Evora Portugal: Unravel the secrets of a revered UNESCO site

We are standing at the highest point of the walled city of Evora, one of Portugal's most revered UNESCO world heritage sites. And we are being challenged by Maria, our good-natured city guide, to open our eyes and our imagination.

"Look around you," she says. "Without moving anything but your head you can see the whole of Portuguese history from here."

It's all visible, encompassed in stone, she points out. This is a city that has witnessed the likes of Hannibal's Carthaginians, the Romans, the Visigoths, the Moors and the Spanish Inquisition. 

We are standing at the very crest of the city, with commanding views over the surrounding Alentejan plain. Every conquering power made their mark in this little square, Largo do Conde de Vila Flor.

Immediately in front of us is the one construction that, after 19 centuries, remains the most potent civic symbol of Evora – the Roman temple.

We're on an Insight Vacations luxury coach tour through Portugal and Spain. Toni Aguillar, our entertaining and well-informed Spanish-born tour leader, had earlier described it as "Diana's temple". 

But Maria metaphorically wags her finger. "No sign, no reference, no statue to Diana has ever been found here," she assures him. "So, to be historically accurate, we can only call it a Roman temple."

Either way, the temple is small, but perfectly formed. The Romans conquered Evora in 57BC, determined to finally push the pesky Carthaginians out of the Iberian Peninsula. Julius Caesar renamed the city, and the temple was built soon afterwards, along with all the other trappings of Roman civilisation. Sadly, only remnants of the Roman walls and baths remain – apart from the proudly upstanding columns of this temple.

As the Roman Empire was sacked in the 6th century, it was the Visigoths under King Leovigild who took over Evora in 584. Maria describes how the Visigoths were a practical people. They needed to remove all trappings of Roman power, but they also needed a civic hall. So they used the already ancient columns as the tent poles of their meeting house, enclosing them for several more centuries. After the fall of the Visigoths, the temple had many uses – armoury, theatre, even slaughterhouse – until it was decided in 1870 to strip away subsequent additions and expose the impressive Corinthian columns.

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Evora is one of the oldest student cities in Europe. On our way up from one of the city gates, Maria points out the school the Jesuits founded in 1559, the Colegio do Espirito Santo. It prospered as a seat of learning until 1759, when the college was closed by the reforming Marques de Pombal who banished the Jesuits from Portugal. Today the school buildings are part of the city's university.

As we face the temple, the Museu de Evora is on our right, occupying a building that began life as a 16th century palace. For many years, Evora was a popular summer residence of Portuguese kings, until it fell out of favour after 1580 when Spain annexed Portugal.

Behind us, visible for miles, is the city's cathedral, built to show the Moors – who had ruled Evora from 715 to 1165 – that they would have a hard job taking back the city. 

But what if we turn our heads to the left? What's that building next to the temple? Or that strange, almost Masonic symbol, over the doorway to the left?

Those, Maria explains, are proof the Spanish Inquisition was here. The inquisition marked the start of religious intolerance in modern Europe (and the world) that has escalated in the 21st century. Beforehand, Jews, Christians and Muslims had all lived in relative harmony. Afterwards, nothing was the same again.

As we leave the Largo do Conde de Vila Flor, we pause in front of the cathedral, Santa Maria, dedicated to the Virgin Mary and built between 1186 and 1250. 

Maria tells us the cathedral was deliberately built to resemble a fortress as a symbol of Christian strength, an insurance against any future Moorish ambitions. Its two towers are oddly mismatched. One has castle-like turrets, the other is topped by a blue cone, giving the facade a hunchbacked appearance: this truly is the Quasimodo of cathedrals.

Inside, Santa Maria is far more visually pleasing. Maria points out the differences between two statues facing each other on either side of the nave. The one on the right is a wonderful example of Renaissance sculpture, a graceful and naturalistic figure of the Angel Gabriel breaking the news to Mary that she has been selected to bear the Son of God.

The gold-leaf framed statue on the left, however, though far more stilted and less anatomically accurate, is much more fascinating. Maria describes it as a fine example of pre-Renaissance sculpture, designed to convey the message of the gospels to a congregation of illiterate worshippers. Here, the Virgin Mary – with her left hand protectively held over an already swelling belly, rather like a princess about to be snapped by the papparazzi – holds up her right palm like a policeman signalling traffic to stop. In this case, Maria explains, it is a sign the virgin is faithfully agreeing to God's peculiar challenge.

I like Maria, but not all of our party do. One fellow guest quits our afternoon walking tour as soon as we leave the cathedral, proclaiming loudly that Maria is "factually inaccurate". Well, I never caught her out, and I love her natural gifts as a born storyteller. 

Our group is staying at M'AR De Ar Aqueduto​, an elegant five-star boutique hotel that has been converted from a 16th century aristocratic palace and a former nunnery (my room is in the nunnery). The hotel's principal attraction – apart from its position within the city walls – is its view of Evora's magnificent 16th century aqueduct, designed by military architect Francisco de Arruda, who had previously designed Lisbon's famous Belem Tower. Also known as "the Silver Water Aqueduct", it was considered a masterpiece of Renaissance engineering.

One morning, after a five-kilometre run with a few early risers in our party around Evora's 17th century walls (the earlier Roman and mediaeval ones having long since disappeared) I take a winter plunge in the hotel's expansive pool just to enjoy the sight of the aqueduct from the water. In summer, this must be one of the most blissful swimming pools to hang out in all Portugal.

Evora, in the heart of the Alentejo region, is well known as one of Portugal's wine and gastronomy meccas. Six types of grape provide the basis of Alentejo wines, three of them (Roupeira, Rabo de Ovelha and Antao Vaz)  used to make the region's whites while the other three (Periquita, Trincadeira and Aragonez) go into the region's reds.

The Alentejo is also justly celebrated for its smoked sausages and cold meats; its Serpa, Nisa and Evora cheeses; and its river fish stews and lamb stew soups. But the region's most famous dishes revolve around the delicious black pork (derived from the distinctive mud-coloured Iberian pigs), which I try one night when our group takes over Maria Luisa restaurant. 

But back to Maria's afternoon walk. From the cathedral, it is more of a convivial downhill preamble through impossibly picturesque, cobbled streets than a tour. Some of the streets have amusing, evocative names which speak volumes about their origins, such as the Alley of the Unshaven Man and the Street of the Countess's Tailor. Every few metres we stop to look at shops selling immaculate tiles, plates, other ceramics, wines, ports and pastries.

But since this is Portugal, home to about 30 per cent of the world's cork trees, the most extraordinary shops are those showing what you can make out of the exterior layer of the cork tree, apart from the stopper in a wine bottle. 

Cork shoes, cork tiles, cork placemats, cork bowls, cork baskets, cork handbags, even cork hats – those I had anticipated. But cork dresses? Very handy if you are likely to spill wine on them.

We dawdle on down the Rua de Vasco Da Gama to Praca do Giraldo, the city's main square, bound on its eastern side by elegant Moorish arches. This being November, men are roasting delicious chestnuts in the square: in summer, the alfresco cafes around the 16th century fountain must be stunning.

We then head along Rua da Republica towards one of Evora's most bizarre tourist attractions: the Capela dos Ossos​, literally "Chapel of the Bones".

Within the 15th century church dedicated to St Francis, his Franciscan followers have created a grotesque grotto-like room which is "decorated" with the skulls and bones of 5000 monks. 

Above the entrance way you'll find the words: "Nos ossos que aqui estamos, pelos vossos esperamos​", which translates as"We bones that are here, await yours". Similar chapels are to be found apparently, in a handful of other European cities – most notably Rome's Capuchin Crypt and Prague's Sedlec Ossuary – but I've never seen one before.

Maria tells us Evora's chapel was built in the 16th century in the spirit of the Counter-Reformation, to remind worshippers that life is transitory but the spirit eternal.

Two mummified figures, one of them a child, are hung from ropes among the bones.

It's weird but wonderful. And, boy, does it make you appreciate being alive. 

Now where were those cafes selling a glass of Alentejo wine and a pastry that Evora is famous for?

TRIP NOTES

MORE INFORMATION

evoraportugal.com.

GETTING THERE

Emirates Airline has three daily flights from Sydney and Melbourne via Dubai to Lisbon and Madrid. See emirates.com/au.

TOURING THERE 

Insight Vacations' 10-day Country Roads of Portugal visits Lisbon, Portimao, Evora, Tomar, Douro Valley and Porto. Signature events include a visit to the cathedral in Evora with a local expert. Priced from $2625 per person, twin share (single supplement from $780). Each escorted journey has a host of inclusions such as premium centrally located hotels, an experienced tour director, signature experiences and priority access. Departures March–October 2015. For more information visit insightvacations.com or call 1300 301 672.

The writer was a guest of Insight Vacations.

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