The University of Coimbra


Our next stop in Portugal was Coimbra, a medieval town complete with an extremely old and well-regarded university. The city itself is in three parts: the medieval section at the top of the hill, the commercial district at the bottom of the hill, and the section across the river where there are a few old monastaries.

While I had heard Coimbra was a fairly dull place, all the tourbooks recommended seeing the university. We were only supposed to spend two days there, but the city lulled us in. We ended up spending four days there, eating in the rustic taverna-style restaurants and finding ourselves recognizing local characters on the street. What most people don’t realize is that while Lisbon is more reknowned for their fado, Coimbra has an equally vibrant tradition. We went to this one little bar down an old alley where the bartender gruffly poured us drinks and we listened to people jam. At one point, even the bartender was convinced to sing.

The guesthouse we stayed at, Casa Pombal, was everything we could ask of a charming, rennovated townhouse that served up dainty Dutch breakfasts and had people who were so eager to help us and show us the real Portugal, we couldn’t help but to want to stay. It was the type of place I know I’ve read about in those hopelessly false tourist memoirs like A Year in Provence, in which everything is just acres of delightful! But now I know, that these places do occasionally exist. The only downside was that the place was at the top of the hill, right next the university, and walking up and down the steep cobblestoned streets helped us work off the ridiculously lavish meals we were having every night.

Terrace View Overlooking Courtyard

View from University overlooking the river

Stairs to Classrooms

Students in Black Gowns

 As for the university the guidebooks had talked up? I had thought that going to the University of St. Andrews was a foreign enough world, but the University at Coimbra was even more Harry Potter like. The old library and chapel are covered in various woods and precious stones and metals that the explorers brought back, and beneath the library, there is a student prison. It is now used to house various library exhibits, but it also discussed the history of the prison. Apparently, students and professors were sent there for various crimes, excessive drunkenness, arguing with the chancellors, etc., and it was meant to keep them away from the common people at the prison in the downtown. There are little white washed cells that echo eerily in there and it makes one wonder if there still is some sort of underground world of students in Coimbra.


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