Visiting a college town can sure bring back memories: dorm living, late night studying, partying to excess, roaming the campus dressed like vampires.
The vampire apparel may be less familiar if you didn’t attend the University of Coimbra, founded in 1290 — making it one of the world’s oldest continually operating universities — and still one of Portugal’s most prestigious schools. Through the centuries the university developed a set of customs and traditions collectively known as “praxe,” which among other things governs the use of the official university uniform that consists in part of a black cape, giving students a strikingly vampiric appearance.
At least that was my delighted take during my three-day visit to Coimbra (pronounced ko-EEM-bra) in December. Some sang drunkenly on their way home from Christmas gatherings; two approached me to ask for a 1 euro (about $1.30) donation to help pay for floats for the Queima das Fitas, the May festival that is the city’s main tourist draw. (I donated, in exchange for their posing for a picture with me.) None, happily, tried to drink my blood.
Coimbra, which is in central Portugal, is an easy place to get to and a cheap place to stay. I spent 12 euros for the hour-and-a-half bus ride from Porto in the north (the trip from Lisbon is only a bit longer and more expensive) and paid 30 euros a night for a room at the Flor de Coimbra Guesthouse, housed in a 200-year-old building that will please those who like rotary phones, creaky floors and friendly family ownership enough to tolerate dim lighting, lumpy mattresses and cranky bathroom fixtures.
Flor de Coimbra, like most of the city’s guesthouses and hotels, is in the Baixa, the downtown neighborhood down an exhausting but walkable hill from the Alta, where the campus sits. (For those not up for the walk, an elevator connects the lower part of town with the upper for the price of city bus ride — three trips for 2.20 euros) Both areas are graced with narrow, winding streets, though the Alta is mostly taken up by university buildings and graffiti-covered student housing, whereas the Baixa is loaded with shops, restaurants and other commercial activity. Ancient churches, picturesque plazas and the nearly total lack of international chain stores can make both areas feel like the 1950s — or the 1590s.
The centerpiece of the campus area is the Paço das Escolas, a former Portuguese royal palace, repurposed centuries ago as university space. (Coimbra was the capital of Portugal for much of the 12th and 13th centuries.) The U-shaped building includes the university’s main chapel, the law school, and traditional ceremonial rooms like the elegant Hall of Doctors, the former royal bedroom where doctoral degrees are now granted.
Much of it is open to the public, but even so I felt like a bit of a spy, peering into classrooms lined with ancient wooden desks, chatting with law students smoking on arcaded balconies, climbing up stairwells whose landings gave successively more impressive views of the city below. Centuries-old azulejos (Iberian blue-and-white-glazed tiles) decorated many walls, while just-posted fliers advertising poetry slams and dance lessons covered others.
Visiting some of the spaces requires a ticket (7 euros), at least in theory. But I found that out only after I had visited the Hall of Doctors — there was no guard or ticket taker — and was stopped trying to enter the chapel. Aghast at my earlier transgression, I immediately went back and paid for my ticket. Just kidding! I went the frugal, if ethically dicey, route of skipping the ticket. And since the chapel was holding a free Christmas concert that night, I knew I’d see it , if not the library, which is apparently stunning.
The a cappella Christmas hymns sung by students that night were lovely, but the true music of Coimbra is fado, the melancholy music whose local version differs significantly from the better-known Lisbon style. In Coimbra, the singers are traditionally male; they often perform in duos or in groups and use a slightly different guitar, among other distinctions.
I had been told that Queima das Fitas, the May festival, was the best time to take in local fado. But there are several spots that function as performance venues year-round. Of the ones I sampled, the best was also free: the no-cover Café Santa Cruz, in Baixa, housed since 1923 under the vaulted ceilings that used to be part of the adjacent 16th-century church and monastery. On the Thursday I went, the sparse audience was made up mostly of elderly couples sitting at rapt attention; the singers were two older gentlemen, former university students, with the caped outfits to prove it: Florentino Silva, a gentle 78-year-old, and Mário Gomes Pais, an impish-looking 56-year-old with a pointed chin, salt-and-pepper goatee and booming voice. Their voices echoed hauntingly off the cafe’s high ceilings. A Brazilian couple at the table next to me, who had lived in Coimbra when the husband was doing a master’s degree years before, sang along.
I was surprised at first to encounter a Brazilian who had studied in Coimbra. But I soon learned that Brazilians were everywhere, as were students and residents who hailed from other former Portuguese colonies, from Angola to Macao. When I spotted two seemingly African students, I faked needing directions to an art exhibit, hoping to find out where they were from. The fascinating answer: Guinea-Bissau, the tiny West African nation that won independence from Portugal in 1974. With Portugal’s economy crumbling, there was a poignancy in experiencing the vestiges of its once vast empire through these fellow visitors.
The student population may be international, but most of the restaurants in town are pure Portuguese. On my first day, I strolled along Rua das Azeiteiras, a pedestrian-only street in the Baixa that is loaded with restaurants. I activated my frugal sixth sense, analyzing the lunch menus posted outside and the crowds within, hoping to deduce which one had the finest meal for the least money.
I settled on A Cozinha, a cozy-looking place offering a 6 euro item called “secretos do porco preto com ananás,” which I translated as “secrets of black pork with pineapple.” Ah, what a story I could tell about such a cheap, wacky-sounding entree!
Unfortunately, my frugal sixth sense (if it exists at all) failed miserably, and my Portuguese (which is normally solid) followed suit. “Secretos” turned out to be a cut of meat, and “porco preto” referred to a breed — the Iberian black pig. Still promising … but they were out of the dish. I was stuck with a dull fish fillet.
Hoping to supplement my meal with some freebies, I dug into the chunks of hearty Portuguese bread and devoured a small wheel of cheese and some olives. What a great country, I thought: not only was the bread complimentary, but so were cheese and olives! Then the check came. I had been charged for everything: 1.25 euros for the bread, 3 for the cheese, even a euro for the two or three olives I had eaten. Final tally: a whopping 15.25 euros (about $19.75). A self-inflicted frugal failure: it turns out this is how things are done in Portugal.
I would later have some lovely meals, like the chanfana (goat stewed in red wine sauce; 7.50 euros) at Democrática, a sometimes rowdy student hangout. But it was at a bakery called Pastelaria Arco-Iris that I had my best drawn-out meal on a rainy day: fresh-squeezed orange juice, bread, a Portuguese chicken soup called canja, an espresso and flavorful pastries like filhoses de abóbora (squash fritters dusted with sugar). The final check was under 8 euros.
The real winner of the trip, though, was a cultural spot: the Museo Académico, a pay-what-you-will museum dedicated to the university itself, hidden on the second floor of an enormous academic building on Rua dos Estudos. When I walked in, a gray-haired man named António Dias leaped from his seat at the front desk.
“How much time do you have?” he asked. I said I had plenty.
“Good,” he said.
The bespectacled, multilingual Mr. Dias proceeded to give me a wonderful tour-for-one, recounting the history of the university and peppering me with questions to keep me on my toes. He pointed out pictures of how the vampire capes — er, traditional uniforms — had changed over the centuries, and showed me Coimbra fado guitars, semitorturous hazing tools used within the praxe system, and a ceramic wine vessel disguised as a book and labeled “Enciclopédia Vinícola.” I might never fully understand the capes, but music, hazing and hidden drinking – these were university themes that were all too familiar.