- Martijn van Steenbergen
- Master Software Technology, Utrecht University, The Netherlands
- March 2007
Welcome! My name is Martijn van Steenbergen. At the moment of writing, I'm 21 years old and in my first year of the Software Technology master at Utrecht University. The first semester of this schoolyear (September 2006 to February 2007) I spent at the Universidade do Minho in Braga, Portugal. This is my report, told from my perspective, the way I experienced things. If you are going to Braga too, I hope it will offer you a good idea of what Braga is like. Apart from this report, I've kept an online journal of my adventures in Braga. Feel free to email me with any other questions you might have.
Going abroad takes some preparation. First you have to pick a destination. I didn't have any strong preferences other than "outside the Netherlands", so I talked to Doaitse Swierstra, the head of the Software Technology group, and he said the ST group has contacts with universities in Germany, Denmark and Portugal. Of these options, Portugal sounded the most attractive: Portugal is far away enough, life there is not as expensive as in, say, Scandinavia, and the weather is — in general — better than in the Netherlands. And so I chose to go to Braga.
These are the things I did before I went abroad:
- Read the UU pages on going abroad.
- Talk to Christl Briels, the Coordinator Exchange Students for our department. She was able to give me some general information on the Universidade do Minho and could help me with filling out certain forms.
- Talk to João Saraiva. He is the Coordinator Exchange Students for Computer Science at the Universidade do Minho and was able to tell me what courses I could follow. He was also my primary source of answers to CS@UM-specific questions, and introduced me to various teachers once I arrived in Braga.
- Talk to Doaitse Swierstra. He is responsible for the contents of my Master program, and together with him I made a planning for the full two years.
- Write a letter to the Examencommissie Informatica, asking permission to go abroad.
- Let the IB-Groep know I'm going away.
- Read the folder Studeren in het Buitenland.
- Temporarily change my postal address, so that:
- mail from the IB-Groep reaches me in Portugal instead of in Holland, and
- I get extra money because I no longer live with my parents.
- Temporarily turn my OV-studentenkaart into a OV-vergoeding buitenland, so that I get extra money instead of the ability to freely use the Dutch public transport.
- Let the Universidade do Minho know I would like to study with them for half a year: fill out their application forms for studying, accomodation and the learning agreement.
- Apply for the Erasmus scholarship by filling out the right forms.
- Get a permanent travel insurance at OHRA for EUR 3 per month.
All in all, it was quite some work. It wasn't necessarily difficult; just time-consuming. It also requires some patience: you're anxious to get confirmation from UM as fast as possible. Looking back, I think there isn't much that could've gone wrong. Made a mistake on one of the forms? Just explain it. Can't get accomodation in advance? UM can help you survive the first nights while you're looking for a place to stay. Just make sure you start taking care of things in time.
Braga is a city about one hour north-northeast of Porto, in the historical Minho province in the north of Portugal.
TAP Air flies directly from Schiphol Airport, Amsterdam to Sá Carneiro Airport, O Porto; I paid about EUR 260 for a return flight, with the flight to Porto in September 2006 and the flight from Porto in February 2007. When I went home for a long weekend in January, I flew with Air Berlin through Palma De Mallorca for EUR 160. The flying took about twice as long (2 times 2 hours; Palma is not exactly en route), but it did save me EUR 100, and it was fun to call home halfway, saying "hello from Mallorca!".
Once arrived at the airport, I took the subway to Porto Campanhã, which cost almost EUR 2 and took about 25 minutes. From Campanhã there's a slow train (stopping at every train stop) to Braga, for EUR 2 taking about 1.5 hours.
I stayed in Residência Universitaria Santa Tecla. I had no idea where it was, but two friendly girls in the train, who had lived there a few years ago, were kind enough to take me by car. If you're not that lucky, you can take a taxi from Braga train station to anywhere in the city (including Santa Tecla) for about EUR 6 (including fee for your suitcase).
Stuff To Do
Braga has a beautiful center with many old buildings which create a pleasant, cozy atmosphere, especially on a sunny afternoon, with Braga's many fountains spouting water and the people frequenting the streets. Market stands sell food or souvenirs, and every now and then you see a trader selling freshly roasted chestnuts (castanhas assadas), popcorn or cotton candy.
Braga is surrounded by mountains, especially on its east. This causes interesting weather: with Christmas we had four straight weeks of clear blue sky and bright sun (something I'd never seen around Christmas before), while at other times it rained on and on, soaking the whole city and sometimes flooding cellars. On the west sides of the mountains directly east of Braga are two cathedrals: that of Bom Jesus, and that of Sameiro. I've never been to Sameiro, but Bom Jesus I've visited several times, and it's well worth a visit. Bus 02 takes you to its foot, after which you can walk the approximately 500 steps up to the cathedral, or take the elevator up, which is the only working hydraulic elevator in Portugal and costs EUR 1 per ride. Sunsets are particularly beautiful from Bom Jesus (on near-clear days anyway — the more interesting sunsets are those with a few clouds present), but the elevator didn't work anymore after sunset, so you'd either have to walk back down to catch a bus back or have gotten up there by car.
Nightlife in Braga starts quite late (for Dutch standards anyway): the average bar doesn't start attracting people until 1 or 2 in the morning. The best known bar among students is B.A., the bar academico, which is run by UM and only accessible to UM students. While the interior is not that attractive, access is free and drinks are relatively cheap, and this ensures that it's usually quite busy there at night, which in turn attracts more students: once you get to know some people, there's almost always someone there you know. Other popular bars include Ber Ber (Moroccan-style, near the bus station) and Bar Do Lip (American style, near B.A.). These bars don't have an entrance fee, but require you to spend at least a certain amount of money. Most bars work like this: upon entrance, you receive a small piece of paper on which the waiters or bartenders mark down what you've ordered. When you leave, you pay for what you got according to your piece of paper. If you lose the paper, you get a EUR 50 fine.
Braga boasts several shopping centers, which a wide variety of shops. People especially like to shop for clothes, because they tend to be quite cheap. There are also two hipermercados: giant shopping malls, namely Carrefour and Feira Nova. You can get pretty much anything there.
Braga has a train and a bus station, with trains and buses going to nearby cities such as Porto, Guimarães and Viana do Castelo. Each of these cities is more than worth a visit: Porto because it's the biggest city in the area and for its bridges, beaches and (port) wine cellars, Guimarães for its cozy, old center and the oldest castle in Portugal, and Viana for its cathedral on top of a hill and its beaches. Trains and buses are comparable in price, ranging from EUR 1.50 to EUR 3.50.
As said before, Braga has a bus and a train station. The intra-city bus rides are taken care of by TUB — Transportes Urbanos de Braga. Braga, just like Holland, works with zones: depending on how many zones you need to cross, you pay a certain amount for your ride. But whereas the Dutch zones are blob-shaped and next to each other, the zones in Braga are in the shape of rings, called coroas (literally "crowns"). The center ring (or circle — Coroa 1) is enough to get from/to most places: the city center, residência Santa Tecla, UM, to name a few. Bom Jesus is in Coroa 2, and most of the smaller cities/villages surrounding Braga which TUB has buses to are in Coroa 3, such as Ponte do Prado.
There are three ways to pay for bus rides:
- As you enter the bus. This is the most expensive way, costing about EUR 1.2 per ride within coroa 1.
- Through a digital card with precomprado rides (bought in advance) — this saves you about 50%.
- A month pass. You pay once for the creation of the card, with your picture on it, and then you can charge it for individual months, with a fixed fee per month. You can use the buses as often as you like during the months you paid for. Depending on how often you need to use the bus, this can be cheaper than the precomprado passes.
You can buy any of these passes in small booths on the streets of Braga, run by TUB itself, as well as at UM in the Social Services building. Unlike Holland, the trains around Braga (at least in my experience) rarely have trouble. On the other hand, many bus stops, especially the smaller ones, don't have a bus schedule on or near them.
The university's buildings are located partly in Braga, partly in Guimarães. I've never had to go to the university in Guimarães, since all my classes were in Braga. The teachers at the CS department were generally kind and helpful, and I've never had any trouble with them. Most are very busy, however, and this can cause significant delays in replies to emails I sent.
I didn't speak any Portuguese before I went to Portugal, and therefore I, together with João Saraiva, picked subjects with a strong practical aspect rather than theory. The classes still had lectures, but since I didn't understand what was being said, I never went to them. I did participate in all lab classes, which were doable because it was mostly programming work. Not visiting the lectures made studying for me considerably harder, because I learn best by following lectures, and instead I had to learn from (in the best case) English books or (in the worst case) from Portuguese slides. My two exams were officially in Portuguese, but one teacher translated one into English, and the other was in Portuguese but the teacher helped translate on the fly.
The university also offers a Portuguese language course, which I happily used. Later I found out there was another, slightly more serious language course which was mostly attended by Erasmus students as well, and I visited a few lectures of that course as well. Together they've helped me greatly get better at Portuguese. Right now, after half a year, I read Portuguese quite well, and am able to understand and speak basic sentences; enough to be able to ask for things in restaurants and shops and understand the answers.
Some fellow exchange students were not as lucky as I have been and had trouble with teachers, and it seems in some cases the teachers were unreasonable. The students were unable to get any help; apparently, there is nobody that checks on the teachers, and there is no official way to file a complaint. In my case, I feel I would've been able to talk to João about any trouble I might have had, but this is only because João is a very nice guy, and not all Erasmus coordinators are as helpful and nice as him. In short: if you're in bad luck, there's not much you can do except work things out personally with the individual teachers.
Some university-related links that might be helpful to you:
Overall, my stay in Residência Universitaria Santa Tecla was very pleasant. I had my own room with a bed, desk, closet, sink, shower, electrical wall-mounted heater and a small electrical plate for cooking. I shared the toilet and the kitchen with the rest of the floor, and they were cleaned almost every day by custodians. The custodians in general were very kind and helpful, and they became friends over the course of time. The room has no isolation, which was only a problem during the few nights in December and January in which it got near zero. The electrical heater is located near the door, so it takes a while before the heat reaches the bed and desk. Internet access in the rooms is wireless only, and the signal strength varies greatly over both time and room location. The wireless access in general is rocky, getting very slow when the weather is bad, for example. The shared kitchen has a microwave, two electric cooking plates and only cold water.
Santa Tecla is a complex of about five buildings full of students, with mostly double rooms. All the single rooms are occupied by exchange students. Just like university, Santa Tecla has its own canteen, which is open for lunch and dinner every day except Sundays. There is also a bar which offers hot and cold drinks and snacks such as pastéis, hamburgers, sandwiches and chocolate bars.
Part of Santa Tecla's direct surroundings is inhabited by gypsies, who play music from the windows every Sunday morning, are usually friendly, sometimes loud, and always have colourful clothes hanging from clothes lines. Quite a few stray dogs, some sick, can be found here, too. At night there are often shady people walking around the area, and it's generally a good idea to not walk around alone.
I bought fresh bread every day in a small supermarket just around the corner. There are several bars and small shops in the direct vicinity (less than one minute on foot away) of the residência, and two medium-sized supermarkets within five minutes: Minipreço and Pingo Doce. Carrefour and Feira Nova, two giant supermarkets, are 15-20 minutes away.
- public transport: elect kaartjes, goedkoper, nauwelijks treinproblemen, bushaltetijden niet overal beschikbaar
- internet in residência is brak
- koud, geen isolatie
- docenten worden niet gecontroleerd; geen feedback; klagen helpt niet
- dorm security/schoonmaaksters zijn vriendelijk en behulpzaam
- studeren zonder hoorcolleges is moeilijk