Tales From Alentejo: An Unknown (relatively) Portuguese Gem

Napa, Sonoma, Bordeaux: all towns, all well-known, all evoke “wine.” McMinnville, Walla Walla, Beaune, Bernkastel: more towns, though lesser well-known, but still conger up the concept of “wine town.”

Several months ago, as I have already started to document (Just Getting StartedEsporão, José de Sousa), I spent a week in Alentejo, Portugal, the largest wine region in Portugal. We stayed in the regional capital, a city of 55,000 inhabitants that has been inhabited for five millennia, became an outpost for the Romans, was ruled by the Moors for 450 years, and its city center was inscribed as a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 1986.

Any guesses as to the name of the town?

If any of you came up with Évora (eh-ver-ah), I owe you a glass of Aragonez (red) or Antão Vaz (white) the next time we meet.

Évora is a fascinating town, about an hour and a half drive due East from Lisbon, the royal family of Portugal spent winters in the town for close to 300 years, during the 14th through the 16th Centuries. Our hotel, in fact, was a former noble palace, built in the 15th Century.

There are “royal” indications throughout town.

Évora was a Roman outpost and there are many ruins that remain in the city, including the Templo de Diana, in the center of town, at highest point in city. The style is 1st century Corinthian, built with local materials, to be the Roman forum. It was thought to be built for Diana the goddess of the hunt, but in the 1980s it was discovered that it was actually built for Emperor Augustus. After the fall of the Roman Empire, the Visigoths destroyed most of what existed.

The weather is quite temperate for most of the year, but it can be quite hot during the summer—temperatures in the 40s Celsius (40°C = 104°F).

The Igreja de Santo Antao anchors the Praça do Giraldo, named after the General who forced the Moors out of Portugal in the 12th Century, at the center of Évora (the first city center in Europe recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage Site), is the focal point of the town all year long.

During the 13th Century, shortly after the expulsion of the Moors, over 4 kilometers of walls were built in the hope of thwarting future invasions.

The walls now house a series of public parks, which can be a space to escape.

Another prominent feature of the city, is the aqueduct, which was built in the 16th Century to replace the Roman structure. It was still in use through the 1950s.

City Hall was built in 16th as a palace for a wealthy family. Built on the top of a Roman bath, the ruins of which were found during renovations in 1987.

One of the main pedestrian streets in Évora, the capital of Alentejo, replete with plenty of golden trim, which is said to represent grain and wealth. It is also thought to help protect from ghosts.

The Cathedral of Évora, in the center of town, which was started in 1280 and opened in 1746.

Évora could be described as a city of churches with 22 Catholic churches in the city, many of which have some peculiar aspects to them. The Cathedral (“Se” in Portuguese) has a statue of the pregnant Mary which apparently is quite rare. Sculpted from stone and painted to look like wood, Mary is dressed like the Portuguese nobility of the time. The statue at the time was considered to be heretical, divisive, even sacrilegious, and the Cardinal of Portugal declared it should be hidden. Eventually, opinions changed and it was brought back in 18th Century, which started a worship to the pregnant Mary.

Pregnant Mary.

Perhaps the most visited site in Évora, however, is the Capela dos Ossos (Chapel of Bones). Reminiscent of the catacombs in Paris, the tiny Chapel contains approximately 5,000 skulls that were exhumed during the 16th Century. During the Middle Ages, cemeteries were placed outside the city, but as the city grew, the land was needed for new development. Instead of re-burying the corpses, they were moved to this chapel. At the time (and perhaps even today), this was seen as disrespectful to the dead, but the Franciscan monk at the time wanted to show that all were equal.

Roughly translated: “We bones that here are, await yours.”

 

Yikes.

From Wikipedia.

Whoa.

Oh yeah, there is also plenty of wine to be had in town and in the surrounding areas.

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About the drunken cyclist

I have been an occasional cycling tour guide in Europe for the past 20 years, visiting most of the wine regions of France. Through this "job" I developed a love for wine and the stories that often accompany the pulling of a cork. I live in Houston with my lovely wife and two wonderful sons.
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