As we are driving to Evora from Merida, about 3 hours, I download the Portuguese dictionary for Google translate so we can use it offline. We start to practice a few words in Portuguese, not easy. The pronunciation of words is very different. I think I read somewhere that the Portuguese language is one of the hardest to master. For example “good morning” is spelt “bom Dia” but pronounced “bom Jia”. “Thank you” for a man is “obrigado” but when a woman says it one says “obrigada”. “Good night” is spelt “boa noite” but phonetically you say” boa noiche”. Yikes!
On the way, we decide to stop in the small town of Elvas. It is a former frontier fortress of easternmost central Portugal, located only 8 kilometres west of the Spanish fortress of Badajoz. Elvas is known for its “star fort” and the “Garrison Border Town of Elvas and its Fortifications” was inscribed as a Unesco World Heritage Site in 2012. We visited the fortress at the top of the town, not well maintained, really just walls, but the grounds are overgrown. Nice view of the countryside. Stop and viewed the church before heading off to Evora.
Along the way we see more vineyards, crops which are being cut, more olive groves and closer to Evora, we see what we think are cork trees. This was indeed confirmed when we arrived at the hotel, as this area is known for its cork. Arrive at the hotel, the Nobel House, a little earlier than thought due to the one hour time difference. Fortunately I had sent a message to the hotel saying we would arrive earlier than their check in time and they were good enough to give us our room right away. Beautiful view from our room to part of the city and the countryside. This place, specifically the parking lot was easy to find. Once again the parking lot is on a different street and will only accommodate six vehicles; but we were fortunate to get a spot.
Due to its well-preserved old town centre, still partially enclosed by medieval walls, and a large number of monuments dating from various historical periods, including a Roman Temple, Évora was classified as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1988. Its population as of 2011 was 56,700, this being the most recent data I can find. It is the capital of the central Alentejo region; which is known for its wines.
Our hotel is said to date back to the 15th century and was a Noble’s house, fully renovated into a hotel and opened its doors about one year ago. The hotel has kept some of the original furniture in common areas (just to look at, not to sit on) and shows some original brick and tile work that are said date back centuries. A beautifully brick arched ceiling in the restaurant area.
Weather continues to be cool, 20C and everyone is saying that the weather is unusually cool for this time of year. Hasn’t stopped us from doing anything, we have avoided the rain for the most part.
Spent the afternoon walking around the town and once again getting to know our way around, although not difficult in this small town. The manager of the hotel told us to simply get lost!
We visited the Evora Cathedral. The main façade is built with rose granite, and has two massive towers completed in the 16th century. The Cathedral itself was built mainly between 1280 and 1340 and was designed following closely the floor plan of the Lisbon cathedral. Beautiful cloisters in a gothic style. I opted to climb the tower and found myself on the roof of the cathedral which is said to be the highest point in Evora. Got some great pictures from there. A museum next door of Christian artifacts and art but we opted out of visiting.
Ate at the hotel tonight and our young waiter told us that he was from a small town of about 200 residents, near Evora, and he and his mother moved here so that he could make a living to support her as she had separated from her husband. His english was quite good and he gave us a few words in Portuguese to get us by. We had two traditional dishes “Bacalhau a Bras” (A Bras Codfish ) and “Arroz de Pato” (Duck rice); both very delicious. Could not find what “a bras” meant…….possibly a peasant dish?
Thursday the 7th of June. The hotel tried to organize a walking tour, but insufficient people attending; so the tour was cancelled. Not a big issue, this is a very small old town and we can find our way around very easily. As the Manager said, just get lost.
The young lady at the front desk suggests that we go the the Univerdidade de Evora, so we head out in that direction, just a couple blocks from the hotel. The University was founded in 1559. I am always amazed when I see some of these dates in Europe…Canada wasn’t even a country! It was originally a community of Jesuit seminarians, and we know they were missionaries and teachers. In 1759 the university was closed by the Marquis of Pombal and the Jesuits were expelled from Portugal. They make it sound like we should know this Marquis!
OK, my reading on the Marquis tells me that he was basically the Prime Minister of the day. He was instrumental in acting quickly after the 1755 Lisbon earthquake to restore order to the country. From Wikipidia – [He introduced many fundamental administrative, educational, economic, and ecclesiastical reforms justified in the name of “reason” and instrumental in advancing secularisation in Portugal. However, historians argue that Pombal’s implementation of the ideas of the “Enlightenment”, while far-reaching, was primarily a mechanism for enhancing autocracy at the expense of individual liberty and especially an apparatus for crushing opposition, suppressing criticism, and furthering colonial economic exploitation as well as intensifying print censorship and consolidating personal control and profit. He was the leading opponent of the Jesuits across Europe.] Doesn’t sound all that nice!
The University remained closed for over 200 years until it reopened in 1973. During the years the building had been used for other purposes. A double-tiered limestone building with arched galleries, lovely. We tour the building, even peaking into the classrooms. Some students and teachers around, but really quite empty, assume classes are over for the summer season. Lovely mosaics in the classrooms and I particularly liked the tiles that are sculpted into designs and not square.
We are looking for the “biblioteca” and I ask a gentleman who is coming out of an office, “where is the library located”. By the way I said “perdon” probably with my french accent and he proceeded to direct us, in french” and told us we must not miss the library and to ensure we looked at the ceiling. I continue to be amazed by the people in Europe who speak multiple languages, what a gift. We find the library and enter, fantastic. Like walking back in time with the bookshelves all around and old desks where students are studying. A sign on the door said “silencio” when we walked in and indeed it was quiet and indeed the ceiling was marvellous.
We then go to view the Templo Romano with its corinthian columns but not as well preserved as the one we saw in Merida. The temple is believed to have been built in the first century. My research tells me that the temple was partially destroyed in the fifth century by “invading Germanic peoples”, probably those darn Visigoths! It is also often mistakenly called the Temple of Diana but it has no association with the Roman goddess of hunt but is from a legend created in the 17th century by the Portuguese priest and the name is still used today when people refer to it. I read that it was somewhat restored in 1871.
In front of the statue are the “Jardin de Diana”, a lovely tree lined garden which overlooks part of the town and in the distance we note an ancient aqueduct. Nice stop for a cup of coffee/tea.
We decide to take in the Modern Art Gallery which is located in a beautiful building, not sure of the style, but very imposing. The entry was free and the present installation featured several Portuguese female artists. As usual with a modern art gallery, some really weird art and some very interesting works. When we left we asked the guard what the building was originally used for…..he tells us it was the “Palace of Inquisition”. I did find out that Evora was a town where the inquisition was conducted in addition to Lisbon and Goa in India.
Head down to the main shopping area, Rua 5 de Outubro. This narrow cobblestone pedestrian street is lined with souvenir shops that hold everything “cork”……cork purses, cork hats, wallets, glass cases, key chains, fobs, etc. Some lovely homes above the shops, all whitewashed buildings, with wrought iron balconies decorated with flowers. This road leads to the main square, Praca do Giraldo. The dog below is real, not cork….thought he was just too cute…..he also had a mate with him.
While heading down to the main square, we came across a little french cafe which caught our eye, as the menu featured quiche and croissants. I know we are not in France, but we need something different to eat than tapas and meat. We came back here for lunch and indeed the owner was a French woman so we were able to converse in french. Also indulged in a “pain au raisin” and a “pain au chocolat” for our late afternoon tea back at the hotel. Some different wall art and signs in the town, always like coming across something different.
Well what a great dining experience tonight. We had a reservation at Momentos, a restaurant recommended by the hotel. From the minute we walked in, till we left a very enjoyable evening. The owner, George, is quite the character and very hands on. When he first comes to the table, he looks at me and says “I know you, I saw you today at the french cafe”. He goes on to tell us that when we were using our translator program on our phone, that the Portuguese was Brazilian Portuguese which is pronounced differently from that here in Portugal. Well, we all had a good chuckle about this. We have come across this difference in pronunciation relating to Spanish where the Spanish pronunciation in Spain is different than that of South America.
He comes to the table, welcomes us then proceeds to explain the menu which is on a chalkboard. He cooks farm to table and uses whatever is fresh at the market. He goes over the appetizers and main meals, explaining in detail the ingredients used. We opt for fresh sautéed vegetables (minus the balsamic vinegar – for Robin who has trouble with vinegar) and George tells us that he will add spices to add flavour as we asked him to omit the vinegar. All the dishes are served on slate platters. To start he provides a basket of fresh bread, local olive oil, local cheese and olives. Then a small “amuse bouche” of a vegetable soup in a shot glass. The sautéed vegetables arrive and the spices are arranged aside so that one has the option to mix them in . Robin has lamb and I had goat. Both are served with small diced vegetables and my goat also has figs. Both were served with four different purees surrounding the meat. Vegetable, onion, tomato, beet with strawberries, pumpkin and squash. So delicious. Skipped desert as simply sated with the main meals. Someone wrote on a review that George was the price of admission. Every time he would come to the table or by the table he would tap me on the shoulder or give me a big smile……had to get my picture taken with him! The waitresses were just as charming. Owners like George are those who make a total difference in one’s experience.
I have to add that while I was working on my blog, I got a message from Bob, a friend in Calgary, who had seen Robin’s pictures on FB from our time in Evora. I usually post my blogs a few days after leaving a town/city. Bob sent me a picture of his spouse, Joanne with George…..what a laugh! Not sure how long ago that picture was taken as George looked younger! I won’t tell him that. He must charm all the ladies that dine at his restaurant!
Friday, June 8th and we head out to see some of the recommended sites in Evora. Our first stop is the “Jardim Publico” the public gardens and it starts raining, so we take cover under some large umbrella at an outdoor cafe. Robin had his umbrella and I have a rain jacket on. The rain finally subsides, walk around the garden and locate some old ruins; the gardens seem a little neglected.
Then off to the “Igreja de San Francisco” and the “Capela dos Ossos; a church and its chapel. They say that this is the most impressive church after the Cathedral, but both Robin and I think it is much more ornate. It was built in the 16th century and is really quite lovely inside. The first time that we see the blue tile, that we saw in places like the University, has been incorporated into the beautification of the interior of this church. The church also had a museum of nativity scenes that were really quite interesting.
It is the chapel however that sees most of the tourists. If you haven’t figured it out yet “Ossos” means bones. There is an inscription above the chapel that reads “We, the bones that are here, await yours”. The bones of some 5,000 skeletons dug up from cemeteries in the area line the ceilings and supporting columns.A 16th century Franciscan monk placed skulls and jaws across the ceiling; arm and leg bones are stacked on the supporting columns. It is said that this monk wanted to prod his brothers into contemplation of life!
Robin and I came across a very small chapel like this last year while cycling in the countryside along the Danube in a tiny village. Very creepy!
We come across an abandoned church which is being used for a public art display, very small but interesting.
We also go down a small alley to view the “Igreja da Graca”, this building/church appears abandoned as well; but definitely has Roman themes. Then continue to the Praca do Giraldo, the arcade lined square in the centre of the old walled city where we stop for coffee/tea. we also stop in to look at the Cafe Arcada. I had read that this cafe/restaurant was an institution in Evora and that it was decorated with photos of the big bands that played there in the 1940’s. Has a bit of an art deco inside and some pictures hanging, but not many.
As I mentioned before a lot of shops that sell everything cork. My usual curiosity led me to read a little more about cork. Portugal is the world’s larges producer of cork and mainly from this region. It takes two decades before the trees can be harvested and their bark is carefully stripped once every nine years. They put numbers on the trees to indicate the last year of harvest.
Continue our walk in search of the “Termas Romanas”, the Roman baths. We enter one building and we think it is a water pumping station. They do have a display regarding water in the area and we find out that the aqueducts that the Roman’s built are still in use today. A dam was built many years ago, but they had problems with the water quality for a while, so repaired the aqueducts and started to use them again. The lady at the desk of the pumping station tells us that the Roman baths are located at City Hall. On to City Hall and indeed the city hall is built on top of the Roman baths and one can view them. Not much there, but still nice to see.
Back to the main square to get some lunch and all of a sudden we here “Bonjour” being said to us. We turn around to see George from the restaurant last night. He was having coffee with a friend and just wanted to wish us a good day. Very charming!
Some additional pictures from our time in Evora.
This evening we arranged a tour with a private guide (Jose) and driver (Hugo), to take us out to the megaliths near Evora. There are 10 megalithic enclosures in the area and we visited two that were nearby. The megalithic monuments (made up of big rocks) were placed in the Evora region because the plains in Alentejo were perfect for the last communities of hunter-gatherers to practise their way of living.
Jose is an archeologist with the City of Evora but started up his own tour company a few months ago to supplement his income. He told us that wages in Portugal are very low, even with the improvement in the economy in the last year. He told us that the main economy of Evora is its wine production, cork production and tourism. This is only his second tour in English, and although broken, he is understood.
Our first stop is a Monolith, one large stone. He tells us that these were used to mark the landscape, as sort of road marker. It stands on the highest point in the valley. Also a phallic symbol which is symbolic of reproduction. Meant to “thank Mother Earth” for all that she provides. Is also known as a centre of positive energy. Jose tells us that at summer solstice, the various monuments are inundated with people who believe in the spirits and positive energy of the megaliths. He goes on to mention that surveys have shown that only 1/3 of the monoliths and other stones are above earth with the other 2/3rds buried deep in the ground.
Evora is in the middle of 3 major sites and if one drew a line from the city of Evora to the various sites, they would each point to the cathedral. The stones are all granite and some have markings on them. The second site he takes us to is a sight of hundreds of stones, a megalith. Here the stones form two circles, one smaller inner circle, which the archeologists believe to be older and a larger circle which encompasses the smaller circle. Small excavations have been done on both sites and small shards of pottery and jewellery have been found, which they believe to be offerings.
We enjoyed touring these sights out in the countryside and the light was absolutely wonderful in the late afternoon. Quite lovely overlooking the valleys below.
We also saw lots of cork trees and Jose confirmed what I had stated earlier. He added that people who remove the cork are highly paid as it is an art to remove the cork so that the tree is not destroyed. These basically use a chisel and mark a line down the truck and then carefully peel off the cork. He told us the richest man in Portugal is the one who owns the cork business. The Evora region is the sole cork producer of Portugal.
Also saw lots of storks on their nests in the countryside, unfortunately unable to get a picture. Jose told us that they are a protected species. At one time they were in danger of extinction, but have made a great come back.
Go to another restaurant La Tabla de Nada which was recommended by our hotel. Another excellent meal. We shared an appetizer and also a main meal, “Presa de Porco Preto” a black pork loin which was the house specialty, delicious. We have been told several times that the pork used in better restaurants is from black pigs. They are smaller than a normal pig and the meat is better.
We really had no expectations of our time in Evora, but must say, we really enjoyed our time here. The people in Evora, Portugal were so friendly and we enjoyed getting lost in the streets!