Estimated reading time: 5 minutes
History going back seven centuries
Coimbra was once the capital of Portugal during the years 1139-1385. It was a birthplace to six monarchs from the first Portuguese dynasty making it rich in cultural and intellectual heritage.
The University of Coimbra was founded in 1290 making it the ninth oldest University in Europe. It was named a UNESCO World Heritage site in 2013. Today it boasts 24,000 students and remains a top learning center for not only Portugal, but attracts students from all over the world.
University students are required to wear a black robe over their uniforms which makes them look Harry Potter-esque
I elected to take a walking tour of the University, located high on a hill overlooking the Mondego River.
The views are gorgeous from the open courtyard. The air is fresh and clean. We came early in the morning to see the unique Joanine Library.
The first floor of the library features the “Academic Prison” for students who misbehaved in some way. They would be let out for class then have to come back and stay in this little room. Good news, they don’t use it anymore not since the 18th century.
The third floor Joanine Library
So named for King Joao. The first thing you see in this hallowed library is the immense gold leaf intricately painted on ancient imported woods from around the world. The library is so delicate that one must make an appointment to see it. No photos allowed and the curtains are kept drawn to keep the light from diminishing the thousands of antiqued books on the three-story high shelves.
Every day at dawn, they let in bats to eat the insects that would otherwise eat the paper in the books. The bats are then shooed out, and the place cleaned and readied for the tourists that line up at 9am. You can see a photo of it here.
The Capela de São Miguel (St. Michael Chapel)
A small church on the University premises dates back to 1517. Ornately designed with portugues azulejo wall tiles and gold leaf throughout, the church still holds mass every sunday.
Nickname for the Tower Clock
We didn’t go up in the University Clock Tower, however a side note our guide told us is its nickname. It’s called Cabra which also has a negative slang connotation to it, bitch. Every time it rings out its a reminder for a student to get to class on time. I can imagine a rushed student muttering the slang definition under his or her breath. Standing over the history of time it’s an important part to the landscape of Coimbra.
Great Hall of Acts (Sala dos Capelos)
Where students defend their Doctoral theses. A small number of friends and family members can watch the presentations while overhead are the images of of past reigning monarchs. There is also the Salo do Exame Privado, or Private Exam Room.
Heading back to the center of Coimbra
Back on board the tour bus, we headed to central Coimbra. Ambling carefully along cobblestone streets, we passed swaying palm-trees against the bright blue sky. Underneath were stone buildings from another era that reminded of the feel of old Pasadena, California. As we approached the center of the city, it became more like a modern European city with modern autos, buses, and a tram system interlacing the quaint, historical architecture.
A walk around the town was in order and I headed past tourist shops, bustling cafes, towards the Santa Cruz Monastery as recommended by our guide. Sunday mass was just letting out as I approached the big, wooden doors and stepped inside to the cool air. Spying rows of wooden pews, I waited until my eyes adjusted from the bright sunlight to view a stunning church altar. I could see why this was a popular church in Coimbra. It’s beautiful.
Further aimless strolling around the unique cobblestoned sidewalks, I came upon an interesting narrow, pink building ending in a point, making me wonder how small the interior of the apartments must be.
Dinner in the square where all the University students hang out
That evening, six of us decided to find a restaurant for dinner. The hotel reception told us to walk down the hill 15 minutes to the square, or Praca, where there are a lot of restaurants. It was lively with the buzz of University students, enjoying what seemed to be a happy hour at bars and cafes. Most were not eating dinner yet, but we managed to find a restaurant that would fit the six of us together outside al fresco. I ordered a bottle of Vinho Verde, or green wine to try. The consensus was that it was tangy, fruity but light and would be good on a hot day.
There were people in our group who were too tired to walk back up the steep hill to the hotel so I offered to order a ride from the Portugues ride-share App called Bolt. The Bolt XL came in a newer minivan nicely fitting all of us in. I ended up using Bolt again when I was in Porto. It’s very convenient and inexpensive. Much easier than Uber when in Portugal.
Charming Coimbra in a day was done
I now had a good idea of what the University of Coimbra is all about. I would recommend you see it when in Portugal. I would also suggest to take the time to explore what Coimbra offers. The weather is mild and temperate year round. The University holds tours of the grounds and/or library year round too. Come see why it feels Harry Potter-ish.