The Igreja de São Francisco was full. It was a big wedding. We were allowed to sneak in at the back to watch and listen. And listen we did! To a truly astonishing vocal performance from a young teenage girl singing to the accompaniment of a guitar and violin. This was a soprano voice made in heaven. The hair stood up on the back of my neck and the lady next to me was wiping tears from her eyes.
When the girl finished, the church was absolutely silent. Everybody present knew that they had just witnessed something really special. However, for us, it was time to go and let the bride and groom enjoy their nuptials. What an amazing start to our exploration of the beautiful city of Évora!
This particular church is one of the most famous attractions in the city as it contains the ‘Chapel of the Bones’. Built in the 16th century by Franciscan friars, this chapel contains bones of around 5,000 people, collected from cemeteries around the city. It is a macabre sight. The bones are arranged to cover all the walls and the pillars. Strangely, as we walked through the chapel, we experienced a bizarre feeling of finality and peace.
Located down a nearby alley, and often missed by tourists, is the ungainly baroque frontage of the Igreja da Nossa Senhora da Graça. Built in granite, it has above its roof four uncomfortable-looking giants supporting globes which represent the children of grace. It is not the most handsome of buildings but definitely worth a small detour to admire the giants if nothing else!
The public gardens close by contain the 16th century Palácio de Dom Manuel, or what’s left of it. The palace is built in an assortment of styles – including Gothic, Moorish and Renaissance. It is thought that here, in 1497, Vasco da Gama was given command of the squadron of ships he would lead on his maritime adventure to India.
Évora itself has a long history that can be traced back to the earliest civilizations of the Iberian Peninsula. It is believed to have derived its name from Ebora Cerealis, during Luso-Celtic colonisation. The Romans later fortified the city and much of the architecture, with arched twisting alleyways and tiled patios, stems from Moorish rule a thousand years ago.
After liberation from the Moors, Évora enjoyed increasing importance and wealth. Great houses, churches and monasteries were built and, in 1559, a Jesuit University was founded.
After Portugal’s annexation by Spain in 1580, the city’s glory days waned somewhat, except as an agricultural and trading centre. Today it is the bustling capital of the Alentejo and one of Portugal’s finest and most interesting cities.
The popular Praça do Giraldo square has seen important moments in Portuguese history, including the public burning of victims of the inquisition in the 16th century. Nowadays, however, the challenge is to calculate whether there are more tourists than pigeons!
But it is a great place to take a coffee or beer, people watch, enjoy some of the wide range of excellent shopping opportunities and absorb the atmosphere of the city. The square is dominated at one end by the splendid façade of the renaissance church, Igreja de Santo Antão, with its two bell towers. The interior is supported by thick columns which we thought were rather overwhelming!
Just a ten-minute stroll north from this church brings you face to face with the impressive pillars of the long Água de Prata Aqueduct built in the 1530s by King João III, to provide clean water to the entire population. This a very dry region of Portugal and water had to be brought from a lake and river several kilometres away.
All the main attractions of Évora can be explored on foot. We left the car at the hotel for the entire time of our visit. Right in the centre of town sits the Sé, Évora’s richly-endowed, fortress-like cathedral.
Construction began about 1186 and was completed some 60 years later. It is the largest medieval cathedral in Portugal. Its two towers and impressive marble entrance carved with images of the 12 apostles make up the exterior, while inside it has a combination of gothic and baroque styles – all designed to impress!
The entrance ticket allows you to climb up to one of the roof areas for views of the city and then admire the collection of ecclesiastical gold, silver and bejewelled items in the treasury. However, we enjoyed the simplest attraction the most – the peaceful ambience of the cool cloister on a hot day.
The Évora Museum is just round the corner from the cathedral and is worth an hour or two of your time. It is not full of the high-tech wizardry that people expect in musuems these days but does contain some interesting artefacts.
Fragments of old Roman and Manueline statuary line the courtyard, which has been excavated to reveal Visigothic, Roman and medieval remains.
As you leave the museum, Évora’s most recognisable monument looms directly in front. It is commonly referred to as the Temple of Diana and dates back to the second or early third century. It is probably the best-preserved Roman monument in the Iberian Peninsula, and it is staggering how these 14 Corinthian columns have managed to survive in such good condition. Apparently, the temple was protected when it was walled up in the Middle Ages to form a small fortress and was even once used as a slaughterhouse. It was only rediscovered in the 19th century.
The University of Évora lies about 10 minutes walk to the north-east of the cathedral and undoubtedly was our favourite building in the city. Its creation dates back to 1551, when the Archbishop of Évora, with the consent of King João III, ordered the construction of a building to house Jesuit seminarians.
Facilities were extended and, in 1559, the second university of Portugal was created. Initially, it taught Philosophy, Scripture, Speculative Theology, Rhetoric, Grammar and Humanities. Later, this was expanded with the addition of Mathematics, Geography, Physics and Military Architecture.
Amazingly, it was closed in 1759 when the Jesuits were expelled from Portugal, and it remained shut until 1973. Nowadays it is a modern and innovative institution, prominent for the quality of its research and teaching.
The University’s elegant main building has an internal courtyard and there are classroom entrances for each teaching discipline off the surrounding cloister. We checked every classroom and discovered that all are decorated with azulejos, each representing the subject taught. It is an extraordinary experience and a fascinating walk back in time to the academia of long ago.
Other highlights were the Library, the Great Hall and a magnificently tiled Octagonal Room representing the Centre of the World.
Before leaving, we sat quietly overlooking the main courtyard and contemplated just how inspiring it must be for students to study in such remarkable surroundings, even in the 21st century. Our exploration of Évora had both started and finished in a sentimental and memorable manner. What a great city!
Nigel Wright and his wife Sue moved to Portugal 19 years ago. The couple lived and worked in the Far East and Middle East during the 1980s and 90s. Although now retired, Nigel still continues to travel and seek out new cultural experiences. His other interests include tennis, gardening and photography.