Peeling Back Évora’s Layers of History

Praça do Giraldo, Évora, Portugal
Évora's Praça do Giraldo, once a Moorish marketplace, is still where many do their weekly shopping.
Chapel of Bones at Church of St. Francis, Évora, Portugal
Stacks of bones and a chorus of skulls line the walls of the bone chapel of the Church of St. Francis.
By Rick Steves

From Romans to Moors to Portuguese kings, the proud little town of Évora — set amid the cork groves of the Alentejo region, 90 minutes by train or bus from Lisbon — has a big history. 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 8th to the 12th century. 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 João 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. The square had been 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. Later it 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 governor of the town and the symbol of the city. 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 throughout the town).

In the 16th century, King João III lived in Évora off and on for 30 years. The town's tourist information office 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, João was king when its first victims were burned as heretics on this square in 1543.

Until the 16th century, the area behind what's now the tourism office was the Jewish quarter. At the time, it was believed that the Bible prohibited Christians from charging interest for loans. Jews did the moneylending instead, and the streets in the Jewish quarter still bear names related to finance, such as Rua da Moeda (Money Street) and Rua dos Mercadores (Merchants' Street).

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 used to make postcards), tile, leather, ironwork, and Arraiolos rugs (handmade with a distinctive weave in a 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 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 the Alentejo region, 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 here.

The main attraction at this church is its bone chapel (Capela dos Ossos), just outside the church entrance. The intentionally thought-provoking message above the chapel door translates: "We bones in here wait for yours to join us." Inside the macabre chapel, bones line the walls and a chorus of skulls stares 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.

After reflecting on mortality, it's almost necessary to have a refreshing, cold drink in the pleasant public garden next to the church. Just inside the gate, a statue of Vasco da Gama looks on with excitement as he discovers a little kiosk café nearby selling sandwiches, freshly baked goodies, and drinks. For a quick little lunch, try an empada de galinha (tiny chicken pastry) and perhaps a queijada (sweet cheese tart — a local favorite). The gardens contain an overly restored hunk of the 16th-century Royal Palace. If you look over the stone balustrade behind the palace, you'll gaze out onto a kids' playground and playfields. Life goes on — make no bones about it.

The Alentejo region has its own proud cuisine — rustic and hearty, with lots of game and robust red wines — and Évora's many fine restaurants make this an ideal spot to savor it. While you can sleep and sightsee cheaply here, consider dining royally. Linger over dinner, then, late in the evening, stroll the back streets and ponder life, like the old-timers of Évora seem to do so expertly.