We’ve always been high on college towns in our travels. We can always count on an interesting and lively community, big on culture and the arts, and overflowing with interesting eateries that students, professors, and travel writers can afford. Coimbra’s beauty and history can only be matched by Lisbon and Porto; its ancient buildings climbing the hills flanking the wide Mondego River. Capping the skyline, like a crown, are the ornate buildings of the University of Coimbra, one of the oldest universities in Europe.
We arrived at midday after a relatively short drive from Obidos. Again, we couldn’t have found our way into the old part of the city without Google Maps. Highways led into wide, well-maintained boulevards that led into two-lane streets that led onto narrow cobblestone lanes where one car has to pull over to let the other one pass. Considering all the training I got in Obidos, I didn’t have any problems until we found the ancient alley where our Airbnb was located. We drove down the steep street, again full of tourists and locals, and found ourselves at a dead end with seemingly no way to turn around. I parked the car facing an outdoor cafe where all the patrons were glaring at us.
Mary and Ira volunteered to walk up the street to look for João Amaral, our host who was waiting for us to arrive. The trio arrived a few minutes later and I managed to turn around, avoiding the four-foot drop-off at the street end and providing much entertainment for the crowd gathered to witness the crazy tourist driver do the impossible. I made my way up the street and even found a parking space for our still unblemished rental car. Coimbra is a very walkable town so our ride would stay parked for the next four days.
Our two-bedroom, two-bath rental, still a work in progress, delighted a history buff like me. It was a cross between a museum, archaeological dig, and modern apartment. João had completely restored the ancient building into a chic modern living space, leaving certain ancient walls and floors exposed via Plexiglas covers. Perhaps most interesting was the large see-through display in the center of the living room floor where three levels of walls – a city wall, Roman wall and one predating the Romans – were revealed during excavations. If those walls could talk, imagine all they could say.
Our first order of business was lunch at the tapas restaurant not 20 feet from our front door. It was my favorite kind of place, small, charming and serving great inexpensive food and wine. Coimbra has many of these kinds of eateries, serving University students, faculty and savvy tourists. Keep in mind that with glowing reviews on TripAdvisor, these kinds of places often become too popular so getting a table can be challenging at times.
We spent the second day exploring the University and the old city, divided into two primary neighborhoods, Lower Town and Upper Town. The historic center is high above the river on Alcaçova hill where you can visit medieval convents, cathedrals, and some world-class museums clustered in and around the University. This is not a place to visit if you don’t like walking steep cobblestone streets or climbing stairs. I’m not in the best shape but managed to walk several miles up and down. Although it wasn’t easy, it was well worth the effort.
For tourists and locals alike, Coimbra satisfies every shopping whim. The narrow streets that twist way past Rua Ferreira Borges and the Old Cathedral to the University are home to independent shops selling locally-made souvenirs, including ceramics, basketry, embroidery, linens, and jewelry. If you’re lucky, you may see artisans at work as we did in a family ceramic tile shop. As with the food and wine, souvenirs in Portugal are very reasonable.
A more modern pedestrian shopping street leading in from the river has everything from ice cream shops to a specialty store selling only canned sardines and other morsels from the sea. Of course, the street boasts many outdoor and indoor restaurants serving Portuguese specialties and cold mugs of local beers. During peak times it can be hard to snag a table, but it’s worth the effort to refresh and enjoy some people watching on a hot day.
Coimbra University is the prize at the top of the hill. The university is the lifeblood of the city and it’s vibe changes with the ebb and flow of the academic year. Since 1290, its students have enriched the country as notable scholars, politicians, artists, and scientists. Tradition is strong here, illustrated the student and faculty garb, dashing black capes. We spotted a few on the hot summer day when we were on the sprawling campus. Although its historic bond with Portugal is strong, students representing more than 70 nationalities add an international flavor.
We visited several museums, filled with historic artifacts and treasures brought to the University during the golden years of discovery. Afterward, we took a well-deserved break at one of the many campus eateries. We could have happily spent many more days roaming around the University and old town, and all agreed this Portuguese treasure was worth a return visit, perhaps when the university is in session and bustling with activity.
The jewel of the University is its splendid library or The Book House as it’s called. Built between 1717 and 1728, it was designed to show off the wealth of the empire, especially the colony of Brazil. We purchased time-specific tickets in advance and some two hours later, walked inside with the others in our group.
The grand Baroque-style main library is surrounded by highly decorated bookcases lined with rare bibliographic collections containing the written knowledge of the 16th-18th centuries. Photos are prohibited here and groups move in and out of the room on a strict schedule. Two-foot thick walls and the giant teak entrance door provide stable temperatures and humidity ensuring conservation of the collection. The builders also were aware of the threat posed to books by insects, so they made the bookcases out of oak wood which has a scent that repels them. They also introduced a colony of bats that spend each night dining on book-eating bugs. Aware that bats leave souvenirs, special crews cover the bookcases and tables with protective leather towels each afternoon when the library closes.
Another favorite experience in Coimbra was the fado concert we attended our last evening. The haunting folk music often called Portugal’s soul began in the Alfama district of Lisbon. Coimbra students brought the tradition to the University, where only men perform the distinctive music to woo potential lady friends from the city streets. Tradition requires a strict dress code for the singers who don university cassocks and black capes. Fado ao Centro, where we enjoyed an early evening concert, offers performances that combine a brief history of the genre with live performances in an intimate setting. If you’re more of a night owl, you can also enjoy fado concerts around town starting later in the evening and often lasting well past midnight.