Old school: Europe’s historic college towns

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Ah, those halcyon student days. Picture cafes buzzing far past midnight with wine-fueled debates on the nature of love and mortality. Ancient libraries rich with the scent of arcane knowledge. True to Mark Twain’s notorious quip, ‘I have never let my schooling interfere with my education’, college towns offer enlightenment tempered with a healthy dose of youthful indulgence.

Combining books and bars, the scholarly and the social, the following historic cities are home to some of the oldest universities in the world. Steeped in centuries of student tradition, these places burst with diverse restaurants, nightlife, and entertainment catering to student budgets. So what if your senior year was a long time ago? Ideal spots to live it up cheaply and cheerfully, these towns have been living and learning since medieval times.

Bologna, Italy

It may not predate the Roman Empire, but the venerable Università di Bologna –founded in 1088 – remains the oldest university in Europe. Celebrated for combining radical politics with a dash of Italian glamour, Bologna itself is a trifecta of architectural, historical, and culinary delights. Those heading to better-known Tuscany might want to plan a detour to this alluring capital of nearby Emilia Romagna.

Remember, you’re in Italy: lì si mangia bene (or, as Italians say, the eating’s good here). Bologna reigns as Italy’s unofficial culinary capitol, so banish the thought of limp pizza and mediocre takeaway. While away the evening at an osteria – that’s restaurant speak for ‘laid-back and local’ – that typify Bologna’s spirit. Near the university we love Osteria dell’Orsa, where poets and philosophers congregate over authentic Bolognese dishes at communal wooden tables. Jazz hounds should saunter over to Cantina Bentivoglio on Via Mascarella to munch on tortelloni with butter and sage while sipping one of 400 wines from the cellar.

Montpellier, France

Take one part sun-drenched Mediterranean coast, one part medieval treasure, and one part youth culture, and you’ve got – voila! – Montpelier, the alluring capital of France’s Languedoc-Roussillon region. Older than the Sorbonne, the 12th century University of Montpellier boasts the oldest medical school in the Western world. Have a strong stomach? Check out the delightfully gruesome Anatomy Museum and adjacent 19th century surgical theatre (bloodletting, anyone?).

Take time to wander aimlessly though the old quarter, where the mysterious labyrinth of narrow stone lanes opens up onto fetching, palm tree-lined squares. For vibrant cafe culture, explore Place Jean-Jaurès and Rue Universitè. At 46 Rue Université, lunch at L’Oignon Givrè, where students and faculty flock between classes for the most creative salads in town. If the ocean breezes beckon, hop on local bus and you’re at the beach in less than half an hour.

Oxford, England

Home to one of the most revered universities in the world (and the alma mater of a whopping 47 Nobel Laureates), the City of Dreaming Spires has been launching intellectual luminaries and world leaders since 1096. Just the name conjures robe-clad dons scuttling from ornate buildings into the hushed green quadrangles of the 39 elite colleges. Want a peek inside? Sign up for a tour to view campus highlights such as the revered Bodleian library, which fans of the Harry Potter film will recognize.

To bask in the spirit of Oxford’s celebrated intelligentsia, sip a fireside pint at the Eagle and Child (to which locals refer lovingly as ‘The Bird and the Baby.’) It’s easy to picture Oxford’s legendary literary group The Inklings – whose members included the likes of JRR Tolkien and CS Lewis – holding court here in the 1930s and 40s. Next, head to student favourite the Turf Tavern, a low-ceilinged, 13th century pub where Oxford alumnus Bill Clinton is rumoured to have tippled a pint or two.

Come late spring, graduation fever rules Oxford. Imagine a slew of archaic traditions and festivities, from the reverent to the raucous. Springtime also means punting, a time-honoured Oxford pastime of floating down the river in a flat-bottomed wooden boat propelled by a long pole.

Coimbra, Portugal

Founded by the ancient Romans, Coimbra lays claim to Portugal’s oldest and most esteemed university. Pass through the dramatic Moorish gate – a relic of the city’s multiethnic past – to find the ancient upper town, home to the Old Cathedral and the university. Peek into the impressive Baroque library on campus, where it’s easy to imagine students in centuries past studying logic, law and astronomy.

Don’t miss the chance to witness a fado performance. In Coimbra, local tradition dictates that men sing these romantic laments to women. And if you’re lucky enough to visit in May, you’ll be rewarded by the memorable Queima das Fitas, or the Burning of the Ribbons – a festival to commemorate the end of the academic year. Join students in the traditional serenade in front of the cathedral, which kicks off a week of wine-fuelled parties, dances, and celebratory rituals. Make sure to toast the graduates with a drink of aguardente, or fire water.

Salamanca, Spain

Pillaged by Hannibal, captured by the Visigoths, and conquered by the Moors, this Unesco World Heritage site has seen plenty of historical action.  One notable year was 1134, when King Alfonso IX of Leon founded the University of Salamanca. Gorgeous Renaissance architecture, made predominantly of sandstone, has lent Salamanca its nickname: La Ciudad Dorada (The Golden City). Look around: this place literally glows.

After checking out the Museum of Art Nouveau and Art Deco, admire the marvellous Romenesque Cathedral. To find the epicentre of student nightlife, stroll the narrow streets around the university and the Plaza Mayor, one of Spain’s best people-watching squares and once host to gory bullfights. Finally, don’t be afraid to dust off your high school Spanish: Salamanca has thousands of international students who come here to practice the language.