The old cathedral, Se Velha, was built soon after Coimbra became the capital of Portugal in 1143 CE. Since the Portuguese state of that time saw itself in terms of a militant Christianity fighting the Moors, we’d expected the cathedral to be grand.
In Coimbra the cathedral does not seem to be a very important structure. The gargoyles had not been cleaned for a long time; there were weeds growing out of them (see photo alongside). When we passed the cathedral in the morning its doors were still locked. People around did not seem to know whether there is an open door one can enter. We left and went up to the university, which was already bustling with faculty, students, and tourists. Of course, you might expect this in an university town. Maybe even the bishop teaches now and then.
When we came back down after some hours we found the cathedral doors open. The inside was nice, but nothing really distinguished it from the many churches we had already seen. Perhaps it was a touch more imposing: the height must have been hard to achieve in the days before the flowering of the Gothic style. Perhaps all the really good stuff was moved to Lisbon when it became the capital in 1255 CE. There were lovely azulejos on the wall, a portrait of the queen, St. Isabel, a nice gilded altar-piece. I liked the painted and gilded wooden statue whose photo you see alongside. The most amazing things in the cathedral were the two immense sea shells which serve as baptismal fonts (one of them is in the featured photo). Apparently they were found somewhere in the Indian Ocean in 1952.
As we exited the cathedral we realized that a wedding was in the offing. A few men milled around a priest in formal vestments who stood at the top of the steps leading up to the door of the cathedral from the square. As we watched, guests began to arrive. Most drove up to the square and disgorged women in beautiful gowns escorted by men in suits. We did not feel out of place in the gaggle of ill-dressed tourists who were on watch. The Family wanted to wait for the bride. I looked for a good place to photograph her from, and eventually found one at the mouth of a road coming into the square from above. The Family was lost in the knot of people and cars in the square. I could get a few photos of the bride in her long white train. You can barely see at the edge of the photo her mother in a lovely purple gown.
So the cathedral still does play a role in the life of the community. It is just that the relatively hard days that Portugal is going through leaves little money to keep all large old structures in good shape.