Evora is a quiet Portuguese town of approximately 56,500 residents. Located about 1.5 hours east of Lisbon, you could easily dismiss this little municipality as a “nothing to see here” kind of place. But it’s surprising how much it actually offers. Here are just a few reasons why you should add Evora to your itinerary if you’re visiting Portugal:
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1. Experience a Slower Pace
Lisbon is like any bustling city, with a go-go-go sort of frenetic energy. Once we left the big city and entered the medieval city walls of Evora, though, life’s pace slowed down considerably. There’s no reason to rush here, and you can feel it in the air.
Just take a stroll through the Jardim Público de Evora (Evora Public Park) to get a taste of a more leisurely lifestyle. This quaint park dates to 1863, and was once part of King Manuel’s royal vegetable garden.
Here you’ll come across the remains of the 14th Century Medieval wall, the Royal Palace of Evora, and some “fake ruins.” These date to the 19th Century, using architectural materials from other ruins in the city. It was designed to create a romanticized view of the past. The peacocks wandering about enhance the romantic spirit as well!
Mark and I wanted to book a day trip outside of Evora, so we spoke to our hotel front desk clerk to set something up. He said he had a friend he could call who took people on tours.
We could do anything we wanted on the tour, we just had to ask. Want to go biking? Want to see the vineyards? Were we foodies, or more into history? Things were very flexible, including our start time. We decided we wanted to get a relatively early start. So we asked if we could go at 9:00 AM. The clerk said he would call his friend and let us know the plan.
When we returned to the hotel a few hours later, the clerk called us over. “My friend will come in the morning. Probably for 9. But maybe for 9:15. Maybe a bit later than that. You know,” he laughed and waved his hand casually, “you’re on Portugal Time now.”
Our guide was actually on time the next morning though, arriving at 9:05. We chatted back and forth as he drove. He was a sometimes-professor at a local university. Sometimes he was a photographer, some days he was a tour guide. We got the impression that he was a bit of a drifter, just picking up odd jobs when money got low. It’s a very different lifestyle than the one we’re used to in North America.
When we reached our destination, the Almendres Cromlech megaliths, he told us we could take our time. We could hang out, we could leave whenever, he was good either way. We’d never met anyone so Zen before, it was almost disconcerting.
There are several reasons for this laid back attitude. Finding work can be hard in Portugal, so people have learned to go with the flow, go where the work is, and to take it easy in between. When the economy got really bad, our guide explained, people would just eat the fruit off the trees.
The Mediterranean climate also feeds into this more relaxed approach to life. When my husband asked about the growing season, our guide said, “oh, we plant in March. Or April. Sometimes May. Or June…” There’s no rush to get crops in, because they have a bigger window of favourable weather than we do.
There’s something to be said for their “unclench and chill” approach to life.
The day after our tour, we saw our guide again. He was riding his bike through Evora, waving to everyone he knew, which seemed to be everyone in town, including us. And we found ourselves envying his low-key lifestyle, just a little bit.
2. Museums and Churches
For being a smallish town, Evora packs in some pretty impressive churches, cathedrals and museums. The most unusual church here is the Capela dos Ossos (Chapel of Bones).
The chapel is within the Igreja de São Francisco (Church of St. Francis), a lovely church built in the late 1400s-early 1500s.
The Chapel of Bones was built either in the 16th or 17th Century (both centuries are mentioned on signage within the chapel, so I’m not sure which is more accurate) by Franciscan Monks to relay the message of the transitory nature of life. This message comes across loud and clear from the banner written in Portuguese over the entrance to the chapel:
Nós Ossos Que Aqui Estamos Pelos Vossos Esperamos roughly translates to “We Bones That Are Here, Await Yours.”
At 18.7 meters long and 11 meters wide, it’s not a very large chapel, and the three windows to the left don’t exactly make it feel light and spacious. I found it a little claustrophobic actually.
The chapel was built as an extension of the Chapter House of the convent of São Francisco.
One of the columns in the chapel, covered with more bones:
You can see bare patches where bones fell off or where people removed them. The bones came from several church cemeteries. It’s estimated there are approximately 5000 skeletons decorating the interior of the chapel.
The paintings on the ceiling date to the 1800s. Numerous motifs include more skulls and macabre symbology.
Non Moriar Sed Vivam translates to “I Shall Not Die, But Live”. While the sentiment is slightly more uplifting, the imagery is quite the opposite.
And if that isn’t enough to darken your mood, there’s this tale:
There are two mummified bodies in the chapel which hang from ropes on the wall. One is that of a five-year old child. The story goes that an abused wife cursed her husband and son on her death bed, that when they died, the flesh would never completely fall from their bones.
The heavy, oppressive sensation weighs a bit heavy on you for a while after you leave. So this experience is not for the squeamish or faint of heart. But I suppose the monks who created it were aiming to make people feel contemplative and thoughtful. Mission accomplished.
The Se de Evora (Cathedral of Evora) is no slouch either. It was built between 1280 and 1340, using a beautiful rose-coloured granite. UNESCO declared it a World Heritage Site in 1988.
The cathedral closely follows the floor plan of the Lisbon Cathedral. The main chapel was rebuilt between 1718 and 1746, and is decorated with white, red, black and green marble.
You can walk along the gothic cloisters, and get beautiful views of Evora from the cathedral’s rooftop.
Also worth a visit is the Igreja Sao Joao
You can gain entry to this church with a combined ticket to the Palacio Cadaval, which is next door. (And yes, that is the shadow of Roman columns against the entrance of the church…but we’ll get to that in a minute!)
Along with several furnished rooms, the Palace also houses interesting exhibits. This chair, for example, is a work by Gonçalo Mabunda. He’s an artist from Mozambique who creates art from weapons of war. Look closely: those are shell and bullet casings:
The Cadaval’s Palace dates to the 14th Century. It’s easy to find, as it’s right in front of the Roman Temple of Evora ruins. Once you get to the roof of the palace you get some pretty cool views of the temple:
Which brings me to the next reason to visit Evora:
If you love old ruins and buildings, this is the place for you. There are a handful of sites right in the heart of town, such as the Roman Temple of Evora, as I just mentioned above. The temple was probably built around the First Century AD, either for the goddess Diana, or the god Jupiter.
Invading Germanic forces damaged the temple in the 5th Century. Later, around the 14th Century, the ruins were incorporated into a tower in the castle’s stronghold, and the spaces between the columns were enclosed. The temple later found use as a butcher shop, and it was used as such until 1836. Oddly enough, the constant re-use of the temple was what kept the remains intact.
There’s also the Aqua de Prata Aqueduct, or “Aqueduct of Silver Water,” which runs straight through the walled historic center of town.
Built in the 1500s, it’s not exactly ancient, but it does give the town that medieval feel. King João III commissioned the aqueduct to bring fresh water into the city. It took 6 years to build, between 1531 and 1537 AD. Evora was a boomtown at the time, but because of its elevated location it lacked the amount of ground water needed for its residents. So they built the aqueduct – 18 km long in total – to bring water from the Ribeira do Divor.
Interestingly, its designer was Francisco de Arruda, a military architect and also the designer of the Tower of Belem in Lisbon.
Within the Evora city walls, there are a lot of interesting bits and bobs to discover relating to the aqueduct. For example, this Renaissance Water Box:
Some sections of the aqueduct have been filled in with houses and commercial buildings within the arches. It’s pretty cool how they incorporated them together actually. It creates some pretty distinctive architecture. Here you can see where an arch sits snugly between buildings, creating a short tunnel for cars.
Many shops and restaurants took advantage of the arched openings and are now built right into the arches. There’s also a nice nature walk along the aqueduct that you can follow to the outskirts of town.
Now, this is where online descriptions of the aqueduct confuse and frustrate visitors. I read several descriptions saying that you can “walk along the aqueduct”. This was misinterpreted by many to mean that you can physically walk along the top of the aqueduct. So, if you read comments on TripAdvisor or other review sites, you’ll read a few remarks from some pretty unhappy people because they couldn’t figure out how to climb to the top of the aqueduct to walk along its length.
So, can you climb the aqueduct and walk along the top? Simply put: No.
In fact, you can’t even really walk alongside it all the way. The Convento da Cartuxa owns a section of the land the aqueduct sits on, and it’s cordoned off within their own walls. However, you can start the aqueduct walk on Rua do Cano, inside the Evora city walls.
Turning left on Rua do Muro, you walk outside the city walls and past the ring road onto R114-4. This is where the aqueduct is at its tallest. A stone wall separates the aqueduct from the sidewalk. But you can still follow it (at a bit of a distance) until it crosses the highway. There are some lovely architectural details to take note of at this juncture! The covered niches house modern images of Saint Bruno and Saint Bento, patron saints of two nearby monasteries.
Once you cross the highway there is a path through the fields. This is where the walk gets a little more rugged, going past farmer’s fields and a lovely residential neighborhood.
You may even see some livestock along the path, as we did!
We did take notice of something interesting on the walk back. We assumed this was an old water fountain? They didn’t have any interpretive signs, but the design seemed to suggest this:
Just a short drive out of town gets you to the Almendres Cromlech, a large series of standing stones, many with engravings which are still visible. It’s one of the largest groups of standing stones in Europe, and dates back to the 6th millennium BC!
4. The Food
Portuguese food is really good. The fish is fresh, the fruits and vegetables are flavourful, and the pastries are heavenly (provided you don’t have an egg allergy. They use a lot of eggs). And the food in Evora was no exception.
Before visiting the Capela dos Ossos, we decided to stop for a quick snack. We stopped at a little waffle cafe called Uafas. I indulged my sweet tooth with this chocolate ice cream-topped beauty:
Later that night, we were walking up and down the streets trying to decide what we wanted for supper. We didn’t want anything too fancy, so we found a small family-owned restaurant with casual fare. The owner didn’t speak much English, but he went out of his way to make us feel at home. He gestured around to show us the size of a charcuterie plate we could share, and pointed out a few suggestions on the menu.
I was craving meat, so I ordered a hamburger. Interestingly, it had corn and shredded carrots on it. These were rather unusual toppings for a hamburger. But surprisingly, they weren’t bad. Mark went a little more exotic with an octopus salad.
If you look closely, you’ll see some interesting flavour combinations. Yes, those are peach slices on the tomatoes, and strawberries on the cucumber slices!
And did I mention the pastries in Evora? When I ordered a chocolate croissant in a coffee bar the next morning, I was expecting a dry croissant with that little hard chunk of chocolate buried way deep in the center. But this croissant was sinfully packed with so much warm, smooth chocolate that I ended up with a lot of it all over my face and hands. I looked like a toddler who’d just tried to feed itself for the first time.
And going back to point number 1, that easy-going attitude you get here…well the locals spotted us as tourists right away. When we ordered coffee at this cafe, it took maybe 10-15 minutes for them to bring it out to us on their back patio. And wow, were they apologetic.
It surprised us at first, because we didn’t think we had waited that long. But, spotting us as outsiders, the staff assumed we were probably used to faster service. It made me a little sad, thinking that previous tourists had given them grief about their speed. Considering the care they took to make the coffee look this good…Let’s just say this was a drink worth waiting for! They even came with little meringue cookies!
5. Free Wine
Did someone say free wine? Yes, you can get that here in Evora. The Alentejo Wine Route Tasting Room is in the heart of historic Evora, and, at least when we visited, wine tastings were offered for free. (I believe they still are, but if anyone has updated info, please let me know!)
I loved their wine dispenser. Each bottle had a description in front of it so you could read a little about the wines before choosing what you wanted to try:
The tastings help advertise Alentejo wineries and their products. You can also purchase wines here or inquire about winery tours. The room also acts as an interactive exhibit.
There are numerous display signs describing the varieties of grapes that grow in the region.
The signs also have little fragrance stations so you can sniff the different elements in each grape variety.
There are plenty of wine bars in Evora where you can order and taste the local wines. But if you’re brand new to Portuguese wines and don’t know where to start, then the Alentejo wine tasting room is a great place to begin your journey.
For a small town, there’s a lot to see and do in Evora, including day trips. It’s worth staying 2-3 nights to take in everything at a relaxed, locals pace.
Where to Stay:
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