We looked at each other at exactly the same time and said it almost simultaneously.
I could live here.
That’s what Coimbra does to a person like me, a dreamer, a traveler, an academic, a writer. It sends me into the kinds of fantasies I imagine when I look at faraway places on maps—the kind where I’ve called off my current life, tossed whatever I could fit into a suitcase, grabbed my passport, and shrugged off all responsibilities in pursuit of something more romantic, something less…I don’t know, jobs, bills, traffic, groceries. The kind where I’m living in a teeny tiny apartment with a wrought-iron balcony in a magnificent medieval city, where I’m spending my mornings sipping cappuccino and munching on a buttery croissant at an outdoor café overlooking a sparkling body of water, where I’m uninhibited and completely and transcendently in love with everything about my life.
Coimbra has everything this fantasy needs—the fresh, bright sunshine, the rolling green hills, the cobblestone streets, the cute outdoor cafes, the clink of dishes and cups as servers collect and serve entrees to diners and drinkers, the buzz of university students reading books and chatting with friends all along the pedestrian-friendly Praca da Republica. It even has one of the oldest universities in the entire world, where the graduates wear the long black robes that inspired Harry Potter’s cloak and where there’s a library so old no one is allowed to photograph it and so important that colonies of bats have been brought in for centuries to eat the bugs that could infect the pages of the books.
Coimbra, pronounced coh-eem-brah, is perfectly romantic in the ways all the best medieval towns should be: it’s mysterious, it’s tucked away, it’s full of fresh farmer’s markets and bookstores and rivers and fish and the ruins of Roman villas. It also has the enviable mild Mediterranean climate, where the temperatures hardly ever tip past 75 degrees Fahrenheit.
The funny thing about my love for Coimbra, however, is that before my husband Ryan’s and my most recent trip with Viking, I’d never even heard of it. Coimbra isn’t even a major stop on the itinerary—being midway between Lisbon and Porto, it’s more of a convenient stop for lunch on a 4-hour bus journey up to the ship. We weren’t even there for very long, really—I’d say we were actually in the city itself for less than three hours. Yet, in the very short time we were there, we had the chance to immerse ourselves in the university and campus library, walk around the little town, and pop in and out of some of the shops and bookstores.
The university hasn’t always been in Coimbra, either; though it was officially founded in Lisbon in 1290 by King Denis I of Portugal, the university itself didn’t move to the town of Coimbra until 1537 under the recommendation of King Joao III. Needing a place to house the faculty, staff, and students, Joao decided to renovate an old Moorish palace, a residence that, although once imperial in its glory, had lost its importance in the early 16th century to the Riberia Palace on the banks of the Tagus river. By the time King Joao decided to move the university there, the place wasn’t in good shape—not only had it been completely abandoned and neglected, but an earthquake in 1531 had damaged some of its walls and demolished some of its once-glorious exterior facades. There was clearly some work to be done.
Today, you’d never know it. It’s spectacular—majestic whitewashed iron gates, a central plaza with an architecturally unique bell tower (it has no roof in order to double as an astronomical observation tower!), a Baroque library embossed in gold leaf with books that stack up and up and up to the ceilings, a floor made of the most exquisite wood you could ever imagine, a Great Hall flourished in red draperies and discerning portraits where ceremonies are held.
It’s the kind of place where doctoral candidates once took their exams orally in secret, at night, in the former bedroom of the King of Portugal. As someone who took my doctoral exams in a cramped conference room with horrible fluorescent overhead lighting and uncomfortable wooden chairs, I can tell you this: I would trade that wooden chair to sit in the King of Portugal’s bedroom at midnight, reciting the books I’d read, any time.
In 2013, UNESCO declared the University of Coimbra a World Heritage Site. As the university’s website reminds its visitors, there is something precious about these grounds—it is a place of knowledge and wisdom, yes, but it is also a place of discovery, of history, of imperial rule, of palatial preserve, of exquisite preservation.
It’s a place I could live. And someday—anything is possible, right?—we just might, if just for a semester (or two).
Article and photographs by Kristin Winet. A special thanks to Viking River Cruises for sponsoring her trip to Portugal and introducing her to Coimbra!