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Coimbra University: Portugal’s Oldest and Most Prestigious

Coimbra, Portugal

Coimbra, Portugal’s historic capital, hosts its most venerable university. Dropping in on university life, we visit a Baroque library and a local fraternity. Mixing energetic discussions, political issues, and new friends makes for an unforgettable communal dinner.

Complete Video Script

Coimbra is home to the country’s oldest and most prestigious university — founded in 1290. As a traveler, it’s fun to drop into this venerable academic world.

Seven hundred years ago, Coimbra’s university taught the medieval basics: like law, medicine, theology. Later, as Portuguese sailors were navigating the globe, astronomy and geometry were added.

The university’s Baroque library has an impressive collection of antique books. University researchers are still allowed to read these centuries-old volumes. King John V still oversees the library he founded in the early 1700s. The reading tables — inlaid with exotic woods: ebony from Sri Lanka, and rosewood from Brazil — come with silver inkwells. The gold leaf is South American, and the motifs are Chinese. Everything reminds us that Portugal’s wealth

When school’s in session, Coimbra bustles with a youthful energy. We’re here in May, and students are out in the streets — as they celebrate the completion of another year of studies.

Many Coimbra students live together in groups of about a dozen in communal houses called repúblicas. Today these function as tiny fraternities — each with their own personality, and an unbridled urge to express it.

With the help of a couple of six packs, Cristina and I have talked ourselves in for dinner. And, within moments, we’re engulfed in stimulating conversation.

Rick: Do you guys talk politics like this all the time?
Students: Yes, yes.
Rick: I like that.

Students here see formal education as job training, and their time in these co-ops as life training. They brag that in one year of this communal living, you gain social skills that’ll last a lifetime.

The conversation rages on at the dinner table. Part of the ethic of república living is eating together. No cell phones are allowed at the table. The students pool their money to hire a cook so everyone can enjoy this enriching social time. And whenever there’s a memorable event — like a visit from an American film crew — the gang shares a special cheer.