By Rick Steves
Deep in the heart of Portugal, in the sizzling, arid plains of the southern province of Alentejo, historic Évora (EH-voh-rah) has been a cultural oasis for 2,000 years. With an untouched provincial atmosphere, a fascinating whitewashed old town, museums, a cathedral, a chapel of bones, and even a Roman temple, Évora (pop. 50,000) stands proudly amid groves of cork and olive trees.
From Romans to Moors to Portuguese kings, this little town has a big history. Just a two-hour bus ride (or three-hour train ride) from Lisbon, Évora was once a Roman town (second century B.C. to fourth century A.D.), important because of its wealth of wheat and silver, as well as its location on a trade route to Rome. Most of Évora's Roman past is buried under the houses and hotels of today (often uncovered by accident when plumbing work needs to be done in basements). The Moors ruled Évora from the eighth to the 12th centuries. Around the year 1000, Muslim nobles divided the caliphate up into small city-states (like Lisbon), with Évora as this region's capital. And during its glory years (15th–16th centuries), Évora was favored by Portuguese kings, even serving as the home of King John III (1502–1557, Manuel I's son who presided over Portugal's peak of power...and its first decline).
Évora's walled city is compact. The main sights are clustered within a five-minute walk of the main square, Praça do Giraldo (PRA-suh doo zhee-RAHL-doo). The square was named for Giraldo the Fearless, the Christian knight who led a surprise attack and retook Évora from the Moors in 1165. As thanks, Giraldo was made governer of the town and the symbol of the city (Évora's coat of arms is a knight on a horse; see it crowning the lampposts). On this square, all that's left of several centuries of Moorish rule is their artistry, evidenced by the wrought-iron balconies of the buildings that ring the square (and an occasional distinctive Mudejar "keyhole" window found throughout the town).
In the 16th century, King John III lived in Évora for 30 years. The TI is inside the palace where the king's guests used to stay, but others weren't treated as royally. A fervent proponent of the Inquisition, King John sanctioned the deaths of hundreds of people burned as heretics on this square. Now it's just a sleepy square, perfect for strolling.
Évora's major sights — a Roman temple and an early Gothic cathedral — crowd close together just off the main square. A lively shopping street connects these sights with the square. Shoppers lag behind, browsing through products of the region: cork (even postcards), tile, leather, ironwork, and Arraiolos rugs (made with a distinctive weave in the nearby town).
The Roman temple, with its 14 Corinthian columns, was part of the Roman forum and the main square in the first century A.D. Today, the town's open-air concerts and events are staged here against an evocative temple backdrop. It's beautifully floodlit at night. While known as the Temple of Diana, it was more likely dedicated to the emperor.
Évora's impressive cathedral was built after Giraldo's conquest — on the site of the mosque. Inside the cathedral, midway down the nave on the left, is a 15th-century painted marble statue of a pregnant Mary. It's thought that early priests, hoping to make converts out of Celtic pagans who worshipped mother goddesses, felt they'd have more success if they kept the focus on fertility. Throughout Alentejo, there's a deeply felt affinity for this ready-to-produce-a-savior Mary. Loved ones pray here for blessings during difficult deliveries. Across the aisle, a more realistic Renaissance Gabriel, added a century later, comes to tell Mary her baby won't be just any child. The 16th-century pipe organ still works, and the 18th-century high altar is Neoclassical. The muscular Jesus — though carved in wood — matches the marble all around.
A three-minute walk from the main square is the Church of St. Francis. The saint, who valued simplicity, would likely be horrified by the gilded excess.
A bone chapel (Capela dos Ossos) is outside, the right of the church entrance. The intentionally thought-provoking message above the chapel reads:"We bones in here wait for yours to join us." Inside the macabre chapel, bones line the walls as 5,000 skulls stare blankly at you from walls and arches. They were unearthed from various Évora churchyards. This was the work of three monks who were concerned about society's values at the time. They thought this would provide Évora, a town noted for its wealth in the early 1600s, with a helpful place to meditate on the transience of material things in the undeniable presence of death. The bones of the three Franciscan monks who founded the church in the 13th century are in the small white coffin by the altar.
After reflecting on mortality, it's almost necessary to have a refreshing, cold drink in the pleasant public garden next to the church. The gardens, bigger than they look, contain an overly restored hunk of the 16th-century Royal Palace. Behind the palace, look over the stone balustrade to see a kids' playground and playfields. Life goes on — make no bones about it.