Évora is a city filled with atmosphere, and has the low-key grandeur of a former royal city once home to the Portuguese court. Walking the maze-like streets you never quite know what you might find as you turn the next corner or pass through a narrow archway. If the streets sometimes reminded me of the medina in Fez or Tunis, it’s probably because these three cities once fell under the control of the same Moorish rulers.
During the medieval period Évora was one of Portugal’s most important towns, politically, religiously and economically. The wealth of beautiful churches and imposing buildings are testimony to the central role the town played in Portuguese life. Yet with changing political fortunes from the late 16th Century onwards, Évora underwent a long, slow and graceful decline.
Tucked away inside its 14th Century city walls the decline was barely noticed by the outside world, and only occasionally did the forces of history impose themselves upon the town. One devastating event happened in 1808 when the city was put to the sword by French Napoleonic troops. A combination of defending Portuguese troops and townspeople were no match for the French who, once inside the city, slaughtered and looted without mercy.
Other than this the city went about its business and sank into relative obscurity. This, it turns out, was fortuitous for the modern visitor. There has been little redevelopment of the old city, and many of the original medieval buildings have survived intact into the 21st Century. The town is an historic and cultural treasure trove that deserves a day of two of exploration.
Amidst the glories of magnificent churches, the town has some exceptional sights to offer, including the Templo Romano. Dating from the 2nd or 3rd Century – that is, 1,800 years old – this extraordinary Roman temple is one of the best preserved Roman buildings on the Iberian Peninsula. The remarkable condition of the temple is thanks to the fact that, instead of being knocked down, it was incorporated into a medieval building. Later used as a slaughter house, it was only rediscovered in the 19th Century.
The same sense of the magical wonder exists with the Aqueduto da Agua Prata, or Aqueduct of Silver Water. This 16th Century engineering marvel brought clean water from miles away into the city and, where it arrives in the neighbourhood around Rua do Cano, it towers high above the surrounding streets. The aqueduct no longer carries water but it is far from obsolete: houses and shops have been built into the arches.
Évora’s many historic wonders are definitely worth the trip alone, but this is also a city with an exciting culinary past and present. We had some of the best food of our trip in Évora, and there are plenty of expert chefs experimenting with traditional Alentejo ingredients and modern recipes. Combined with a variety of excellent local wines, it makes the town a proper foodie destination.