Évora

Until we started booking our trip to Portugal I had never heard of Évora. After we booked and until we started driving there, I had to look up the name of the town on our accommodation booking because the name was not sticking in my head. Ahhh, rhymes with Deborah!! And it had Roman Ruins! And megalithic rock formations nearby! Old stuff. At under 3 hours from Carvoeiro and only 90 minutes inland from Lisbon, we headed out at 10 AM with the notion to stop along the way. We deliberately chose “Avoid Tolls” on Google Maps and headed for our first stop of Beja. Rhymes with Asia. In under an hour we had crossed from the Algarve into Portugal’s Alentejo region. Ever since we got on the Portuguese Air (TAP) flight in Montreal we had been enjoying delicious Alentejo wine. As it was now mid-October, the vineyards were full into fall colours and the rest of the flora seemed to be live or evergreen Oak trees, Pignon Pines, Date Palms, Sycamore and many unidentified shrubs. But most were cultivated and very few recognizably wild trees anywhere. More about that later. 

We arrived at Beja, googling its past as we drove.

It is a mediaval walled town on a hill with a castle, a fortress, and a cathedral with paintings and sculptures by artists whose names end in “ini”, “ino”, “cente”, “iera”, “ando” or “occo”. There is always a Maria on a corner, around a bend, or in a parking lot. The roads are most often cobbled in the old towns with layers of official foundations dating tthrough the Romans, Moors, Visigoths, and Christians. For North Americans without an Art History major (Albert and I), this describes Europe. In Portugal, Vasco de Gama, Henry the Navigator and Christopher Columbus were most often mentioned. Why Magellan never got airtime is unclear….Napoleon managed to make Beja the capital of Portugal for a while though.

As this was just a little stop along the way, we were, once again, blown away by the stuff we found. We found parking and proceeded to walk the walled town finding gems that we had no idea would be so amazing. As it was lunch time, everything was closed. We did find a little cafe, had a coffee and pastry then proceeded to the Museum housed in the venerable Convent of Beja. Well preserved ancient Azulejo rooms with gothic arches dominating the cloisters.

Next stop was Castelo de Portel. Again, it never crossed our radar but as we were driving close we could see the castle from the highway and it begged us to turn in. Climbing the narrow streets that had markers “Castelo –>” leading us up and up. We arrived at a parking lot, massive horse and iron clad 14th century warrior atop (Dom Nuno Álvares Pereira) that lead to a set of stairs to the castle. Off we went. While it was somewhat preserved, there was a dedicated walkway around it that was for strolling and sunset. The ancient olive grove still had some stragglers and a modern museum was open with explanations of the history. Of course Vasco de Gama and Henry the Navigaor were big peices of the Portel story.

Off to Évora…

There is very little parking in Évora. Knowing this, we drove under an aqueduct, turned left into the walled city and found our apartment at the junction of 4 inner roads that zoomed past our sidewalk free doorway. We managed to pull over, unload our stuff and half our party, head back outside the walls and find parking at the university near a wall “port” opening. Whew!

Through the door, up the stairs and into a three sided, multilevel ancient apartment that greeted us with windows facing all four streets from 3 of its walls. The traffic on these streets literaly flew past our door.

The kitchen on two levels hid the pint sized propane range up 3 stairs in what may have been a passageway or cupboard at one time. Who knows. The sink was “plumbed” but the overflow inside the sink wasn’t, so we found out while running water into a full sink!! And like in the Algarve apartment, the toilet tank needed to be punched to start the refill after every flush. That aside, we fell in love with Évora. 

We found 3 small but well stocked supermarkets nearby, a butcher shop facing our entryway, though closed when we arrived, and multiple “pastelarias”, pastry shops full of lovely Pastels de Nata and espresso. Jim and Albert stayed in and had a nap, Marn and I went and explored a little. We found a shoe store advertising childrens shoes with wine bottles.

And the Roman Temple was just steps away.

When the bells started ringing near us the next morning, we were out to see the Sé de Évora. At the top of the town, she dominates the Évora skyline. This massive basilica was the largest medieval cathedral in Portugal. The rooftop and adjoining cloisters were made available to tour and look out over the terra cotta topped white buildings and surrounding Alentejo.

Every time we go somewhere new, or visit a museum, or walk through a historic village, or the desert with its different sights and scenes, my brain is filled and I need to decompress. Albert and I will call this “Museum Brain”. Even if we are hiking on a historic path where there is evidence of ancient cultures our imagination or guide book will fill our brains until we can’t do more. After the Sé we were all ready to decompress, and eat!! Right around the corner was a cute cafe under the trees and the Roman Temple. Perfect!!

Next day we were off to the Capela dos Osses – Chapel of Bones. One might think this would be an act of disrespect to the dearly departed after emptying about 43 graveyards freeing up valuable land, but the explanation was that 16th century families wanted their remains closer to Holiness and the Capela accommodated. Hope so…Thousands of femurs, skulls, and lavish Azuleja tilework and frescos made up this Chapel. Beams, walls, archways and cielings decorated so artfully, it was easy to overlook the idea that these were citizens in a wealthy Francescan town, who worked hard, lost children, laughed, loved and died.

All those bones. And then into the rest of the church and museum. There was a nativity museum. Hundreds of nativity scenes from around the world. After all, it was Portugal and theywere all about discovery and sharing the story of Christ. Here are just a few. The details were impeccable.

On the way home, the butcher shop across the street was open and they had rediculously inexpensive fresh quail so I had to debone them, stuff them with sausage, pan roast them in butter, garnish with grapes and serve with smashed potatoes, and scarlet runner beans. Tasty.

The rains came the next day so we took a road trip to the Megalith enclosure of Almendres, about half an hour out of town. Stopping at the visitor center, a privately run information center that is managed by a group whose mission is to educate people about ancient peoples and preservation of historic artifacts and ways. There was no cost to visit and the bonus was talking to one of the educators in the gift shop about not only the megaliths but but the surrounding forests of oaks (cork oak and holm type), the traditional cattle and black pigs that feed on the acorns, the pignon trees that pinenuts are harvested from, and the sycamore trees. These forests have been managed for millennia and are protected. No one, landowner included, is permitted to cut down a tree or even to prune it without a permit. The ecosystem of flora and fauna that exists in these forests has a biodiversity that has been created over time by the humans who benefit. It works. The trees and shrubs grow, the acorns fall and feed the black pigs during the winter season when the grasses have less food value. The acorns fatten the animals. There are signs on the oak trees to parkyour vehicle away from the trees and fallen acorns so as not to ruin them for these foraging beasts.

At the visitor center was an interpretive walk explaining many things including the harvesting of cork. Throughout the Alentejo the cork oak has bands of bark completely removed around the whole base of the tree. We also saw that there were numbers on the trunk of the tree where the bark had been. The interpretive walk explained that it takes about 25 yeas before cork is ready for its first harvested. The diameter of the tree determines how much of the bark can be removed. Three times the diameter does not hurt the tree. The first harvest is not very dense and is not used for wine cork. The second harvest is 10 years later. The numbers on the trees are the last number of the year it was harvested. Ten to twelve years later, the cork is peeled off and the trunk is relabled with the number of that year. 1 = 2021, 9= 2019. The second harvest is more dense than the first. But it is not until the third or fourth harvest (45+ years after planting) that the cork is suitable for capping bottles.

And thats just the trees! The ancient rock formations didn’t disappoint either. According to the sign in the park near the main formation, there are petroglyphs and a notice to “please dont touch”. The one that was best preserved had been buried face down for eons. The story goes, an archeologist was doing some work in the region and a local farmer said he might like to see the stones on his farm. He ditched his original work and the Cromeleque dos Almendres became his legacy work. This is not a drive by tourist-been-there-done-that-got-the-picture-destination such as Stone Henge. We drove to a parking lot at the end of a long bumpy dirt farm road to see these.

Still raining and more to see in the area, we continued in the car to this massive dolmen. The Anta Grande do Zambujeiro was beyond belief. How did they move these massive blocks and from where? This was 3000-4000BC or some say 7000 years ago depending on the source. Then we drove by an old roman bath nearby. All the marble had been harvested for other endeavors over the centuries…

At the end of that day we enjoyed an Alentejo wine tasting nearby with black pig cheeks from our favourite butcher simmering at the apartment. Dinner was simple braised pig cheek on noodles with panroasted carrots. We had to use up the rest of the food in the fridge as we were leaving the next day. The wine was a Vinho de Talha we bought from a different shop and unfortunately didn’t take any pictures of the wonderful woman who educated us. Vinho de Talha is naturally fermented (no added commercial yeast) on the skins in a large clay vessel called an amphora. It was definitely different. Strong acid notes, and slightly effervescent. Not terrible. Magic happens when paired with pig cheek stew!

Next day we drove the car to the Lisbon Airport and hopped a train to Porto. Ahhhhh Porto!!! Well that’s another story.