Monday, June 30, 2014

[COIMBRA] Sorry, No Starbucks Here

You know how some people have this habit of tweaking their Facebook profile so that it shows a location where they are obviously not residing at the moment but they do it anyway because they are weird? Well, Coimbra has always been that location for me. I don’t know, perhaps there really is just some air of mystery to a place you have never been to, only for it to be shattered once you finally get there and realize that there really is nothing more to it.

Maybe my fascination stems from my connection with the Portuguese language. For every Portuguese language learner out there who has done his research well on which universities to go to if you want to take your language learning experience to a higher level, the University of Coimbra is one of the more popular choices. Not only is it one of the oldest universities in Europe, it also beats the University of Lisbon as far as tuition fees and affordable cost of living are concerned.

Unfortunately, I kind of miscalculated the hours of transit involved for Spain, and failed to factor in the train schedules for the Coimbra – Salamanca leg, for which there are only two options, I think. The cross-country train voyage requires you to leave Coimbra close to midnight, arriving in Salamanca early the next morning. As such, I had to cancel my overnight accommodation reservation because there was no morning train to catch anyway. And so what was left for Coimbra was the very short window of time between 7 PM to 11 PM.

Coimbra is a really small town, with most of the activity said to be centered around the university area. To go there, you need to go uphill. The roads are paved but can still be quite challenging. I had some luggage in tow which made it even more difficult. But first, how to get to Coimbra? I took the Alfa Pendular from Lisbon. The trip clocks in at around an hour and a half. You need to go to Coimbra from Coimbra B, which are two different stations separated by a free five-minute train ride.

The only reason I included Coimbra in my itinerary, as already mentioned, is because of the university itself. I wanted to see it because there is a chance in the future that I might study Portuguese there. My only idea of the place was through their official website, which did not really offer much through a student’s perspective. Since I was already in the vicinity, why not pay them a visit, right?

It did not help that I was deeply enamored with Lisboa. My first impression of Coimbra was how small and seemingly empty it was. It was summer break, after all. There aren't so many tourists here, and for obvious reasons. I'd bet that majority of its population consists of students. If you're a tourist, a few hours will keep you busy here, after which you'd  probably get bored and either go back to Lisbon or just cross the border to Spain.

That part where the church and what seemed to be the town hall are located is cute. It has this small Latin town vibe characteristic of Iberia in terms of architecture as well as that azulejos/cobblestone combo which Portugal seems to be really obsessed with. But since I was in a hurry to get to the university before the sun went down, I reserved that little square for later.

As with most universities in Europe, the colleges are spread out across the area, and the one I was looking for was on top of the hill. Just my luck! In any case, I really needed to see the Faculty of Arts and Letters, even just the façade, so as to get an idea if I'd like it there or what. The voyage uphill began with flights of concrete steps which never seemed to end.

What kept me going was the feeling that I was practicing my own induction to the university. The start of the summer courses coincided with my trip. Since I had luggage and all that, some students looked at me with that “oh-a-new-student-moving-in” kind of stare. The good news is that the view from the top is really rewarding despite the stress involved in having to tug my luggage all the way up there.

I didn't really see much of the university, but I believe I had seen enough to call it a successful trip. What I found amusing was how simple everything seemed like, quite similar to UP Diliman in terms of architecture. Despite all that, there's still that feeling that you're caught in a time loop. Come to think of it, this university was established way back in the 1300’s, if I'm not mistaken. So vintage!

After the visit, I told myself that one month would be enough for the University of Coimbra. Even if the tuition fee for semestral courses here are just half of what they are in Lisbon, I don’t think I could really endure more than a month here. And this isn't just because of Starbucks. Oh, yes, the Starbucks anecdote! I asked two girls where I can find Starbucks on the way down the hill because I wanted to treat myself with some iced choco after that exhausting climb.

The two girls turned around. One of them flashed an evil grin, looked me in the eye, and said, “There is no Starbucks in Coimbra.” After that, she unleashed a demonic laugh which shook the core of my very existence. Okay, not really, I think she just giggled and moved on with her life. That's the caveat, though. Homesickness will kill me here, and judging from the sights in the vicinity, there isn’t really much going on to keep me distracted.

That doesn't mean that Coimbra lacks cafes or anything like that. The one where I had burger for dinner had a really laidback ambiance. That's the problem, dude. I need the chaotic big city atmosphere to thrive! Anyway, I still had an hour or two left so I spent it walking around town and ended up once again at that square called Praça 8 de Maio. It was all lit up and looked really cool under the moonlight. The narrow alleys and colorful banderitas made me feel like I was in a Latin American telenovela.

Final words for Coimbra: If you want in-country Portuguese on the cheap, do it here. You will save a lot of money, but that doesn't necessarily mean that you wouldn't get bored. But then again, that’s so not my problem. Just remember that there is no Starbucks in Coimbra. I saw McDonalds, though. Hooray?
[COIMBRA] Sorry, No Starbucks Here
[COIMBRA] Budget and Itinerary

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