BEJA is the main town of the Baixa Alentejo (Lower Alentejo), though its population only numbers around 30,000. Its inland position means that it’s frequently the hottest place in Portugal, something to bear in mind if you plan a visit during the summer months. Once past the modern suburbs, you’ll find a laidback old quarter with a historic convent and an impressive castle dating from the thirteenth century. You can take in the sights in the compact historic centre in half a day, though it’s not a bad night’s stopover in any case, with plenty of good cafés and restaurants.
Commanding a strategic position in the centre of the plains, it has long been an important and prosperous city. Founded by Julius Caesar in 48 BC, it was named Pax Julia, in honour of the peace accord signed here between Rome and the Lusitanians, but later became Pax Augusta and then just Pax – this gradually became corrupted to Paca, Baca, Baju, and finally Beja. You can still experience the Roman influence to the north, at the atmospheric Ruinas Romanas de São Cucufate, where the history of three separate Roman villas is laid bare in a series of extensive excavations and reconstructions.Read More
The errant nun
The errant nun
During the seventeenth century, Sister Mariana Alcoforado lived in Beja’s Convento de Nossa Senhora da Conceição, when her passionate affair with a French officer, Count Chamilly, became the talk of the town – and indeed, the whole country. The nun’s scandalous missives to her lover, Letters of a Portuguese Nun, were published in Paris in 1669 and became the Fifty Shades of Grey of their day. Scholars have debated as to whether the nun actually wrote the original letters, but they were so popular that they inspired several imitations.
More than a few eyebrows were raised when a former military airbase opened as Beja International Airport in 2011. The logic was that, roughly equidistant from Faro and Lisbon, it would offer an alternative entry point to the south. But opening just as recession hit – and about as far from the coast as you can get in Portugal and a good 150km from the Algarve – it is perhaps no great surprise that the airport has hardly been a success, with very few airlines using it even in peak season. If you are one of the few passengers to arrive here, the airport (t284 001 020, wana.pt) is around 9km northwest of Beja – a shuttle bus (15min) serves Beja after most flights, or a taxi to town will cost €12–14.