From Lisbon, Visiting the Storied City of Évora
MANY day trips and overnight stays — especially to outlying towns and cities in southern Europe where weekend hours for shops and tourist sites can seem almost whimsical — often do little more than whet one’s appetite to return for a proper visit. But, at less than two hours by car from Lisbon, an overnight visit to the storied Portuguese city of Évora and the surrounding area packs a lot into relatively little time.
To start, there is the stunning combination of Roman, Gothic and Baroque architecture for which Évora has been designated a Unesco World Heritage Site. But there are many other aspects to the city, which is a bit like its churches — seemingly staid and whitewashed on the outside until you step inside to discover sumptuous interiors adorned with gleaming gold leaf and thousands of dazzling tiles.
Évora makes a great one-night stand because its charms come in varied and delectable bites, much like the petiscos or appetizers that start off most meals here. It also helps that these charms exist in such surprising abundance and proximity — virtually everything in the city is less than five minutes away from everything else — with most major monuments a good bit closer together.
At this walled city’s highest point, a brooding medieval cathedral sits next to the Museum of Évora, which in turn rubs shoulders with the Pousada dos Loios, the city’s state-run hotel set inside a former convent that dates from the 15th century. Facing the Pousada is the tile-encrusted church of St. John the Evangelist, which shares a courtyard with the palace of the noble Cadaval family, who have opened it as a quirky house museum where you’ll find grand family portraits and royal decrees from the family’s glory years in the 17th century as well as some Louis Vuitton luggage from the 20th century’s golden age of travel. In front of the palace are the remains of a Roman temple, and in front of that is a pretty little park with ice-cream vendors and views of Évora’s red tile rooftops and the 16th-century aqueduct stretching off into the distance.
It adds up to about 2,000 years of history in 20 paces, and you can easily see it all in a couple of hours.
The capital of Portugal’s Upper Alentejo region today, Évora has an impressive résumé with stints as an important Roman mercantile center and a fortified Moorish bastion. It became the center of the Portuguese court under the Avis dynasty (1385-1580), when many of its grandest buildings were constructed.
Equally relevant to the city’s appeal today is the fact that the Alentejo is a prime gastronomic and oenological destination, and a relatively inexpensive and unfussy one at that. Simply put, Alentejan food is zestier than most Portuguese fare, with a bolder use of herbs like coriander in a surprising array of dishes. And the region’s excellent, inexpensive wines include crisp, light whites that take the edge off the summer heat and hearty, full-bodied reds that pair perfectly with savory stews and game in cooler months. Most of the country’s excellent ham (“presunto” in Portuguese) and other pork products come from here. As does most of the world’s cork; the region’s famous black-footed pigs fatten themselves up on acorns that drop from the cork and holm oaks looming over the Alentejo’s gently rolling hills.
With summer’s heat already on the rise, mornings are the best time for getting out to explore Évora’s tangle of narrow streets. One of the most unusual sites in the city is the Capela dos Ossos, or Chapel of Bones, at the Church of San Francisco located at the southern edge of the old town. Here the bones and skulls of more than 5,000 monks have been put to striking decorative effect as wall treatment in this 17th-century chapel.
The surrounding streets offer glimpses of local life, with lots of small cafes and taverns and more than a few unusual shops like Lojatelier 73 (Rua Serpa Pinta 73), a brand-new store selling updated local handicrafts including ceramics, as well as aprons, bags and totes that the shop owner Isabel Bilro designs herself.
Like spokes of a wheel, the busiest streets lead into the shaded shopping arcades of Évora’s main square, the Praça do Giraldo in the center of the old city. Here you’ll find the tourist office and major banks as well as several large emporia of colorful linens and ceramics. Just north of the plaza it’s worth seeking out Mont’Sobro at Rua 5 de Outubro 66 for an almost impossibly extensive range of products — from fruit bowls and floor tiles to suitcases and umbrellas all made out of cork. (Even their business cards are printed on paper-thin cork.)
Évora slows down at meal times, and you should too. Among the city’s most cherished culinary experiences is dining at Tasquinha d’Oliveira, a tiny (14 seats) place with an oversize array of petiscos like stewed artichokes with ham, breaded baby lamb chops, salads of fava beans and chorizo, mushrooms with fresh mint, or bacalao with white beans and cilantro. All are beautifully presented and waiting at the table when guests arrive. As diners make their way through the dishes, new ones, like fresh goat cheese with fig jam, crispy bacalau fritters and savory empanadas filled with partridge and roast garlic, arrive.
Another current hotspot is Dom Joaquim, where the chef Joaquim Almeida advises diners to try just one or two petiscos before sampling his elegant riffs on rustic Alentejan fare like Almofada — a hearty pork pie that serves two (and will run you just 14 euros).
A different type of creativity is on display across the street at the new gallery O Arco, at Rua dos Penedos 15 where a lifelong Évora resident, Francisco Piteira has painstakingly restored a 15th-century aviary that once housed falcons for a princely family into a gallery for antiques — including classic, curvy-legged Portuguese commodes and cabinets — and paintings and sculpture by contemporary Portuguese artists.
The town of Évora certainly has enough charm to hold your attention for two (or more) days but since you’ve most likely arrived by car, there is also lots to explore nearby. Within 30 minutes are the charming villages of Monsarraz, Estremoz and Vila Viçosa, with their Baroque palaces and medieval churches. To the north, the hilltop town of Arraiolos is the center of Portuguese carpet and tapestry weaving.
There are also wineries galore, like Herdade de Coelheiros, whose labels for their Tapada de Coelheiros wines are inspired by Arraiolos’s famous rugs. Even closer to Évora is Adega de Cartuxa. Depending on whether you’re driving from Lisbon or somewhere in Spain, you can map an itinerary that includes both large and small producers. Since Alentejo is not as well-known a wine region as the Douro, the actual visits are informal — but advance bookings are a good idea. (You can find more wineries and contact details at vinhosdoalentejo.pt.)
The area is rich in archaeological sites, including the Almendres megalithic site — created 2,000 years before Stonehenge and among humanity’s oldest known monuments. Of more recent vintage is the 16th-century Agua da Prata (Silver Water) aqueduct. Newer still is the five-mile-long green path that allows 21st-century hikers to follow this impressive structure out into the Alentejan countryside.
It may seem like a lot to cover in a single overnight stay, but it’s entirely possible. So while you’ll probably want to get back to Évora some day, it will be to get more of what you loved about the city and its cuisine, rather than to see what you might have missed.
IF YOU GO
Évora is just off Portugal’s A6 freeway, one and a half hour’s drive from Lisbon.
You’ll want a car to visit wineries and nearby villages, but in town, everything is easily reached on foot. This past April the city introduced the Évora Card, which, for 15 euros, or about $21 at $1.40 to the euro, offers free or discounted admission to many sites as well as special offers at hotels, shops and restaurants.
WHERE TO STAY
Évora Inn-Chiado Design (Rua da Republica 11; 351-266-744-500; evorainn.com; doubles from 45 euros). Colorful wallpapers and playfully painted antiques define the six doubles and suites at the updated and newly renovated hostel on the main square.
Convento do Espinheiro (Apartado 594; 351-266-788-200; conventodoespinheiro.com; doubles from 170 euros). Plush five-star accommodations in a stunning 15th-century former convent with a full-service spa and two pools.
WHERE TO EAT
Tasquinha d’Oliveira (Rua Cándido dos Reis 45-A; 351-266-744-841). Lunch for two, 50 euros.
Dom Joaquim (Rua dos Penedos 6; 351-266-731-105). Dinner for two, 60 euros.