Peeling Back Layers of History in Évora

By Rick Steves
Praça do Giraldo, Évora, Portugal
The 16th-century marble fountain on Évora's main square was once an important water source. (photo: Cameron Hewitt)
Chapel of Bones at the Church of St. Francis, Évora, Portugal
The Chapel of Bones at the Church of St. Francis contains thousands of skulls and bones unearthed from various Évora churchyards. (photo: Cathy Lu)

From Romans to Moors to Portuguese kings, the proud little town of Évora — set amid the cork groves of Portugal's Alentejo region — has a big history. Just 90 minutes east of Lisbon, Évora has impressive sights — Roman ruins, a 12th-century cathedral, and a macabre chapel of bones — coupled with a laid-back local scene and a hearty cuisine that makes me think of Tuscany.

From the second century BC to the fourth century AD, Évora was a Roman town important for its wealth of wheat and silver, as well as its location on a trade route to Rome. From the eighth to the 12th century, the Moors ruled Évora. During its Renaissance glory years, Évora was favored by Portuguese kings, even serving as the home of King João III, who presided over Portugal's peak of power (and its first decline).

Évora's walled city is compact. The main sights cluster within a five-minute walk of the main square, Praça do Giraldo — 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 governor of the town and the symbol of the city. The square served as the town's market during the Moorish period, and to this day it remains a center of commerce and conviviality for country folk who come to Évora for their weekly shopping.

Radiating out from this town hub are traditionally decorated cobbled streets — centuries old and protected by law. Many buildings here are trimmed with yellow, as is common for this region, and as the color is believed to repel evil spirits. Jacaranda trees — imported from South America 200 years ago — provide shade through the summer and purple flowers in the spring. Lining these streets are fine eateries and shops selling local products, including cork (everything from purses to postcards), tile, leather, ironwork, and Arraiolos rugs (handmade with a distinctive weave in a nearby town).

If you wander Évora, you'll see several remnants of the Roman wall that once encircled the town. But the most intact Roman ruin is up a hill, at the town's high point: 14 Corinthian columns, marking the Roman temple that once stood here. Today, open-air concerts and events are staged against this evocative temple backdrop, which is beautifully floodlit at night.

The Museum of Évora stands where the Roman forum once sprawled. An excavated section of the forum is in the museum's courtyard, surrounded by a delightful mix of Roman finds, medieval statuary, and 16th-century Portuguese, Flemish, Italian, and Spanish paintings.

Also topping the hill is Évora's cathedral — a transitional mix of Romanesque and Gothic styles, standing on the site of a former mosque. Inside the cathedral is a 15th-century painted marble statue of a pregnant Mary. Throughout the Alentejo, people have a deeply felt affinity for this ready-to-produce-a-savior Mary. Across the aisle, a more realistic Renaissance Gabriel, added a century later, comes to tell Mary her baby won't be just any child. For great views of the surrounding plains, head up to the church's rooftop terrace.

While the cathedral is impressive, I prefer the more intimate Church of St. Francis, built in the 14th century by the Franciscans. The highlight here is its Chapel of Bones, where thousands of human bones line the walls and a chorus of skulls stares blankly at you. The chapel was the work of three monks who were concerned that their society valued the wrong things. They thought the chapel 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 thought-provoking message above the chapel door translates as: "We bones in here wait for yours to join us."

After meditating on mortality, it's time to return to the land of the living. For a fine slice-of-life look at this community, head to the nearby farmers market, with a fragrant fish section, fresh produce, and good little eateries. Or you can pick up picnic food to eat in the pleasant public garden next to the church. If you want to try the locals' favorite pastry, queijada (sweet cheese tart), you can buy one fresh from the kiosk café inside the park.

While you can zip in and out of Évora on a day trip from Lisbon, I prefer to spend the night and savor dinner at one of the town's fine restaurants. The Alentejo region has its own proud, rustic cuisine with lots of game and robust red wines. Linger over dinner, then, late in the evening, stroll the beautiful back streets and embrace the chance to just enjoy a ramshackle, workaday town in the countryside of Portugal.