No Camera in Coimbra

I am really losing my patience with this “No Photos!” rule that seems to be growing almost as rapidly as the “No Overnight Parking” signs in Walmart. What is it about advertising a famous landmark, structure, exhibit, and then posting the entrance with “No Photographs Allowed!” What is the reason behind this, do you reckon? ? Do personal amateur photos posted on social media such as Instagram, Facebook, or personal blogs eat into the profits of the exhibit? In fact, the opposite has been proven. Is it an attempt to control traffic flow, so smartphone photographers are not tempted to stand in the aisles while focusing, editing, tagging, and uploading their latest status? Is there fear of damage being done from swinging selfie-sticks? Or is it just a way to sell more postcards?

Monastery of Santa Cruz, manualine-style architecture along the main street of the lower part of the city. Remains of Portugal’s first king are entombed here.

Photography allowed here! Yeah, more azuelo tiles.

Lots of outdoor cafes line this pedestrian street.

Beautiful crocheted netting is hung over the walking streets for shade.

Coimbra is built on a steep hill, with the lower part of town facing the Mondego River, while the University occupies the higher “Uptown” neighborhood.

And then I must ask myself, why is not being able to take photographs of a destination such a big deal? Why won’t a cheap postcard or “web photo” suffice in preserving my memory? Because for me, my photography, while amateur, is deeply personal. When I take a photo, I often will study the subject matter, considering what I believe to be the best angle. I consider the aspect, focal point, etc. etc. Therefore, once I have taken the photo, I can remember all aspects of the process, right down to where I was standing. I capture not only the image, but the memory. It’s not just visual, but also visceral.

Fado, a Portuguese style of singing is very popular here. Whereas Fado singers in Lisbon are typically female, the Coimbra style is always sung by males. Academic traditions of the University of Coimbra draw from the troubadour tradition of medieval times.

There is a nightly concert held at 6:00pm at Fado ao Central, the Cultural Center.

This is a “guitarra portuguesa,” or Portuguese guitar used to accompany Fado singing. The teardrop-shaped motif at the top indicates it is a “Coimbra-style” versus the snail-motif “Lisboa style.”

This beautiful sculpture is dedicated to the guitarra portuguesa, made in the image of a woman.

The backside of the sculpture with the arch of the old city wall in the background.

I planned a stop in Coimbra for one reason, and one reason only. I love libraries, especially antique or historic libraries. And Coimbra University has one of the most famous old world libraries in the world, the Joanina Library, or Biblioteca Joanina.  

The University itself is the oldest in Portugal, its origins traced back to the 13th century. It is responsible for Coimbra earning its nickname, “A cidade dos estudantes,” or “The city of the students.” Originally founded in Lisbon in 1290, the University was relocated several times until it was permanently established in Coimbra in 1537. Sitting atop the highest hill in the city, the University dominates the upper city section overlooking the Mondego River or the Rio Mondego. It was inducted into the UNESCO World Heritage in 2013.

The University is located in “Uptown” overlooking the Mondego River.

The “Old Cathedral. Construction began 1130s, with three story Gothic construction completed in 1530’s.”

The “New Cathedral.” Construction began 1541, completed 17th century.

While Coimbra is a very beautiful city, it’s also very hilly.

Fonte Nova, or “New Fountain” has been here in some form as a water source since 1137, though current form was built in 1725.

Statue honoring the tricana, a woman of Coimbra wearing traditional clothing. Love the kicked-off sandals!

I was fascinated by this backpacker with the four identical dogs. Would loved to know the story. He was wearing a long robe, so maybe some kind of performer? He must have had to carry the backpack for all their food!

Speaking of food, here’s some “food porn,” albeit blurry. These were among the best tapas I had while in Portugal. In the background is burrata cheese, a cream-filled fresh mozzarella with cherry tomatoes topped with basil pesto. In the foreground, unfortunately out of focus, are little cones filled with fabulous seared fois gras.

Within the grounds of the University are many historic buildings, the most famous of which is the Joanina Library which I have come to see. Named after King João V, who sponsored its construction between 1717 and 1728, the tour brouchure advertises “a remarkable central hall decorated with elaborate ceiling frescoes and huge rosewood, ebony and jacaranda tables. Towering gilt chinoiserie shelves.” I booked a tour of the University with plenty of advance to insure access to the library, the only reason for my visit. The Baroque library is understandably the highlight of the tour. I paid extra for a guided tour with the promise of spending more time inside this historic structure. I was prepared to be “wowed.” So imagine my disappointment when I showed up to check in for my tour, and our stern, authorative tour guide told our group we would be required to put our cameras away once we entered the most significant building along the 20 euro tour!

The library is indeed stunning. Breathtaking. Even the name sounds beautiful. I wish I could remember it in greater detail, but fact is, I was so pissed off at not being able to take a few photos that I can hardly remember what I saw. Still, it is legendary, complete with its own colony of resident bats that live in the stacks and eat the Library Beetle larvae and silverfish that feed on the paper and glue of the leather-bound tomes dating back to the 16th century.

Main entrance to the University is through the “Iron Gate, once the entrance and exit to what was the medieval citadel.

As one walks through the Iron Gate, they pass over the black and white tile mosaic of “Wisdom.”

The heart of the University is the Pátio das Escolas, a vast courtyard. The Bell Tower dates 1728-1733.

Before the complex was a University, it was King Alfonso Henriques’ residence in 1131, named the Royal Palace of Alcáçova.

One of the buildings surrounding the courtyard is the Capela de S. Miguel, or Chapel of San Miguel, royal chapel dating back to 16th century.

The chapel organ dates from 1737 and has about 2,000 pipes.

Double white umbrellas in courtyard below are entrance of “No Photo Zone,” the Joanina Library.

On an end note, in doing research to jog my memory and keep my facts straight for the purpose of this post, I learned that the historic Joanina Library was used as inspiration in the latest movie version of “Beauty and the Beast.” Perhaps a better way to protect the heritage and history of monuments such as this, as well as other monuments and destinations that have recently been closed due to over-tourism is for movie makers and music videographers to “do your own original work” when creating sets for production. Or don’t disclose, let alone publicize the inspiration behind the location. Rather than restricting the layman tourist from capturing a few vacation photos, stop calling out the locations as your “inspiration” in the making films, music videos, and travel listicles. If individual tourists are being forbidden from taking photos, then so should Disney.

I make it a policy never to post “web photos” on my blog.  If you see it here, it’s because I took it with my own naked eye.  But if you want to see the interior of the Joanina Library, the reason that compelled me to make a stop in Coimbra, there are plenty of photos on the internet to be googled for the taking.

15 thoughts on “No Camera in Coimbra

  1. “When I take a photo, I often will study the subject matter, considering what I believe to be the best angle. I consider the aspect, focal point, etc. etc. Therefore, once I have taken the photo, I can remember all aspects of the process, right down to where I was standing. I capture not only the image, but the memory. It’s not just visual, but also visceral.”

    The fact that cameras were not allowed was daunting enough, but I can see where it would dig into the brain and take over for the duration of the tour, thereby providing a double whammy for this particular adventure.

    I was similarly chagrined at Taos Pueblo when I found out that although the admission price was reasonable, there was a $10. charge to bring in one’s camera. Somehow that just rubbed me the wrong way, and I ended up not taking very many pictures because the mood was ruined by the negative factor. One’s brain can really take over; enthusiasm and artistry can be compromised.

    Totally understand and relate to the “gut” feel that one enjoys when deciding where/when to release that shutter, and it does, indeed, remain within one’s psyche to be savored, enjoyed, and perhaps even shared, at a later time when viewing the final result of the experience.

    Virtual hugs,


  2. Another great post, even without photos of the library. I loved hearing about the bats–a great example of co-existence!
    Did you stay in Coimbra, and if so, where? I’m getting more & interested in seeing Portugal, especially in the late spring, when it’s so hot & dry here in Guadalajara.

    • Hi, Deborah. So sorry for the delay in answering. Yes, I ended up staying in Coimbra for four nights. I had booked my tour for Monday, so I arrived early to have a look around the city, and to attend the Fado concert.

      I stayed at Guesthouse Infante Dom Henrique, booked through While it certainly wouldn’t be for everybody, it met my needs perfectly. It is a much older hotel, so a lot of the furnishings are older. Some rooms look more modern than others, but I booked the single room with a shared bath for only €22 per night. It felt safe, was within walking distance of the train station, felt “clean enough,” and the price was right. Plus, it was right next door to the wonderful Dux Taberna Urbana, where I had those yummy tapas. I ate there twice, actually. Thanks for the comment!

  3. I love your blog and pictures. I’ve always thought the pictures were beautiful and can see the care you take in choosing the right angles. I went to the internet to look at some of the pictures of the Joanina Library and it is beautiful but I’m sure your pictures would have been better with your own touch. Sorry you weren’t allowed to photograph it.

  4. I did search images online of Biblioteca Joanina, beautiful of course! And your meals and descriptions of sightings, beautiful again! I too am annoyed by the “no photos” rule at some places, however, I’ve been at many world-famous tourist places where the photographers are annoying as hell! standing in front of prime spots as though they’ve claimed that spot for them only, waiting although I’ve lost my patience lately and just step inside their little photo domain with no care at all . . . and stepping around folks who take too long to photo something . . . could be that the quality of a tour is greatly increased when those annoying inconsiderate photographers are eliminated! Just a thought . . .

  5. I agree-why, oh why do they ban individuals photography? Did you ask your guide? What a beautiful city and yes, before I finished reading your post I googled the library. The bats is the coolest “re purposing” I’ve ever heard of! love it

    Those organs! The crocheted nets for shade! Insert heart emoji here.

    Glad you got to tour the library regardless of the photography rules.

  6. I cannot imagine your stories without your fantastic photos. I did search out the library on the internet and it sure is awesome, thanks.

  7. I often wonder what the reason behind the no photo’s signs. The only thing I can think of is that they dont want flash lights going off and the light will perhaps damage any delicate things. But today’s cameras are capable of shooting in low light without flash.

  8. I would venture to guess it could be the military type response often provided when one or a few from the past ends up screwing up things for everyone else in the future. Devil’s advocate – without a total ban, how could they police AH-like behavior in the realm of photography from respectful style slow and unobtusive shots vs. modern day “in your face”? It might be difficult. Still an excellent example of how the common lack of courtesy and thinking that many of us exhibit while going about our business in public places often clashes with others to the point many of us don’t even realize we are causing issue with fellow visitors while enhancing “our world” and ignoring that it is causing grief for so many around us and historically, down the line. I really expect this trend to continue as our Instagram culture continues to go all-out with the new popular “in your face” lifestyle.

    They now say if everyone can’t climb a pyramid without falling off, then let’s stop pyramid climbing. Some cities now say since everyone can’t drive down this street without making an AH of themselves, then this street now closed to everyone after 10PM. If you can’t take a photo without flashing, blocking the view or somehow impacting others, then no more shots!

    Also I am sure that is bound to be an ounce of Joan Crawford in all people, especially those who are bored and not really that interested until they gain some level of power and thus decide at some point that people would much better off by following their suggestions. Perhaps someone at a board or management level believed that the simple act of observing was much more reverent and special and would serve better those who could walk through and enjoy the experience without the distraction to themselves or others with cameras, selfie sticks or drones or you name it as far as the entourage of modern day event recording equipment goes. Perhaps they felt like they were doing everyone a favor.

    But also perhaps they never stopped to realize that in 10 years, without a photo, the memory that might otherwise could inspire funding drives for that library might be so distant that it would be forgotten. A place that can’t be photographed seems to lend itself to being forgotten.

    Still I just to prove how much of a low impact I would be if photographs were allowed, sometimes I admit I can’t help but seeing just how many I can take without the guide or guard seeing me. Then again, in many places “no photos” may be like “no alcohol allowed” in some campgrounds these days, the ones in charge have to see the crime in order to reprimand for it and maybe after a while, the rule is only for the most obnoxious to be called out. But then it may be the first day at work for an overzealous tour guide. A lot in this area has to do with social engineering and what chances you want to take with the loss of your camera. But “give me liberty or give me a $500 debt for a new online camera order” is my creed. I’m reminded here of my pals Snookie and Betina who decided to break the tribal law deep in Chiapas Mexico and took pictures “on the sly” with the threat of loss of camera and jail time looming. Funny world, all these contrasts and sad world, that it seems only to exist with all these rules.

  9. Well, being the music and food porn addict I am, I particularly enjoyed your photos of the sensual “guitarra Portuguese” sculpture and that lovely spread of mozzarella/tomato/pesto and fois gras cone tapas (with red wine, I deliciously noted). And, oh! I could lie on the sidewalk all day long gazing up through those gorgeous lace netting shade cloths (after that delightful lunch). But the most *fun* for me with this post was your mini rant about the “no photo” zones and the subsequent comments which followed. It’s like a mini riot here in the comment section, waxing philosophical about those pissers who won’t allow us to capture the moment with our phones. I fully admit, I fall in with the “damn the torpedo” crowd–I’d be sneaking pics like a rebel with a cause! Love this discourse… 🙂

    • We should all gather together on the patio for foie gras cone tapas and wine and discuss tourist-photography further 🙂 Had one thought after my previous comment — I recall a visit to a 15th Century abbey in Solesmes, France (Abbaye Saint Pierre, link is where monks kept the Gregorian chants alive. However, photos were prohibited and their chants were too soft to be recorded (as they were originally before Twentieth Century recordings), and there were actual village parishioners there (no tourists that I could detect). I would have kicked out in anger anyone who snapped a photo or otherwise detracted from my meditative participation in the monks’ and villagers’ worship — and I’m not a religious person. Some places are just too special to commoditize.

  10. I don’t get the whole “no photos” thing either. I get the fact that you do not want crowds of people stopping for selfies every 30 seconds but a picture or two here and there would not hurt anything. My guess is the people that over do it are the reason for that rule. I do love the pictures that you were able to take, very interesting area!

  11. Had to come back and read some more of the discussion on “no photos”. 🙂

    If there is a good reason for denying photography, I think posting a sign explaining that goes a long way (although there’s only so much they can be expected to post in various languages). Even letting you know where to address facility questions, and having a pamphlet available with more details on how limiting photography protects some aspect of the location would be a nice touch likely to leave visitors with a better feeling. If they have a website, photography bans should be mentioned where they list their visit/tour details to avoid surprises.

    Some places have done well offering a specific photographers’ tour – a small group, extended time tour at much higher cost – possibly during prime lighting times of day. Even with that option, photography doesn’t have to be completely disallowed at other times, just clear rules laid out (no tripods, no flash, stay with your tour guide, etc).

  12. Thanks, everyone for the great comments and fun discussion on this post. I am delighted to know it promoted some thought as to the “how and why.”

    In thinking about it further, looking back over my experience once my temper subsided, I think it really was a “time management technique.” We were herded in one door and out the other at a pretty fast clip, and if the entire group stopped to focus, frame, “pinch and spread,” edit and update, they would not have been able to maintain traffic flow.

    Still, I paid an extra 20 Euro for a “guided tour” with the hope of getting a bit more time than those doing the free self-guided tour. While that was true for all the other buildings on the tour, it was not the case in the library. It was like going through the locks of the Panama canal. One door opened, the flood of people filled the room, then that door shut quickly as the exit door opened, and the flood poured out. Keep ’em moving!

    While I did think about trying to sneak a shot or two, there were militant-looking guards on every corner.

    I know I am asking to have it both ways here…to be able to take photos, while I also complain about others who monopolize the “feature” by climbing all over it, posing in front of it, laying across it, etc. etc. Seems like a nice compromise would be if we all could take a couple of quick snaps and move along…why is that too much to ask?

    Thanks again for following along! Hope you enjoy the upcoming post on Porto!

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