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  • Writer's pictureCasa das Muralhas

A brief history of Covilhã

Praça do Município da Covilhã ainda com estacionamento
Covilhã Town Hall Square | Source: covilhã

Covilhã is located on the eastern slope of the Serra da Estrela, between 400 and 800 metres above sea level. It is unique in Portugal, not only because of its mountainous geographic profile, but also because of the integration of its historical and manufacturing heritage which merges into the urban view of the city.

Located in a privileged place for cattle breeding and in the way of the main transhumance routes, it has grown throughout several centuries, going from a "place" of good grazing to a city of the future. It has experienced various ups and downs that have endowed it with a vast and rich history and culture.

Vista de várias fábricas de lanifícios com suas imponentes chaminés na encosta montanhosa da Covilhã, Serra da Estrela, Portugal.
Covilhã and its Wool Factories | Source:

Discover a little more about the past of this unique city in our country!

The history of Covilhã began several centuries ago, but despite the documented existence of occupation that dates back to the first inhabitants of the Iberian Peninsula, as well as a recognized commercial dynamics linked to pastoralism, it only received the title of Town in 1186.

In order to increase the defences against the neighbouring Kingdom of León, King D. Sancho I grants Covilhã its first charter, at which time the construction of the now historical City Walls began.

The defensive enclosure was later extended by D. Dinis in 1300. The walls were so important in the historical context of Covilhã that it is still possible today to identify some sections of them, integrated in the architecture of various buildings in the oldest part of the city. The strengthening of this defensive complex reveals the strategic importance of Covilhã in the protection and growth of the Kingdom of Portugal.

Antiga gravura do Castelo da Covilhã da 2ª metade do século XVIII
Engraving of Covilhã Castle | Source:

In the Renaissance, Covilhã was a growing village in the most diverse areas, not only linked to agriculture and pastoralism, but also to the economy, culture and industry, where the woollen products started to gain expression. It is still in this period that the city inscribes its name in the great maritime navigations, with D. Dinis, Lord of Covilhã, integrating several Covilhanenses in the expeditions ordered by him. Among the many notables, Frei Diogo Alves da Cunha, Pêro da Covilhã, Fernão Penteado, Rui and Francisco Faleiro, among others, are forever linked to the history of Covilhã.

At the end of the 16th century, D. Luís de Menezes, Count of Ericeira, installed the first Royal Factory in the city, called Fábrica de Sarjas e Beatas (Fábrica Velha) in Ribeira da Carpinteira, with the aim of ending the dependence on cloth from England. With the arrival of master weavers from England, the woollen industry was implemented in force and over the years there was a proliferation of factories and manufactures destined for the treatment of wool, but also some customs, such as the consumption of tea.

After the earthquake of 1755, Marquês de Pombal, Prime Minister of Portugal, drew up a manufacturing-based national development plan which would prove to be of great historical importance. Recognizing the quality and economic weight of the fabrics produced in Covilhã, in 1764, D. José I orders the construction of the Royal Cloth Factory near Ribeira da Degoldra, in which stones from the old castle wall, which had also collapsed by the time of the catastrophe, were used. Currently, in the buildings of that same factory, we have the University of Beira Interior, as well as the Museum of Lanifícios of the University of Beira Interior.

Vista da antiga Real Fábrica de Panos junto à Ribeira da Degoldra onde atualmente é a Universidade da Beira Interior e Museu de Lanifícios
Former Real Fábrica de Panos, now UBI and Museu de Lanifícios | Source:

During the XIX century, the history of Covilhã was rewritten being elevated to City in 1870. This decoration was due to the importance and growth of the Woollen (Lanifícios) industry, being, shortly afterwards, the Portuguese city to register the biggest demographic growth of all the country between 1878 and 1890. At the turn of the century it had more than 700 factories, between small and large industries, employing more than 4500 workers, a number which continued to rise. The rapid expansion and increased demographic pressure had a major impact on the city's urban planning. Factory structures of various purposes and dimensions are still easily identifiable today in almost every part of the city.

During this period, the woollen industry became so relevant that in 1884, by direct intervention of the Government, the Campos Melo Industrial School (today, High School) was created, the first of its kind in the country. The teaching and improvement of industrial techniques comes to prove fundamental in the implantation of Covilhã as the biggest centre of national wool production, with international recognition.

The period which comprises the end of the XIX century and the beginning of the 1960 decade, can be considered today the great Covilhã golden age. The wealth from the wool industry gave rise to the construction of numerous buildings of reference that are still landmarks in the day-to-day life and history of the city. There was a great economic and cultural development, especially after the arrival of the Railways which increased the business competitiveness of the region. The development was notorious, and over the years residential neighbourhoods, showrooms, schools, banks, swimming pools, hospital, health units, gardens, hotels, monuments, library, municipal market, sports facilities, court, palaces and many other important buildings were built.

Vista da Escola Industrial Campos Melo na Covilhã, edifícios imponentes.
Campos Melo Industrial School, Covilhã | Source:

The beginning of the 1970s marked one of the darkest and most troubled periods of Covilhã's recent history. With the closure of numerous factories, many workers lost their jobs, throwing the municipality into a serious socio-economic crisis. After the April Revolution and the conquest of the workers' rights, the crisis in the sector was accentuated, accelerating the already expected decline of this industry. The covilhanenses wool manufacturers did not know how to prepare for the entry into the global market, being the factories frankly outdated, due to lack of investment and modernization, sustained by mono-industrialization with recourse to cheap labor and, in many cases, with exclusive production for the former colonies.

However, it was also during this period that the seeds for the future were sown, taking the first steps towards the emergence of one of the most important university towns in Portugal. In order to deal with the socio-economic consequences that were devastating the region, the idea arose to create a Higher Education institution capable of giving local people access to Post-Secondary Education.

Thus was born in 1973 the Polytechnic Institute of Covilhã, later on the University Institute of Beira Interior and finally, in 1996, the University of Beira Interior. The University revealed itself as a sure bet creating a true revolution, strongly shaping the dynamics of the city. Unlike many campuses, the UBI is dispersed with poles in several places occupying old factory buildings. The growth of the institution was not only important in the reformulation of the spaces, giving them new life, but it was also the engine of the re-launching of the culture and economy of Covilhã.

With the growth of the tourist culture, the Serra da Estrela, which always aroused the imagination of the Portuguese, became, from the 80s, a place of great affluence at national level, especially in the winter season to enjoy the snow. Due to its proximity to the highest point in mainland Portugal, it has taken advantage of its geographical position to become the main gateway to the mountain. Thus, at the turn of the millennium, it stands out in the regional panorama as the city with the largest hotel supply around the Massif Central.

With the increase in tourist demand, the settlement of young university graduates, new artistic and cultural movements and the creation of companies, the reinvention of a place with more than 800 years of history has taken place.

Antiga Praça do Município da Covilhã com coreto e cidadãos no seu dia-a-dia.
Old Covilhã Municipality Square | Source: covilhã

Nowadays, Covilhã, once a factory "Manchester of Portugal", is a university, tourism and services city with strong links to the past. The reuse of spaces, keeping their bases, have today new purposes as commercial and services spaces, teaching and coworking spaces, while others have been converted into museums, hotel units or even residential and artistic spaces.

Now that you know a little more about Covilhã's past, come and discover this city full of history, with an enviable industrial heritage. We are the ideal city to discover the region.

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