Finding Harry Potter in where?? If you haven’t heard of Coimbra before, I don’t blame you. I’ve never heard of it myself until we took an unexpected day trip to this university town.

POSTED BY JENNIE

Universidade de Coimbra is in Portugal’s medieval university town about an hour by train from Portugal’s 2nd city, Porto where J.K. Rowling lived and worked as an English teacher for 2 years. It is also where she began Book One of the phenomenal Harry Potter series.

Our base for this trip was Portugal’s capital city, Lisbon. From Lisbon to Coimbra it’s about 2.5 hours by train. Another hour and we would have reached the city of Porto.

Take note, the train station, Gare do Oriente is far from the old town of Lisbon so allow enough travel time or you might miss your train. If you hit rush hour, like we did, it could take you over an hour to get to Gare do Oriente by taxi.

Oriente
The modernist station building was designed by leading Spanish architect Santiago Calatrava and was completed in time for the 1998 Lisbon Exposition.

The Portugal train system is clean, efficient and modern so train travel is very convenient. Book online here. 

Your stop will be Coimbra A, from here you take another train to Coimbra B. From here it is a short walk to the lower town. We arrived at around 11am on a clear, hot day in May. School was almost out so there were very few students. We did get to see some students in traditional black robes, but I think this was more for the benefit of the tourists since they were handing out flyers.

Check out the photos below. Harry and Ron side by side with a photo of actual students from the University of Coimbra. This is where J.K. Rowling supposedly got the robe idea.

 

You will know you are at the entrance to the lower town when you see the statue of Joaquim Antonio de Aguiar, a former Prime Minister of Portugal who was born in Coimbra. The lower town is lined with quaint shops and cafes. The vibe is sleepy maybe because school was out but it was a welcome change from the bustle of Lisbon.

Entrance

Though sleepy, the town is very atmospheric, with its old buildings, narrow lanes and steep corridors that lead you up, up, up to the school grounds. We joined a walking tour that was supposed to be for 10 people but we were the only ones that showed up, so it was just the 4 of us with our guide Fabiana, a recent graduate of the University.

Narrow lanes
The narrow streets and tall, thin buildings feel very Harry Potter.
street
Modern art meets traditional architecture.

University of Coimbra is Portugal’s premiere university and one of the oldest in the world, established in 1290. Our guide Fabiana shared many stories with us as we walked up to the university grounds. She said the university has more than 20,000 students so it is really jam packed when school is in session. The “Harry Potter” robes she said are worn traditionally at the start of the school year and during school ceremonies.

Photos below are from the Church of Sta. Cruz in the Lower Town. The tombs of the first kings of Portugal can be found here. Look at the fantastic azulejos.

 

The way up is so steep that it’s hard to imagine students walking uphill on rainy days with heavy school bags! The walk takes about 30 minutes and there’s lots to see and talk about.

Walking up
Walking up with our guide Fabiana (girl with backpack)

We pass by a small concert hall where there is a regular Fado performance. This Fado group is unique to Coimbra because the singers are all male and they are all former students. Fado is a Portuguese music genre that is all about heartache and loss. The Fado singers here sing about the pain and sadness of leaving behind the town of Coimbra and university life. Fabiana says they are very popular.

She points out a decrepit looking building and says that these are Republicas or communal student dormitories for members of fraternities. She also said communal means you are expected to share everything with everyone, including your toothbrush!!

Republica
Would you want to stay in a Republica? I think not.

The approach to the main courtyard is a steep stretch and you will be huffing and puffing. If you do walk all the way up when you visit be sure to have a bottle of water. Situated on a hill overlooking the Rio Mondego, the University has been declared a Unesco World Heritage Site.

Courtyard
A Unesco World Heritage Site.
View
View from the courtyard.

Two things you shouldn’t miss but will need to pay for and line up for are the Chapel of St. Michael with its ornate and colourful azulejos and Baroque organ and the impressive Biblioteca Joanina.

Church ceiling
Colourful and intricate azulejos cover the walls and ceiling of the Chapel of St. Michael.

You are not allowed to take photos of the Biblioteca Joanina, but you can buy a post card. The library is so striking that it will be something you can pull out from your memory bank should you wish to remember it. I can imagine that J.K. Rowling found tons of inspiration from this magical library.

Coimbra Library
The mesmerizing Biblioteca Joanina. No photos allowed so this one is from the internet.

It was too hot to walk in the courtyard so we walked through some corridors and stuck our heads in some classrooms. It’s not hard to see why the Fado singers sing about their love and yearning for student life in Coimbra.

In another life, I too would want to wear a flowing black robe and walk up and down the steep and narrow lanes of this magical, medieval town.

Classroom
Classrooms with azulejo tiles, how cool is that?
Azulejos
Beautiful hallways again with azulejo details.
St james
Coimbra happens to be on the way of St. James as well. The third section of the Portuguese Way, from Coimbra to Porto, begins in the city of Coimbra

For more on Lisbon read about it here.

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For more historical insights on Coimbra check out this blog entry.