Portugal’s main tourist hotspots lie dotted around its coastline, where people can enjoy the surf and sand of its many spectacular beaches or explore its coastal cities. So, it was no real surprise that Évora, capital of the Alentejo region in South-Western Portugal, was quiet. A UNESCO World Heritage site, it is the sort of place that draws cliches such as ‘hidden gem’.
Home to Roman ruins, convents and royal palaces, it is the only city left in Portugal that demonstrates its ‘golden age’ and it served as an example for much of the Portuguese architecture now found in Brazil. We parked the car under the shadow of a beautifully ornate church in a tiny little tree-lined square and trotted off down a narrow cobbled alleyway towards our accommodation, instantly enchanted by the romance and elegance of our surroundings.
Évora is a charming and beautiful city, full of winding cobbled lanes. In many places, the paintwork is peeling off the walls and the tourist attractions feel a little dated, but this could be seen as part of the city’s charm. Sights such as the Municipal Museum, with its collection of Roman artefacts, are merely passably interesting due to a lack of interactive displays. The Museo Relogio is interesting enough to pass away an hour or so and the Roman Baths (hidden within the Town Hall itself – it took us a while to realise this!) is quite cool as it still has some of the original paintwork. It’s also weird to see the office workers going about their daily business round an ancient bath-house.
The most intriguing sight for tourists is the Chapel of Bones, found in the complex of the Igreja de Sao Francisco. The graveyard was becoming too full in the 16th century, so thousands of bones were exhumed and used to decorate every nook and cranny of this macabre chapel. The end effect is quite chilling and it was a very unsettling experience to have all those eyeless sockets staring down from the walls. The greeting at the entrance reads ‘Nos ossos que aqui estamos pelos vossos esperamos (We, the bones here await yours)’, a chilling reminder of our own mortality.
Back in the land of the living, Évora was much livelier than expected in the evenings, with orchestral concerts in the main square and a number of busy restaurants. The burgers at the newly-opened Hamburguesia Nacional were so good we went back twice! Every evening we found ourselves slinking up the alleyway that led to Pateo for after-dinner drinks in a beautiful tree-lined courtyard which even had its own ancient well (although it was no longer in use…) with friendly staff and an old well. However, Madrid nightlife this was not – well before midnight, we were routinely the only people around as we wandered down the dimly lit lanes or stood and marvelled at the backlit Temple of Diana, enjoying the absence of fellow tourists.
Although at least it wasn’t as dead as Estremoz. Touted in a number of guides and articles as ‘must-see’ and ‘stunning’, we set off on a day trip to the nearby town, full of vim and excitement. Yes, it was beautiful and filled with stunning buildings. Very much like Évora. But more lived-in. And without the people. Nothing was open, despite it being prime lunch-hour – no restaurants or bars. So we had a quick coffee and skedaddled.