For the whole length of the River Guadiana and beyond, you can see the mighty fortresses that bear witness to Portugal’s struggles over the years with neighbouring Spain. From Castro Marim and Alcoutim in the Algarve, on across the Alentejan plains, past Beja, to my tiny favourite Monsaraz, and dramatic Marvao, the evidence rolls on. The border towns have seen more than their share of strife.
None has a more embattled history than Elvas. Just 12km from the Spanish border and a Moorish stronghold for 500 years, it has some of the best preserved fortifications in Europe. It was of great strategic importance during the wars of independence with Spain, in mid-17th century, and later became Wellington’s base to besiege Badajoz, across the Guadiana. Walking around the castle ramparts above the town you cannot fail to be impressed with the scale of the star-shaped bastions. Or with the views, which are endless.
The only sign of violence on the slumbering streets of Elvas today is the pelourinho. The ornate pillory makes such an artistic photograph that you tend to forget its original purpose, to shackle prisoners. Elvas is one of many small Portuguese towns that repay a little browsing. Nossa Senhora da Annuncao on the main square is hard to miss, but the dilapidated white walls of Nossa Senora dos Aflitos behind it hide a small but achingly lovely interior. Marble columns and glorious azulejos reach high into the cupola. The elegant TI on Praca da Republica can supply a town map, but basically the castle walls are top of the town and everything else falls away below.
Approaching Elvas you are sure to have seen the staggeringly high Aqueduto da Amoreira. With 843 arches and up to five tiers, it still delivers water 5 miles across the valley to the fountain in Largo da Misericordia. You can park on the patchy ground overlooking it to explore the town. Sample the delicious preserved plums sold locally- they are thought to be the original sugar plums after which the Nutcracker Fairy was named.
Most people drawn to this part of the world are attracted here by Evora- an atmospheric walled city of Roman origin, with deserved UNESCO status. I was no exception. I visited in November as a birthday treat so the skies were a bit leaden and the air fresh. Knowing the heat that can envelop the Alentejo in the summer months, I felt this was no bad thing.
As soon as I saw the Praca do Giraldo I felt that bubble of excitement I sometimes have in a new and exciting place. The Moorish arcades march away down the street. Beneath them smart boutiques rub shoulders with more traditional stores. Again I obtain a street map, from the TI on the Praca- more necessary here than Elvas, and a nice memento for my collection.
I did have a plan, but it was thrown to the winds as I delved deeper into the narrow streets, with their intriguing houses and artisans workshops built into the town walls, along with another ancient aqueduct, Agua de Prato (silver water). Backtracking I make for the main sights.
The dramatic ruins of the Templo Romana, commonly known as the Temple of Diana, date back to 2nd Century AD. The oldest Roman remains on the Iberian peninsula, they survived because they were incorporated into a medieval fortress, and later, bizzarely, a slaughterhouse. The façade and mosaic floor have disappeared completely but 14 Corinthian columns remain. They present a lovely vista in Largo Conde Vila Flor, with the mismatched towers of the cathedral beyond. The views in the opposite direction, equally compelling, look out over Evora and the wide open plains. Quiosque Jardim Diana is a good place to linger, with icecream or coffee.
I couldn’t resist a quick peak inside elegant Convento dos Loios. This former monastery, now a pousada (state run hotel), has the most beautiful adjoining chapel, Sao Joao Evangelista. You’d never guess what lies behind the uninviting curtained door. It’s well worth a couple of euros to see.
By contrast the 12th century Cathedral is a rather sombre experience, though striking in appearance, with its asymmetric towers. The cloisters are grand but were outshone for me by those in the Jesuit University. Downhill from the cathedral, the 16th century University stems from Evora’s heyday as a centre of learning and culture. The blue and white azulejo tiled panels indicate the subject taught within each of the classrooms. A hushed atmosphere prevails and I want to tiptoe down the corridor, satchel over my shoulder.
Follow your map down Rua da Republica to find Sao Francisco, the church of the “mother’s curse”. The chapel, Casa dos Ossos (house of bones) is entirely lined with the bones of some 5000 people. Less macabre, the chapterhouse is decorated with azulejos depicting scenes from the Passion and an “altar of promises”. Wax effigies of parts of the body are placed there if prayers for a cure are successful.
Evora is full of graceful architecture. Tradition has it that visiting dignitaries are welcomed by a display of vivid bedspreads hung from the wrought iron balconies. Rua 5 de Outubro is certainly a colourful place to wander. Squeezed into one of the tables at tiny VIPS café, my husband cannot believe that he acquires a samosa, huge slab of cake, glass of wine and coffee for 3 euros. The food is for hearty appetites in the Alentejo. Substantial amounts of black pork are consumed, interesting soups and a goat’s cheese I adore.
There’s a wide range in hotels too, but I opted for a former ducal palace, Albergaria Solar Monfalim, with its faded grandeur. The solid stone staircase climbs to a lofty cloistered area overlooking the cobbled street. (Largo da Misericordia 1)
Evenings are wonderful in Evora, the Temple of Diana and Cathedral spectacularly staged with floodlight. And afterwards a quiet glass of port in the hotel bar, filled with Evora’s past.
Parking is easy on the huge expanse of land outside the town walls, approaching from Lisbon, except maybe when the annual Feria takes place in June. From there you’re through a gate onto Rua Serpa Pinto and history beckons.
While writing this post I discovered that the name Evora derives from the Latin ebora = of yew trees and has links with the city of York, not far from my UK home. In Roman times, York was known as Eboracum, “place of yew trees“. Isn’t life strange sometimes?
This post is part of my personal A-Z of Portugal, Julie Dawn Fox’s great idea. Follow my journey through the header or logos, or even join in. You’ll find some great stories.
Just an afterthought for anyone thinking of visiting in the summer. Evora has good open air swimming pools so it is possible to cool off. http://www2.cm-evora.pt/piscinasmunicipais/condicoes_horarios_verao.htm There’s a map on the site.