for us to walk across.

The library at the university, created in 1717, six years after gold was discovered in Brazil, is considered one of the most beautiful in the world, with elaborate gold decoration, stunning wood carvings, and some of the oldest and most valuable books, including the famous Abrovanel Bible, written in Hebrew by the Jewish scholar who added the New Testament to it so that Jews could learn the thinking of Christians.

image from Julie HatfieldThe books in the library are protected by – get this — jacaranda leaves, which exude a scent that keeps moths from the pages; and bats, which enter through holes in the walls to feed on bugs that also destroy the pages of these valuable tomes.

In the late afternoon we finally arrived at our home for the next week, the brand new Viking Helgrim, just finished last spring, waiting at the dock in the town of Porto. She is shiny and sleek, and quiet as a purring kitten, and as we sat down to our first dinner aboard, the captain took her out for a little spin, and sure enough, we saw in the reflections of the setting sun the brilliant shade of color that gives justification to the description of this body of water, long known as “the River of Gold.”

Story courtesy of Julie Hatfield. Photos courtesy of Timothy Leland. Last image courtesy of Julie Hatfield. 

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