Georges Rouzeau - 2010-11-03
Once the preferred residence of the rulers of Portugal, Évora is a white city perched on a hill and protected by ancient walls. In addition to a prodigious wealth of churches and monuments, the capital of the Alentejo has preserved an excellent quality of life.
As we enter Évora via an 18the century gate through the medieval walls
that still encircle it, the charm of the capital of the Alentejo is irresistible. This is our first contact with the enchanting city and it reminds us of a Portuguese Toledo built on a hillside. During our entire, albeit brief, visit we remained entranced with the town as a whole, as well as its myriad details. Something of a time capsule since its decline at the end of the 16th
century, the city’s remarkable cohesion reveals itself in details such as its labyrinth
of Moorish alleys and, w
ith its prodigious concentration of churches and palaces, Évora acts as a museum of architecture and decorative arts. The eye is continually enchanted by the omnipresence of lovely features from the Renaissance to the Baroque periods: from mullioned windows to the carved wood latticework
of Mashrabiyas, from gargoyles to horseshoe arches, Renaissance fountains to Moorish patios, wrought iron balconies to azulejos and from whitewash to pink marble - not to mention the multitude of flowers that give Évora the fragrance and feel of spring, no matter what the time of year.
Évora, pearl of the Renaissance
Évora owes its elegance and loveliness to its status as favoured city of Portugal’s sovereigns since the beginning of the late 12th century. In the shadow of the court, artists and scientists transformed Évora into an exceptional site of Renaissance-style Humanism. It is here that the humanists Garcia and André de Resende resided, as well as Gil Vicente, creator of Portuguese theatre, and French-born sculptor Nicolas Chanterene. The aristocracy built Manueline and Renaissance palaces, the religious orders built convents, and even Muslim decorative art underwent a revival here in the Hispano-Moorish style. Founded in 1559, the Jesuit University of Évora also contributed to spreading the city’s fame far and wide.
Évora’s crowning glory
Right next to the cathedral, at the very summit of the city, is the finest Roman temple of the Iberian Peninsula. Built in the 2nd century CE, the structure resembles the Square House in the French city of Nimes. If the granite podium and Estremoz creme marble capitals are particularly well-preserved, it’s because the temple was walled up in the Middle Ages and did not again see the light of day until the 19C.
Once you’ve visited all of the monuments selected by your chosen guide, the best way to get a taste for the real Évora is to wander around, that delicate art which unites reverie with leisure. This is a small city that sometimes feels like a big one, thanks to vistas that renew themselves infinitely and an incredible range of monuments, from the Roman temple to the cathedral’s Santonge bell tower, discovered throughout the maze of alleys that hide the far horizon. Walk behind the cathedral and you’ll find a labyrinth of passageways and crossovers that lead to the aristocratic residences of Renaissance bishops and nobility. Daytime wandering should be followed by a night-time stroll, since the soft light of the moon gives the town a milky incandescence straight out of The Thousand and One Nights.
The art of ceramic tiles can rival the finest frescoes and mosaics and reaches a peak in Évora. These hand-painted azulejos give a bright cheerfulness to countless facades and walls, adding blue tones to the already colourful palette of this white city in yellow trim. Those of the University are marvellous example. Amidst a decor of sculpted wood, painted ceilings and marbles, azulejos tile panels illustrate the subjects taught in the classrooms. Wait until classes are over to have a discrete look around. You’ll also find superb tiles on the walls of the São Joã Evangelista church (Dos Lóios convent).
A car can be quite useful when taking the six-kilometre tour of Évora’s ramparts. The walls are steeped in city history: Roman ramparts are set upon Celtic foundations and the medieval walls were reinforced in the 18th century by fortifications à la Vauban. Once you’ve circled the town, keep going and follow the aqueduct which begins in the northwest corner of the city, just after the Portas de Lagoa. Built between 1531 and 1542 under the reign of Joáo III, it still supplies Évora with its drinking water. Two kilometres further, Sáo Bento hill, with its natural terrace studded with huge blocks of granite, gives the best panoramic view of the city.
Visitors to the Capela dos Ossos (Chapel of Bones), the São Francisco church ossuary, are welcomed by the following statement: ‘We, the bones that are here, await your bones.’ Franciscans have always been known for their inimitable sense of graveyard humour! In the 16th century, a member of the order decided to collect the bones of 5,000 people from neighbouring cemeteries with the intention of encouraging his spiritual brethren to meditate on impermanence. In typical Baroque style, two mummified corpses - one being a child’s - have been hung from this wall of pure calcium. Effective indeed, especially when accompanied by the playful shrieks of children in the neighbouring school.
The Praça do Giraldo, Évora’s main square, is adorned with a superb Renaissance fountain of Estremoz marble built in 1571. It’s a favourite haunt of pensioners keen on following the advice of Fernando Pessoa: ‘If he is truly wise, a man can enjoy the spectacle of the whole world from his chair.’ Most of the surrounding buildings were built in the 19th century, but the arcades supporting them are older - some dating back to the 17th century. The facade of the Santo Antáo Church can be seen at the far end of the square. To its left is the balcony from which the fearsome Inquisition pronounced its dreadful sentences and where, history tells us, 20,000 people were condemned over a period of 200 years. Knowing this, the coffee served on the café terraces that line the square tastes even sweeter. Several streets begin at the Praça do Giraldo, notably the Rua 5 de Outubro which is lined with crafts shops and the Rua Nova which continues on after the arcades and offers a varied selection of clothing boutiques.
Évora boasts countless fountains, drawing attention to that most precious of resources in what is one of the driest regions of Europe, water,. One of the most stunning fountains is on the Largo da Porta Moura, featuring a white marble column topped with an imposing white marble sphere. At the foot of the square, admire the Casa Cordovil, a beautiful Luso-Moorish loggia with mullioned bay windows.
Évora is a genuine city in the country, the capital of a profoundly rural region where the best corks
in the world are produced, the Spanish bring their pata negra
hogs to feed on acorns, there is plenty of small game such as partridge
and top-quality olive oil flows like ambrosia. Food is clearly a serious business, whether served in a tavern such as 4a Feira
, an esteemed institution such as O Fialho
, or concocted by the fine young chef of Dom Joaquim
. In Évora, ‘country cuisine’ -
a far cry from the gourmet fare of, for example, überchef Ferran Adrià - is the only way to go. As soon as you’re seated, the table is covered with delicious hors d’œuvre known as petiscos
which you can sample or send back immediately - anything ‘touched’ will be on the bill. Sometimes enough for a whole meal, petiscos may include creamy Alentejo cow or goat’s cheese spread, chickpea salad with cod, hard-boiled eggs, garlic and cilantro, rabbit with olive oil and lemon, fava bean and chorizo salad, bell peppers marinated in olive oil, chicken pie and fried pig’s ears. If you’ve got any room left, you can always try Alentejo speciality, pork with clams (see video
), or oven-roasted lamb
served with migas,
the famous baked or fried savoury pudding made of bread, olive oil and garlic (see our article
Évora is located in Portugal’s Alentejo
province, approximately 135 kilometres east of Lisbon. Buses and trains that run from Lisbon to Évora take less than two hours. Hire a car in Lisbon and the drive to Évora will take around an hour and half.
Taberna Tipica Cuarta Feira
Rua do Inverno, 16
Tel: (351) 266 771323
In this family-style tavern with a simple decor - there are two enormous jugs of wine to welcome customers - the moustachioed, entertaining proprietor takes guests under his wing (with no English skills whatsoever) and serves the daily fare, no questions asked. Beginning with an assortment of delicious petiscos, the fare is homespun and delectable. The address is listed in all of the guide books but locals are also great fans of La Taberna Tipica. €25/£22 plus wine.
Travessa das Mascarenhas, 14
Tel: (351) 266 70 30 79
For over 35 years, Évora’s gastronomic bastion has been renowned for its traditional Alentejo cuisine. This family establishment - one brother oversees the dining room, the second mans the kitchen and the third is a well-known food writer - treats customers to local specialities such as Lombo de Porco c/ameijoas (pork loin with baby clams) in two dining rooms decorated in the regional style. From the delicious petiscos to desserts, absolutely everything is made on-site. From Tony Blair to the King of Spain, the creme de la creme have all wined and dined here.
Rua dos Penedos, 6
Tel: (351) 266 731 105
Having learnt the ropes in the city’s best establishments, 38-year-old Joaquim Almeida opened this roomy restaurant four years ago. Faithful to his region and its produce, Almeida adds a personal touch to classic dishes of Alentejo cuisine. When we last dined there, we had a delicious Alentejo lamb stew and caçao
(dogfish) soup. They offer a large selection of soups and petiscos
. (see our article
Where to stay
Rua Diana de Liz, 5
Tel: (351) 266 707 174
This hotel dating from the 1980s may have a dreary decor (extensive renovations are promised this winter) but it’s conveniently located seven minutes from the city walls.