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Coimbra: Portugal's Student City

On a river bank in central Portugal, there is an old seat of learning - Coimbra - a city also admired for its beauty, rejuvenated every October when the Universidade de Coimbra is again filled up with students.

Coimbra was once the country's capital and still forms a vital part of the national identity. The University, among Europe's oldest and most prestigious, was founded in 1290 and situated alternately in Lisbon and Coimbra, since 1537 permanently based in Coimbra. Its special mix of professionalism and traditions attracts around 23,000 students, versus a population of 150,000 in Portugal's third largest city. The unequalled hilltop location of the University's historical buildings is a tourist favorite.

Naturally, the locals take pride in all this - to such a degree that some call them self-important. The first one I meet is a man who explains me in detail how I quickly reach Republica Square via cobbled alleys, then looks me up and down to evaluate my age, strength and luggage, whereupon he suggests a taxi. Halfway, I involve another man who takes out a little pad and sketches me two possibilities. A third man, on Republica, elaborates the same sketch to locate my pension, whose receptionist greets me, "Any problems, ask me!" These people are not self-important - they are pedagogical!

The spacious Praca da Republica is considered the central square despite being situated behind the University hill, on the front of which Coimbra's compact historical quarters slope down toward Rio Mondego. Republica is at night a vibrant cafe zone, even now in September. Waiters fly back and forth inside the nearly transparent Esplanada Bar, with plastic glasses of Super Bock for talkative dry young throats, two of them Polish students of computer science, just arriving for a summer course and very beer thirsty after their suitcases collapsed on the cobblestones.

Cidade Alta

From here, it's easy to access the old campus in Cidade Alta, the upper town, either via broad steps or a detour through the Botanical Garden hiding behind the Coimbra Aqueduct. Fairly modern blocks meet you at the top, massive constructions from the dictator Salazar's era, boasting statues up front. More style, Baroque that is, has Sé Nova, the New Cathedral. Looking for its Romanesque counterpart, the old Sé Velha, I get a shock: two students in traditional black suits and capes, dangling lifelessly in the air outside their "republica", student lodging, in Rua da Matematica. Hopefully dolls.

Striking Clock Tower bells direct me to Porta Ferrea, the Iron Gate adorned with sculptures in the Mannerist style. I soon find myself in Patio das Escolas: a sandy courtyard surrounded by palatial buildings on three sides, complemented by a panorama of the river and the city below. This place exudes history and atmosphere, the reason why four workmen, dismantling a huge tent, take care they make no noise. Perhaps they dream of ascending the majestic stairway opposite, then cross the colonnaded balcony and enter Sala dos Capelos to receive a diploma one day.

Visitors queue at Biblioteca Joanina, waiting not to bury themselves in rare books but in Baroque richness, before they check up on an antiquated prison or visit Capela de Sao Miguel to enjoy the chapel's azulejos, decorative tiles. Finding the chapel closed, and seeing elegantly dressed people gathered in the shade outside, I remember it's Saturday and confidently sit down on the steps for a private study of Portuguese wedding customs. Small talk and waiting are part of it, giving the shade time to decrease, which forces people to move closer and allow swelling feet a rest on the steps.

Trumpet blasts announce a dark-haired bride in a cream-colored gown and a groom in dark clothes, placing themselves at the grand stairway, followed by people dressed rather casually, a photo session for the uninvited, I assume. They leave together through the Iron Gate. Afterwards, as a bride and groom enter via the same gate, I expect them to be identical to those who left, but I'm not sure they are. Concluding that the wedding customs are rather confusing, I clap the sympathetic couple into the chapel.

Cidade Baixa

Coimbra, with its Cidade Alta and the lower Cidade Baixa, faces the river. The cobblestone alleys are like wrinkles; deep, uneven and so numerous that you lose track of them. However, they are dotted with beauty spots: stately buildings, flourishing balconies and views of the river. The upper part was traditionally the domain of the aristocracy and clergy, while the city wall gate, Porta da Almedina, opened onto the more common Baixa's commerce and artisans, still ideal today for shopping, eating out and cruising the cafes.

Almedina drops me at Coimbra's elegant walking street made up of Rua Ferreira Borges southward and Rua Visconde da Luz northward. Steps opposite take me down to the square of Praca do Comercio, starting point of busy alleys ending near the train station. At a local restaurant, Calado e Calado, the waiter yesterday taught me a new strategy in this land of ample portions, "Order half portion!" I also taught him a lesson, "No cheese!" Waiters have a bad habit of putting unwanted cheese on your table and on your bill.

The square of Portagem, at the walking street's southern end, has everything: handsome narrow facades, a lawn fresh with flowers, sweet cakes at the Pasteleria Briosa, and high on his plinth a former Coimbra student, Marques de Pombal, looking toward the river and the bridge Ponte de Santa Clara, from the other side of which Coimbra resembles a glossy postcard. The tourist office at Portagem is an exception to the rule that locals take pleasure in instructing tourists.

At the northern end, I fall for an old-world cafe and an ornamented church facade next door, both named Santa Cruz. A demonstration is expected to pass here; Marcha pelo Emprego, March for Jobs, on their way from Porto to Lisbon, highlighting the effects of unemployment. I meet them on a tiny square instead, the scary O Patio da Inquisicao, where the promoters, left-wing Bloco de Esquerda, throw a party. Accompanied by shaking rhythms and light effects hopping on the wall of Casa dos Pobres, House of the Poor, people drink, laugh and shout and teenagers dance, while others watch soccer at O Patio Cervejaria.

Another party comes to my mind, eight days long and supposed to be the largest student party in Europe: Queima das Fitas, when the graduates burn their faculty ribbons and perform Coimbra Fado, a refined version of Lisbon's famous song tradition, in Coimbra less sad and performed by male students, interpreting what goes on in educated young minds: romance and sporadic intellectual activity, a cappella or supported by guitars. The next Queima is far away, so I call for comfort: "Super Bock!" The waiter brings it with a smile and makes sure I do appreciate its special flavor,"Sabor Autentico!"