A journey into pre-historic Portugal

Getting back on the road after a couple of days exploration of historic Evora, we headed further inland towards Monsaraz and the Spanish border, travelling several millennia into pre-history as we went. Surrounding Evora, and throughout this region of Portugal, are numerous wonderful Megalithic sites dating back 7,000 years or more to the Neolithic period of human history.

Megaliths, literally ‘giant stones’, can be seen all over the world, everywhere from Stonehenge to the Maoi of Easter Island. Europe is littered with them and this region of Portugal has more than its fair share. Time travel may not be possible, but visiting these atmospheric ancient sites built by our distant relatives is as close as it comes.

Cromeleque dos Almendres, Evora, Portugal

Cromeleque dos Almendres, Evora, Portugal

Cromeleque dos Almendres, Evora, Portugal

Cromeleque dos Almendres, Evora, Portugal

Cromeleque dos Almendres, Evora, Portugal

Cromeleque dos Almendres, Evora, Portugal

The Neolithic era could be considered the final hurrah of the Stone Age. It culminated in the Neolithic Revolution, when humanity developed agriculture, cultivated crops, domesticated farm animals and moved away from a hunter gatherer lifestyle to one of permanent settlement and increased population growth.

An improved diet and more settled communities presumably gave people more time and inclination to build things, rather than chasing wild animals around for lunch…and build things they did. The Neolithic Revolution saw incredible cultural change and led to the Bronze Age, the first time humanity developed and used metal tools.

Cromeleque dos Almendres, Evora, Portugal

Cromeleque dos Almendres, Evora, Portugal

Cromeleque dos Almendres, Evora, Portugal

Cromeleque dos Almendres, Evora, Portugal

Cromeleque dos Almendres, Evora, Portugal

Cromeleque dos Almendres, Evora, Portugal

The great flourishing of human enterprise throughout the Neolithic Revolution has bequeathed the world some of its most dramatic and extraordinary ancient monuments. The stones of Almendres, or the Cromeleque dos Almendres, remain enigmatically silent but this collection of standing stones make a powerful statement.

Cromeleque dos Almendres, Evora, Portugal

Cromeleque dos Almendres, Evora, Portugal

The Cromeleque dos Almendres wasn’t ‘discovered’ until the 1960s, possibly because it is located in a wooded cork tree landscape in the middle of the countryside. You reach it by driving off the paved road and down a dirt track. The last part of the journey is on foot between the trees and with only birdsong for company. There was a time when people could drive right to the stones, thankfully the authorities have changed that.

Cromeleque dos Almendres, Evora, Portugal

Cromeleque dos Almendres, Evora, Portugal

Early morning, with soft sunlight illuminating the stones, this is a magical place. The site was 3,000 years in the making – between 6,000BC and 3,000BC – and is one of the largest in Europe and one of the oldest in the world. Despite our best efforts we know precious little of the people who built the Cromeleque dos Almendres or what it was used for, but there is likely a connection with the sun and fertility – both critical to these emerging farming communities.

Cromeleque dos Almendres, Evora, Portugal

Cromeleque dos Almendres, Evora, Portugal

Circular stone carving, Cromeleque dos Almendres, Evora, Portugal

Circular stone carving, Cromeleque dos Almendres, Evora, Portugal

Some of the stones have shapes carved into them – time and weather have taken their toll, but you can still see them. Some shapes appear to be crook shaped, like a primitive agricultural tool and is repeated on Megaliths across the region.

Just down the road from the Cromeleque dos Almendres is another, entirely different, Megalithic site. Instead of dozens of stones crowded together, the Menhir Dos Almendres is a solitary giant stone standing three metres high amidst more cork trees. It dates from the same period as the Cromeleque dos Almendres, give or take a 1000 years. Aligned along the sunrise of the winter solstice it had a role in the functioning of the Cromeleque.

Menhir Dos Almendres, Evora, Portugal

Menhir Dos Almendres, Evora, Portugal

Menhir Dos Almendres, Evora, Portugal

Menhir Dos Almendres, Evora, Portugal

Leaving the Menhir Dos Almendres behind we decided to take the scenic route towards Monsaraz, and spent the next hour driving around country roads completely lost. We spotted a brown ‘tourism’ sign pointing down a bumpy dirt road and decided to see where it took us. After we’d driven through a large puddle, that went over the top of the wheels of our hire car, I began to doubt the wisdom of this decision.

Finally, we arrived in the middle of nowhere. A small bridge led over a stream and a path weaved its way across a field. After a few minutes walk we discovered the answer to the mystery, the Great Dolmen of Anta Grande do Zambujeiro. Dating from 3,000 – 4,000BC it is a dramatic sight in the middle of a field, although the horrible protective tin roof over the top takes away some of the glamour.

Great Dolmen of Anta Grande do Zambujeiro, Portugal

Great Dolmen of Anta Grande do Zambujeiro, Portugal

Great Dolmen of Anta Grande do Zambujeiro, Portugal

Great Dolmen of Anta Grande do Zambujeiro, Portugal

This was a Neolithic, Megalithic burial site of some grandeur, the largest of its kind on the Iberian Peninsula. Excavations – which were probably a bit more like tomb raiding – in the 1960s discovered stone, ceramic and metal ceremonial objects. Today little remains beyond the the huge stones but it is set in a wonderfully atmospheric place – surrounded by open countryside and cork trees, cow bells ringing in the distance.

Great Dolmen of Anta Grande do Zambujeiro, Portugal

Great Dolmen of Anta Grande do Zambujeiro, Portugal

Great Dolmen of Anta Grande do Zambujeiro, Portugal

Great Dolmen of Anta Grande do Zambujeiro, Portugal

I hadn’t realised, but there are Dolmen structures all over the world that have similar characteristics: from Ireland to India to Korea. Standing in a field in the middle of Portugal we’d found a structure that, 7,000 years ago, would have been recognised and understood by cultures as diverse as those.

A walk through ancient Evora

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.

Evora Cathedral, Evora, Portugal

Evora Cathedral, Evora, Portugal

Evora, Portugal

Evora, Portugal

Evora, Portugal

Evora, Portugal

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.

Evora, Portugal

Evora, Portugal

Evora, Portugal

Evora, Portugal

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.

Evora, Portugal

Evora, Portugal

Evora, Portugal

Evora, Portugal

Evora, Portugal

Evora, Portugal

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.

Caged birds, Evora, Portugal

Evora, Portugal

Evora, Portugal

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.

Templo Romano, Evora, Portugal

Templo Romano, Evora, Portugal

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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.

Aqueduto da Agua Prata, Aqueduct of Silver Water, Evora, Portugal

Aqueduto da Agua Prata, Aqueduct of Silver Water, Evora, Portugal

Aqueduto da Agua Prata, Aqueduct of Silver Water, Evora, Portugal

Aqueduto da Agua Prata, Aqueduct of Silver Water, Evora, Portugal

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.

A city where histories collide, glorious Évora

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.

Evora's main square, Praça do Giraldo, Portugal

Evora’s main square, Praça do Giraldo, Portugal

Evora, Portugal

Evora, 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.

Evora, Portugal

Evora, Portugal

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.

Évora Cathedral, the Sé de Évora, Portugal

Évora Cathedral, the Sé de Évora, Portugal

A rare surviving image of a pregnant Virgin Mary, Évora Cathedral, Portugal

A rare surviving image of a pregnant Virgin Mary, Évora Cathedral, Portugal

Évora Cathedral, the Sé de Évora, Portugal

Évora Cathedral, the Sé de Évora, Portugal

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.

View from the roof of Évora Cathedral, the Sé de Évora, Portugal

View from the roof of Évora Cathedral, the Sé de Évora, Portugal

Cloisters, Évora Cathedral, Portugal

Cloisters, Évora Cathedral, Portugal

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.

A glass of wine with lunch in Evora, Portugal

A glass of wine with lunch in Evora, Portugal

Igreja da Misericórdia, Evora, Portugal

Igreja da Misericórdia, Evora, Portugal

Igreja da Misericórdia, Evora, Portugal

Igreja da Misericórdia, Evora, Portugal

Igreja da Misericórdia, Evora, Portugal

Igreja da Misericórdia, Evora, Portugal

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.

Igreja de Sao Joao Evangelista, Evora, Portugal

Igreja de Sao Joao Evangelista, Evora, Portugal

Igreja de Sao Joao Evangelista, Evora, Portugal

Igreja de Sao Joao Evangelista, Evora, Portugal

Igreja de Sao Joao Evangelista, Evora, Portugal

Igreja de Sao Joao Evangelista, Evora, Portugal

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.

Capela dos Ossos, Chapel of Bones, Igreja de São Francisco, Evora, Portugal

Capela dos Ossos, Chapel of Bones, Igreja de São Francisco, Evora, Portugal

Capela dos Ossos, Chapel of Bones, Igreja de São Francisco, Evora, Portugal

Capela dos Ossos, Chapel of Bones, Igreja de São Francisco, Evora, Portugal

Capela dos Ossos, Chapel of Bones, Igreja de São Francisco, Evora, Portugal

Capela dos Ossos, Chapel of Bones, Igreja de São Francisco, Evora, Portugal

Capela dos Ossos, Chapel of Bones, Igreja de São Francisco, Evora, Portugal

Capela dos Ossos, Chapel of Bones, Igreja de São Francisco, Evora, Portugal

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.

Evora, Portugal

Evora, Portugal

Evora, Portugal

Evora, Portugal

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.