The Church of San Nicolás, Portomarín

Take a look around this fortress church, which was moved, stone by stone, from its original location.

Church-fortress of San Nicolás (12th and 13th Centuries)Regional Government of Galicia

The town of Portomarín in the province of Lugo is home to a historic building that is unique to both the St. James Way and to Romanesque architecture in Spain: the Church of San Nicolás (St. Nicholas). In 1931, the Provisional Government of the Second Spanish Republic granted it the status of a building of historic and artistic significance.

Church of San Nicolás de Portomarín (12th Century)Original Source: Axencia Turismo de Galicia

It is an unusual combination of a church and a fortress. This twofold purpose originated with the Order of Knights of the Hospital of St. John of Jerusalem, who built it between the late 12th century and the early 13th century to provide protection for pilgrims and traders.

Church-fortress of San Nicolás (12th and 13th Centuries)Regional Government of Galicia

Visitors to the church will be captivated as soon as they enter. It has a single nave, and the main part of the chapel is enclosed by a semicircular apse at the end of a straight section. Its severe austerity and imposing verticality are in keeping with both its external appearance, and its purpose as a fortress.

Church-fortress of San Nicolás (12th and 13th Centuries)Regional Government of Galicia

The nave is high-ceilinged—unusually so for a church of this size—with a crenellated wallwalk on the roof above. Its height and the appearance of its roof are clear indications of its defensive purpose.

Church-fortress of San Nicolás (12th and 13th Centuries)Regional Government of Galicia

In contrast to the church's solid appearance, it features three of the St. James Way's most beautiful sculptural gems: three intricately decorated, Romanesque-style doors.

Church of San Nicolás de Portomarín (2020)Original Source: S.A. de Xestión do Plan Xacobeo

The door to the main entrance is particularly interesting. With its depiction of the 24 elders of the Apocalypse playing musical instruments, it is heavily influenced by Santiago de Compostela Cathedral's Portico of Glory.

Rose window of the main façade of the Church-Fortress of San Nicolas (12th and 13th Centuries)Regional Government of Galicia

The main source of natural light in the building comes from one of Galicia's largest rose windows. Measuring 16 feet in diameter, it is comprised of 12 oculi (round windows), arranged in concentric circles.

Church of San Nicolás de Portomarín (2020)Original Source: S.A. de Xestión do Plan Xacobeo

There is a large, semicircular arch around the door and the rose window. This arch, together with the projecting cornice (a small ledge to protect the entrance from rainfall) and the crenellated towers, give the facade its unmistakable appearance.

Cyclists in Portomarín (2020)Regional Government of Galicia

The church stands in the center of the town of Portomarín. However, it was not always located here … and neither was the town.

Remains of the ancient medieval village of Portomarín (2020)Regional Government of Galicia

Until the 1960s, the town of Portomarín was perched on the banks of the Miño River. When the Belesar reservoir was created, the entire population of the town had to move to a new location.

Detail of the staircase of the Church-fortress of San Nicolás (12th and 13th Centuries)Regional Government of Galicia

The Church of San Nicolás was moved, stone by stone, in 1962. This feat of architectural rescue, carried out during the Francoist regime, was no small achievement. A number was painted on every stone block to ensure it was replaced in the correct location, and those numbers can still be seen on the walls today.

Miniature with the image of the Apostle James in BC (1160-1180)Regional Government of Galicia

Portomarín was a town of great importance during the Middle Ages, appearing in the Codex Calixtinus. Its bridge was a strategic crossing point, as it was the only place where it was possible to cross the fast-flowing Miño River without a boat.

The church of San Pedro (St. Peter), whose facade was also rescued from the reservoir, and the aforementioned church of San Nicolás, stood on either side of it. Those providing shelter to pilgrims would charge incomers and their animals a toll for crossing the bridge, while residents could cross over free of charge.

Remains of the ancient medieval village of Portomarín (2020)Regional Government of Galicia

When the reservoir is low, pilgrims crossing the bridge that is there today can still see the waterlogged remains of the old town.

Church-fortress of San Nicolás (12th and 13th Centuries)Regional Government of Galicia

And that is the story of a unique church that was built to protect travelers, and was itself in need of rescue when the reservoir was planned.

Church-fortress of San Nicolás (12th and 13th Centuries)Regional Government of Galicia

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