Short break: Évora, Portugal
An easy hop from Lisbon, the main city of the crowd-free Alentejo region is an ideal place to soak up history and slow right down, discovers Lyn Hughes
Away from the more fast-paced Lisbon, laid-back, Unesco-listed Évora is not only soaked in history but – just as important – it’s crowd-free
The lad with the gelled hair and fashionable jacket was in his mid-teens, cool but in a rather self-conscious way. He pulled out his phone, extended his arm and grinned widely as he did a thumbs up to the camera. Just like any other tourist selfie really – except that in this case he had carefully positioned himself so that a pillar adorned with human skulls was just over his shoulder. If he had read the slightly chilling inscription at the entrance to the chapel – ‘We, the bones that are here, we await yours’ – then he was showing no sign of contemplation or reflection.
Capela dos Ossos, the Chapel of Bones, is perhaps the best known but most macabre sight in Évora, one of Portugal’s most beautiful towns, and chief city of the Alentejo region. Dating back more than five millennia, Évora has a rich history. Probably founded by the Celts, it flourished under the Romans and acquired its maze of alleyways under the Moors. In the 15th century the Kings of Portugal and the Court took up residence here and the city entered its golden age. Impressive churches and palaces were built, and it became an important centre of learning – though things did get rather bloody at times, with heretics being burned to death during the 16th century Inquisition.
Today the historic centre of Évora is recognised as a UNESCO World Heritage site. Wander inside the old town’s walls and you’ll stumble across layer upon layer of history, from a Roman temple and baths, to a 16th-century aqueduct, from a former royal palace to Moorish arcades. But it’s much more than a charming well-preserved museum piece. Situated around 90 minutes by bus or train from Portuguese capital Lisbon, Évora is a vibrant university town, with plenty of inviting restaurants, cafés and bars to relax in once you’ve explored its winding streets and handsome squares.
Évora also serves as a base or jumping-off point for exploring southern Portugal’s wider Alentejo region, which covers a third of the country and stretches from the wild beaches of the Atlantic coast in the west to the Spanish border in the east. The breadbasket of Portugal, the Alentejo is also known for its world-class wine, its cork (it’s the largest producer in the world) and its black pork, derived from pigs that forage for acorns.
Neolithic sites pepper the area, showing the region’s importance many millennia ago, while spectacular hilltop villages gaze out over sun-drenched plains and gently undulating countryside. Even if you’re not a history lover, you will pick up the timeless rhythms of life here. The Alentejo is the perfect place to slow down, potter around and unwind.