Sé Velha: Coimbra's Doughty 12th Century Cathedral-Castle
Updated: Jan 10
Coimbra is an atmospheric town that should definitely be on your itinerary for Portugal. And Coimbra's ancient Romanesque church, Sé Velha, is a must see site in Coimbra.
Coimbra has a melancholy beauty all its own. Coimbra has its own pottery style, its own version of Fado, the oldest library in Portugal, and an attitude. It's a stylish place, where black caped students, tony cafes, and ancient monuments all blissfully co-mingle.
My daughter and I had just visited Coimbra University, one of our favorite stops on our geographical cure in Portugal. Afterward, we slowly descended the town's steep stacked slopes through narrow cobblestone streets and alleys toward the Rio Mondego, admiring the scenery as we proceeded.
And looking for some sugar. We were depleted after a dose of Medieval and Baroque extravagance. So we stopped to refuel with gourmet brownies at Doce Amor.
That gave us plenty of energy to shop for ceramics.
Coimbra has a special ceramic style, distinct from the simpler designs of Porto or Lisbon. Coimbra pottery is based on museum reproductions dating back to 15th century with polychromatic styles in geometric forms and images of rosters, fish, and peacocks. With definite Asian and Moorish influences.
We headed to Carlos Tomás, having read it was special. You can even see the artist at work in his studio.
I left with several trinkets, including this beautiful hedgehog tile, which I am completely obsessed with.
As we wandered further, I spotted Coimbra's Old Cathedral, Sé Velha de Coimbra. There is apparently a New Cathedral somewhere that is 500 years old. But I only had eyes for the ancient Romanesque edifice before me.
It was almost a surprise, plopped into the middle of old quarter chaos. The first thing that struck me was how odd it was that cars were piled up around it, a rather jarring blend of old and new. One hopes that one day Coimbra will pedestrianize the main drag of its old quarter.
I also thought it seemed more castle, then cathedral. Either way, it's a stunner.
The austere 12th century Sé is one of Portugal's finest examples of Romanesque architecture. The main portal and facade are particularly striking, almost gold in the warm afternoon sunshine.
The cathedral has been on its present site since the Visigothic period. The early 10th century basilica was destroyed in 1117. You can see the votive foundation of the earlier church in the Sé.
The first king of Portugal, Afonso Henriques, financed construction of the current structure, along with another austere beauty, the UNESCO site of Alcobaça Monastery. (You can read about Alcobaça here and here.) Construction lasted from 1139-84. During the reign of King Alfonso II, additional work in the early Gothic style began.
As appropriate for a church built during the Reconquista era, the Sé has a crenellated, fortress-like exterior and narrow, slit-like lower windows. Inside, the Sé has an ornate late-Gothic retable and a lovely 13th-century cloister.
The high barrel vaulted nave preserves the Sé 's main Romanesque features. There are many side altars and well-preserved Gothic tombs of bishops and saints, backed by bright 16th century Mudéjar tiles from Seville. The capitals are decorated with plant motifs, heralding the emerging Gothic taste.
Over the main altar is a flamboyant Gothic retable. Carved in gilded and polychrome wood, it depicts the Assumption of Mary. It dates from 1503 and was commissioned by Bishop Jorge de Almeida. It has survived for more than 500 years in a perfect state of preservation.
Once outside again, you can walk around the building and stand in front of the Especiosa Door, or Beautiful Door, a symbol of the Renaissance.
This entrance, built by João de Ruão in the 1530s, was sculptured as a gigantic stone retable. It's considered one the most beautiful pieces of the Portuguese Renaissance.
In my fatigued state, I couldn't resist having a seat on the lovely carved wooden "throne" in the church. And no one tried to stop me.
Sadly, though, I recently read that the Sé is threatened. An infamous fungus was recently discovered in the Santa Maria Chapel (which dates from the 13th-14th centuries) during a multi-disciplinary scientific survey. The fungus was identified as a microcolonial black fungi, which is especially hazardous to historic monuments. It basically devours the structure, causing significant biodeterioration to the stone.
The fungus may have been in existence since the limestone was installed. It apparently can "withstand extreme temperatures, high solar and ultraviolet radiation, osmotic changes, and severe drought." It's robot-like.
The Sé Cathedral has survived for 800 years. For its legacy to continue, conservators need more research and a better understanding of the fungal scourge. Or Coimbra's atmospheric melancholy will grow bitter.