Remerging after several days of immersion in Portugal’s rural Alentejo region, the Unesco World Heritage Site of Évora came as a bit of a shock. It’s all about perspective, but this sleepy provincial town of around 60,000 inhabitants suddenly seemed like a big, bustling city. There were cars, people and noise; finding a parking place was one of the more stressful things we did during our three weeks in Portugal.
Évora is a town that wears its history on its sleeve. Centuries of cultural heritage are crammed inside its 14th Century walls; it’s impossible to walk around the labyrinthine streets without bumping into Roman ruins, Moorish architecture, medieval churches or the town’s 16th Century aqueduct. The Celts settled this area, the Romans enlarged the town; under Moorish rule Évora thrived, following the Christian conquest in 1165 it became a royal city.
Évora’s capture from the Moors is the stuff of legend. The story goes that a Christian knight, Gerald the Fearless (one suspects Gerald had influence with the local press to get that nickname), tricked the defenders and captured the town without bloodshed. Gerald’s feats included climbing a ‘ladder’ made from spears driven into the city walls, singlehandedly subduing the guards and opening the city gates to allow his accomplices to capture the town.
I might be going out on a limb here, but this is almost certainly fiction.
Under the Avis dynasty (1385-1580), the Portuguese Court was based here. This long royal association explains the fabulous collection of churches and palaces; by the time a university was founded in 1559 Évora was one of the most important cities in the country.
The death of the Avis dynasty’s last male heir, King Henrique, in 1580 changed everything: the Spanish seized the Portuguese crown and moved the court to Lisbon, and with it went Évora’s political and economic power.
When the university closed in the 18th Century the decline was absolute. It would be 200 years before Évora regained its university. This long hiatus hasn’t prevented modern students from enjoying themselves. There was much rowdiness when we were there during Freshers Week. Then again, I ordered a glass of wine over lunch one day and it arrived in a half pint glass filled to the brim…I may have discovered the cause the rowdiness.
Despite the youthful influx, the town has fewer inhabitants now than it did in the medieval period: Évora is subject to the same forces pushing young Portuguese towards Lisbon or overseas. The medieval period has, however, bequeathed the town a wonderful selection of churches: this is a town of churches.
Whether Évora’s imposing Cathedral, the Sé de Évora, with tremendous views from the roof; the intimate and exquisite Igreja de Sao Joao Evangelista; the touristy yet gruesome Capela dos Ossos, the Chapel of Bones, within the Igreja de São Francisco; or the beautiful Igreja da Misericórdia, the artistry of Évora’s churches makes it an obligatory stop on any itinerary – although the food and wine scene are contenders for best reason to visit.
Wandering the tangle of narrow medieval streets inevitably brings you to a church, the important thing is to time it so that day-tripping coach parties have either just left or are yet to arrive. Évora is no stranger to tourism, but most of it leaves on a coach in the afternoon. I wanted to visit the Igreja de São Francisco after seeing photos of the artistically displayed bones of over 5000 monks in the Capela dos Ossos – me and every other tourist in Portugal it turned out.
Sadly the church itself was closed for refurbishment. The Capela dos Ossos was open, although was also being refurbished with several people restoring sections of the walls. It was fascinating but a bit disappointing that there was so much noise and activity.
We’d planned to spend three days in Évora but decided to leave a day early and head back into the countryside, before making a dash for the wild Atlantic coast and Portugal’s western beaches. In all honesty, after reading several gushing travel guide reviews we were a little underwhelmed by Évora, although it is home to the most delicious octopus stew I have ever tasted. It was worth the trip alone.