As we near the end of a year unlike any other, perhaps, like me, your mind is turning to a last-minute break from ‘normality’ before the Christmas celebrations (hopefully subdued rather than suspended) come around.
One thing Portugal can certainly celebrate right now though is its tourism attention on the global stage. This month our great country won a whole cabinet of World Tourism Awards, another reminder of just how fantastic a destination we have right here on our doorstep.
Alongside this, the tourism board recently launched the #TuPodes campaign, which runs until December, and provides an incentive to enjoy a holiday here at home.
Offering impressive discounts for residents in Portugal, such as 50% off selected hotels, discounts on train travel, and promotions on local experiences, the www.visitaportugal.pt website brings these all together to book online.
Of course, each week seems to bring more changes and restrictions, so even a long-weekend requires a bit more planning than normal. The newly organised www.covid19estamoson.gov.pt website helps with this, showing the municipality level restrictions all in one place.
So for this week, we turn our attention to Évora, the capital of the Alentejo. At the time of writing, the city was not on the list of municipalities facing the most recent round of restrictions (Editor’s note: Évora is also now on the list) and, with the Alentejo’s wide-open spaces and countless vineyards, it naturally lends itself to finding your own little corner to call home.
Inscribed onto the UNESCO world heritage list in 1986, the city is often celebrated as an open-air museum of sorts. With history through the ages, from pre-historical settlements to Roman ruins, Gothic and Baroque influences, to the presence of the Moors and the Portuguese Manueline style, there are countless stories and heritage to be found here.
Finding accommodation that you wouldn’t mind checking into and not leaving if a curfew came calling also isn’t hard in the city or surrounds. One of particular note, L’AND Vineyards (www.l-and.com), brought home ‘Europe’s Leading Wine Region Hotel 2020’ at the aforementioned award ceremony. Located around 30-minutes from the city centre, it’s a luxury escape ideal for romantic getaways.
This stylish vineyard, where single-storey white accommodation suites blend in amongst the vines, comes equipped with plenty of unique features. Private plunge pool-style baths and fire-pits sit outside the suites, while retractable windows in the bedrooms allow you to admire the stars dancing above. This region of the country is celebrated for its stargazing, and you’ll quickly see why after an evening here. The restaurant, led by Nuno Amaral, provides a delightful tasting menu, while the tasting rooms, pools and optional hot-air balloon rides add finishing touches.
Closer to the city, you’ll find two fantastic hotels that are currently offering the generous 50% #TuPodes discount through the visitaportugal.pt portal.
The five-star M’ar de Ar Aqueduto, a renovation of the 16th century Sepulveda Palace, is a beauty of a place to check into. With vaulted ceilings and Manueline design preserved, the boutique offering comes complete with spa pool and fine dining. Nearby, close to the Roman temple, the Pousada Convento de Évora, complete with original cloisters, offers another chance to rest your head in history with the time-limited discounts.
But beyond the many accommodation offerings, you’ll find a slow-paced city where award-winning regional wines and Alentejano cuisine is plentiful between admiring some of the city’s main attractions.
The historic centre is surrounded by towering stone walls, recognised as a national monument, thanks to these ramparts being some of the best preserved in the country. Equally as impressive is the Aqueduto da Água de Prata, standing in all its glory. But, step inside the rampart gates, and prepare to step back in time – here are just a few attractions not to miss during a visit to Évora.
Looking slightly out of place in a Portuguese city, the Roman Temple in Évora is one of the most preserved on the whole of the Iberian Peninsula, and certainly in Portugal. Dating back to the first century AD, and standing proud across from the small but peaceful Diana Garden, this historic attraction is freely open to admirers, with no barriers or entrance fees.
But this isn’t all, with the city boasting plenty more Roman history, such as the Roman Baths, constructed in the second century, yet only rediscovered some 30 years ago as part of an excavation.
A tour of the main religious buildings in Évora will take you on a journey through the ages. The main Cathedral (officially Basílica Sé de Nossa Senhora da Assunção) is a grand and imposing sight and is, in fact, the largest cathedral of medieval time in Portugal. With a mix of Gothic and Romanesque influence, and crafted in granite, the interior is impressive, while the views from the rooftop across the city and Alentejo countryside shouldn’t be missed.
Perhaps one the most unique religious sights, and now a tourist attraction in Évora, is the Capela dos Ossos, alongside the São Francisco Church. Literally translated to ‘Chapel of Bones’, this gives a fairly straight-forward expectation of what will greet you inside. Lined with skulls and human bones, it’s certainly not a place that will appeal to everyone, although its history relates to a 16th-century cemetery space problem, rather than anything more sinister.
Turning our attention to the royal history of the city, the Palace of the Dukes of Cadaval sits where the old Castle would have been, and traces of this are visible both inside and out. Home to several monarchs, the palace shares the history of the Duchy of Cadaval, with the stories of their heritage, and even beheadings. Restored in the 1990s, the palace now houses artefacts inside the museum.
Évora isn’t all about seeing historical attractions though, and the relaxing atmosphere of the Alentejo’s nature-filled open spaces can be found here right in the city. The public gardens, complete with resident peacocks and classical bandstand, sit alongside the Royal Palace of Évora and provide the perfect place to walk and take in the peace and quiet of one of the country’s grandest cities.
While the beautiful Praça do Giraldo might not be as alive with local musicians or abuzz with tourism these days, it’s a more tranquil escape, where the migas and wine still taste just as delicious, even without the people watching.
Note: not all the attractions listed may be open at these times. With the continual change of restrictions, it’s advised to confirm with any museum or heritage space their current opening hours prior to travel.
*Since the time of writing, the #TuPodes discount campaign has been suspended, and Évora has entered the high-risk list of boroughs regarding COVID-19 restrictions, so please plan any future trips accordingly.
By Daniel James
An avid traveller, Daniel James found a much-loved home in Portugal. Recently, he co-founded Guide2Portugal.com to inspire visitors and locals to explore and discover more of our magical country.
Photos: DANIEL JAMES CLARKE