Visiting Coimbra is like getting to know someone who is full of promise. The former Portuguese capital has everything it takes to be a popular tourist attraction. So why isn't it?
Coimbra has squares with statues and cafes around them and three-hundred-year-old trees. The pigeons here are as aggressive as those in Venice or Milan and the Old Town's steep alleyways have a golden glow when the street lamps are lit after sunset. Coimbra is a proud UNESCO World Cultural Heritage Site (despite the pigeons) and was once a cultural hub. Coimbra's university is more than 700 years old, the oldest in Portugal and one of the oldest and most attractive in Europe. There is a lot to say for the city: it has a long history, is cultivated, clean and interesting.
Not as well-known as it should be
You could be forgiven for overlooking Coimbra in Portugal, even if you are aware that the country is more than just a stretch of beach. None of the trains on the national high-speed railway links from Porto or Lisbon stop in Coimbra. They instead head for Coimbra B, meaning you have to change — but after a little confusion, you soon find yourself arriving at the station in the city center. To start with here are some basic facts you should know about this hidden gem: Coimbra is divided by a river, the Mondego. It originates in Serra da Estrela and empties into the Atlantic Ocean in Figueira da Foz, making it a solely to Portuguese waterway. The city is known for its genre of fado music, traditionally sung only by men, which takes student life as its theme and is performed at night on squares and stairways by black-hooded singers. Very atmospheric! The old town center draws you down from the steps of the railway station long before you have even thought about consulting your smartphone for directions. Just let yourself go where your eyes take you and be sure to keep them peeled at all times.
City of love
To the left you might spot the Hotel Astoria, an Art Nouveau icon and a monument to the Belle Époque, with its balconies, from which no sight in the city will escape you. The view reaches as far as the "Quinta das Lágrimas", or Villa of Tears — a place shrouded in legend on the other side of the river. The love story of Pedro and Inês turned a spring here into the source of the fabled Fountain of Tears. They're the country's most famous pair of lovers, next to footballer Cristiano Ronaldo and Georgina Rodriguez, who met and fell in love in a Gucci boutique in Madrid. In the 14th century, the Portuguese crown Prince Pedro fell in love with his bride's lady-in-waiting, Inês de Castro. Pedro's father, King Alfonso IV, deplored their longstanding affair and had his son's mistress murdered. According to legend, the tears shed by the dying woman became the source of the Fountain of Tears, whose water flows into the Mondego River. The great national poet Luís de Camões described it like this: See what fresh spring is watering the flowers here, and how the tears turn into a river, whose name is love.
Historical charm and modern snack bars
Looking down from the Hotel Astoria's balcony at such a scenario could conceivably increase the romantic pressure of your visit, if it weren't for the famous general and opposition figure Humberto Delgado, who used the same location to deliver his impassioned speeches, creating a good counterbalance to the romantic legend. The Portuguese resistance against the dictatorship of António de Oliveira Salazar was formed in his rooms here starting in 1969. Everything in them is still just the way the artists, writers and revolutionaries left them — although the minibar in the salon has been refilled. Anyone who requires modern comforts should not stay at the Astoria. You cross the same old marble floor, walk through the same revolving door and look up at the same neon signs as back in general's day. Even the scratches in the parquet are original, and the secret door in the wall unit in room 326 has also been kept. It leads through the basement to a narrow, dark alley just behind the hotel — and coincidentally right outside the best eatery in town. Should fewer than ten people be standing outside it waiting to be seated when you test the old escape route, you should abandon this historical reenactment and instead join the queue in order to enjoy a black earthenware pot containing "chanfana". The goat meat in it has been stewing in the oven for four to five hours while being continually basted with wine from the surrounding Bairrada region. This authentic culinary delight is really is worth tasting. Apart from a few isolated gastronomic highlights, the city's cuisine otherwise caters to tourists and academics. This involves menus with pictures or fast, cheap and long-term health-damaging snacks. Many restaurants sell hamburgers. It's the food of a city in which little would be happening without its students. And student life leaves little room for anything else.
Studying in a world heritage site
One of the best things you could find yourself doing in Coimbra is to study — preferably law or medicine. The university buildings of the various colleges tower over the city, demanding reverence for the scholarly tradition from all those enrolled. In return, they get to study in what has been a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 2013 and charges visitors a fee of €12 (13.5 US $) to enter. It's worth every penny as it is breathtakingly beautiful — especially the Biblioteca Joanina, which contains 60,000 of the country's literary treasures, all of them ages old. And the gilding on the balustrades is the crowning touch.
The students themselves lodge in age-old housing in which Eça de Queiroz, Miguel Torga, and many writers virtually unknown outside Portugal, also once lived. In the student rooms during the second half of the 19th century, Camilo Castelo Branco and Camilo Pessanha, very much the quintessential bohemian (talented, poor, opium addict, died of tuberculosis), formed a well-known intellectual movement which rebelled against literary romanticism and called for political and social reforms (Questão Coimbrã). It spread from here throughout the country and ultimately inspired Fernando Pessoa, Portugal's national poet, to ring in the era of modernism in Lisbon. Coimbra has always been a kind of revolutionary early starter. In the eyes of its students, Portugal was ripe for their ideas as early as the turn of the 20th century, but the sparks didn't ignite until decades later, in 1958, when Delgado spoke from those balconies, advocating the overthrow of Salazar, and in 1969, when an effective resistance began to form. And so, over the centuries, Coimbra gained a reputation of being a place where people could come to sense what the rest of the country was likely to experience soon.
Coimbra's literary heritage
These days, institutions like the Casa da Escrita (House of Writing) try to do justice to the city's vast literary heritage, successful as middle-class institutions but lacking the revolutionary vigor of bygone days. The House of Writing seems regulated and mass-produced. It is quiet and white — and indulges in collective writing with no sense of the avant-garde, no rebellion, except for the slogans scrawled on the walls with felt-tip markers and the faraway sound of jazz that resounds from the city's steps in the evening. And yet the house just like the many romantic gardens of the city encourage people to contemplate and reflect. Here you can pretty much imagine Castelo Branco and Queiroz lost in thought while strolling as they used to do. These days however when the sparks in your mind threaten to turn into a bonfire of inspiration, a bus stop gets in the way, or a new-fangled bridge, a sunshade advertising yogurt or a kebab shop, quickly propelling you out of the nostalgic past of your imagination and hauling you back to the prosaic present.