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Coimbra city guide - Photo by <a href="">Uriel Soberanes</a> on <a href="">Unsplash</a>
Photo by Uriel Soberanes on Unsplash

Coimbra is the fourth-largest city in Portugal, and the country’s former capital dating back to the 12th century. Today it is world-famous for its ancient university, the oldest in the Portuguese-speaking world, and the city’s historical buildings are a UNESCO World Heritage site – and it is of course a proud part of Portugal’s main contribution to intangible heritage, the sound of fado.

When visiting Coimbra to perform at the Dar A Ouvir sound festival, we took the time time to get to know the city’s sounds, making the field recordings that comprise this Coimbra city guide.

Coimbra city guide

1. The songs of Coimbra fado

Fado is one of the few sonic items of intangible heritage listed by UNESCO, and indeed even within Portugal there are some specific variants, including Coimbra fado, which is different from that found in Lisbon, and frequently deals with feelings of longing and love for the city itself.

Inside a 14th century chapel converted into a fado house, we listen to some of the traditional sounds of fado, and reflect on how these unique items of sonic heritage contribute strongly to a sense of connection to place, to a defined identity for a city that brings its people together.

As well as the many fado houses dotted around the city, you can even hear the sounds of fado elsewhere – in this field recording they seem to be emanating from the wall itself, as a recording of a famous fado song plays from a souvenir shop located inside of the city’s medieval archways.

2. The chimes of A Cabra

The bell tower at the University of Coimbra, Portugal is the highest point of the city, visible from almost anywhere and aptly symbolising how the university sits at the centre of life here.

The bell is known in Portuguese as A Cabra, which is translated as “the goat” – however, “goat” is also used as an insult in Portuguese, and is how the students used to refer to the bell when cursing it for waking them and forcing them to their studies in the morning.

In this recording, on a blisteringly hot day at around 38 degrees, the courtyard is quieter than usual as people shelter from the heat, and the bell strikes midday – at the end of the bell chimes, you can hear the reverberation of the bell continuing beautifully for some time after the final chime.

3. Coimbra – city of music

It’s not just about fado – you can hear many types of music all over the city.

In this field recording, a saxophone-led jazz quartet set up on a staircase in an alleyway in the backstreets of Coimbra, during the Coimbra Jazz Festival. The sound of the music reverberates around off the tall buildings around us, and mixes with the lively street sounds of passers-by in the town centre.

4. Evening descends on the city

As the sun begins to go down in Coimbra, the city comes to life, with bars and restaurants open and lively well into the night.

Here, at sundown in Praca do Comercio, restaurants start to set up with diners taking a pre-dinner drink on the tables outside, while swifts fly overhead calling to one another. A dog barks, breaking the peace.

5. Religion in Coimbra

Another hugely important part of life in Coimbra – as it is in the rest of Portugal – is the church. Here we listen to a recording of part of a Sunday mass in the Igreja de Santa Cruz.

Hymns are sung by the congregation, prayers in Portuguese and fading into street sounds as we step outside the church into the square.

6. A unique sound to bid you farewell

Perhaps you might leave the city by train – which would give you the chance to hear our final recording in the Coimbra city guide.

At Coimbra B train station, sets of bells ring to warn of approaching trains, so that pedestrians move away from the track crossing. The bells are arranged so they swap tones, creating a fascinating and distinctive Doppler effect – you can also hear announcements and a passing police siren in this rich field recording.