Evora: a history lover’s dream

Evora: a history lover’s dream
By: Stephanie Sivalingam
(Program Manager)

In June, my husband and I again took advantage of Air Berlin’s PEP fare special for flights out of Boston (BOS) to various locations in Europe. This time, we headed to Portugal, flying into Faro (FAO) via Dusseldorf (DUS). It had been many years since I was last in Portugal and my husband had never been, though he was well versed in the cuisine from my dad’s side of the family and was looking forward to feasting his way around the country. We rented a car and spent 12 days traversing the southern half of the country. So, as not to turn this into a novel, I thought I would write about just one of my favorite locales, Evora.

Evora is a town of about 50,000 located in south central Portugal, approximately a 90 minute drive east of Lisbon. It is the capital of the Alentejo region and home to the 2nd oldest university in Portugal, University of Evora, founded in 1559. The entire town is a UNESCO world heritage site; I will highlight just a few of the many amazing sites in this post. If you are a history nut, you will love Evora!

The Alentejo is commonly known as the “bread basket of Portugal”, with agriculture being the main economic engine of the area. One of the main crops grown here is cork, which is actually the bark of a tree. A renewable resource, once a cork tree becomes mature at between 25-30 years of age, the bark is harvested every 9 years or so. Cork trees are everywhere; here is a field just outside of town:

Near this field of cork trees about 10 miles west of town stands Cromlech Almendres, a megalithic complex older than and covering an area greater than Stonehenge, yet it gets very few tourists:

The site consists of at least 90 large granite stones arranged into 2 circles. The eastern ring contains smaller stones (though many are the size of an adult person) and dates from around 6000 B.C. The western ring is actually more elliptical in shape and is believed to be slightly younger, being erected around 5000 B.C.

Many of the stones have engravings on them which have weathered over the millennia:

It is not known what the significance of these carvings are, but it has been determined that the largest stone in the complex points towards the sunrise on the Winter Solstice.

Another site we were unable to visit this time near Evora but I have been to in the past and I highly recommend is Grouta Escouril, a cave containing paintings on the walls from the Upper Paleolithic (40,000 to 10,000 B.C.). When I was there the last time you had to go to the Evora tourist office in the town’s main square to book a seat on a 15-passenger van and be driven there where a local resident would unlock the giant metal doors to let you in. Apparently the growing popularity of cave art has meant they now strictly limit the number of visitors (human breath messes with the cave’s atmosphere and has caused the paintings to deteriorate) so you have to book well in advance via email or phone to try and get in. They have since also built a huge visitor center and there are now actual walkways in the cave; very different from when I experienced it.

Getting back to the city itself, as I said before the whole of Evora is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The Romans conquered the area in 57 A.D. and among other things, built a temple, part of which still stands today:

In 715 A.D., the city was conquered by the Moors. By then most of the Roman architecture had been ruined and the Moors then put their own mark on Evora. The Jardim Publico (Public Garden) is a wonderful space where you can see some of the remaining lookout towers from the wall that surrounds the old part of Evora:

You can also wander among the Ruinas Fingidas (literally “fake ruins”) which are in fact real ruins taken out of context. When the garden was officially planned and constructed in the 19th century, the architect in charge took “leftover” building materials from monuments in town and used them like Legos to create a nostalgic monument to the past. The end product is actually really pretty:

The local peacocks seem to like it too:

Besides fake ruins, there are several churches in town that are worth a look. Construction of the Sé de Evora, or the cathedral, was commenced in the 12th century, with various additions made through the 18th century:

I highly recommend walking around the cloisters (built 1317-40 A.D.) and if you can, squeezing your way up the tightest spiral staircase known to man to get a view from above:

Another interesting place to check out is the Capela dos Ossos (bone chapel), a small 16th century chapel constructed from human remains with an engraving above the door that roughly translated by yours truly reads “we bones here resting for yours await”:

The last time I was here there were 2 desiccated (naturally mummified) bodies hanging on the wall which have since been removed; I’m not sure why. Nonetheless, there are plenty of other bones to see:

If bones aren’t your thing, no worries: there are plenty of other things to see!  Fountains abound in Evora, such as this one dating from 1556 near Largo Das Portas De Moura:

The globe on top has faded over the years but it originally had a map of the Earth carved into it as homage to the explorers who visited the Sé (the cathedral where the bishop presides) before their voyages to the Americas, including Vasco da Gama.

Another famous fountain sits in the Praca do Giraldo, which is the main square in town:

It was built at the beginning of the Inquisition and estimates are that about 20,000 people were executed in the square during that time. The most famous execution that took place here was the beheading of the Duke of Braganca in 1484 by his brother-in-law, King John II. Now it hosts a farmers’ market on the weekends and other special events, such as the wine festival going on behind me in this photo. In front of me is an unknown Roman ruin, part of a large marble statue that has been lost to history.

Now go book those plane tickets!

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