I have found locals fluent in my native tongue in various world capitals, from obvious ones like Paris and Madrid to perhaps the not-so-obvious, like Prague and Moscow. Of course in Portugal, if you plan to live in the capital, the country’s “second city” of Porto, or in the southern region of the Algarve, you can count on ease of communication.

But it’s always smart to have basic words and phrases under your belt when traveling about in, or relocating to, a foreign country. It’s both helpful for you and a sign of respect toward the natives. And, if you want to explore Portugal in depth, it is a good idea to develop at least a rudimentary knowledge of the language spoken by approximately 250 million people around the world, and which is the second-most spoken Romance language after Spanish. Because in the heart of the Alentejo, or in outlying aldeias anywhere in the country, you may find you cannot converse in English. Charades, maybe, but not English.

Language course

To this end, early in our Portuguese life my husband and I enrolled in an intensive language course at the University of Coimbra, one of the oldest continually operating universities in Europe. It was thrilling to attend classes in a building that housed Portuguese monarchs from the 12th to the 15th centuries. By the way, without a doubt, Coimbra, the former capital of Portugal, is a city in which you can get by in English only, due to the student population, tourism, and the expat community.

When not attending classes, we played tourists, exploring many of the town’s special sites. Opportunities were endless. At the university alone there was the Joanine Library, with its polished woods and leather-bound volumes dating back centuries, St. Michael’s Chapel, home to a 3,000-pipe organ, and much more.

One block away, on Largo Doutor José Rodrigues, we visited the Museu Nacional de Machado de Castro, named for one of Portugal’s most famous sculptors. In the Middle Ages, the structure was the bishop’s palace, built over the Roman forum of Aeminium (the Roman name of Coimbra). On the lower floors of the museum, in the Cryptoporticus, we were instantly transported back to ancient times.

Venturing down serpentine alleys to the Rua Ferreira Borges and Rua Visconde da Luz, past boutiques, pastelarias, and cafés, we toured the Igreja de Santa Cruz, a former monastery dating from 1131, notable for its magnificent blue and white azulejo-tiled walls and Manueline architecture, the late gothic style that flourished during the reign of King Dom Manuel I. It is also a National Pantheon, as it is the final resting place of the first two kings of Portugal, Dom Afonso Henriques and his successor, Dom Sancho I.

Credits: Supplied Image;


One of the great highlights for us was diving into Portugal’s soulful art form, fado. Inextricably bound to students and the University, the fado of Coimbra is unique in that it is sung only by men, and appreciation for the “serenade” songs is shown not with applause, but with a discreet clearing of the throat. Whenever family or friends visited from the States we brought them to Fado ao Centro, located on Rua do Quebra-Costas (loosely translated as “Street of Breaking Back,” a well-earned name). We never tired of the performances, which were followed by a complimentary glass of Port and a chance to chat with the artists.

We strolled through the Parque Verde and dined at restaurants on the banks of the River Mondego, which wends its way through the city. I came to enjoy Coimbra so much that I created a walking tour game called Coimbra: Cathedrals, Kings, and Calla Lilies. It was a way of paying homage to a town that offers so much to so many.

Our “college days” over, we moved on to other venues over the years, but have now returned to Coimbra. These days our time spent there is more utilitarian. Once a week or so we head into town for necessities. In fifteen minutes we can arrive at Leroy Merlin, Coimbrashopping, The Forum Coimbra, or Alma Shopping. In addition to the usual supermarkets like Continente and InterMarché, there’s a small but nicely stocked SuperCor, as well. Sadly there is no Apolónia. It’s probably just as well. The last time we were in Lagos, as I waited in the café for my husband to fill his shopping cart, I thought I would be asked to pay rent.

Another expat haven, Figueira da Foz, is just 45 minutes to the west of us. I prefer mountains to the beach, but sometimes you just want to be close to the water. If you have chosen the Algarve as your home, you know exactly what I’m talking about.

So we have now returned to a favorite city because of a bond developed long ago when we studied at its legendary university. But was the certificate I earned there enough to demonstrate language proficiency when, years later, I applied for Portuguese citizenship? Stay tuned….


Native New Yorker Tricia Pimental left the US in 2012, later becoming International Living’s first Portugal Correspondent. The award-winning author and her husband, now Portuguese citizens, currently live in Coimbra.

Tricia Pimental