ÉVORA is one of the most impressive and enjoyable cities in Portugal. A Roman temple, Moorish alleys, a circuit of medieval walls, and a grand ensemble of sixteenth-century palaces and mansions are all under UNESCO protection. Inevitably, they attract summer tourists but, despite the crowds, the city is far from spoiled. It’s a relatively small place – the population of 50,000 is only half its medieval number – and the streets within its walls are a pleasure to stroll. The university, re-established here in the 1970s, adds an independent side to city life, while Évora remembers its agricultural roots with a huge open-air market held on the second Tuesday of the month in the Rossio, south of the city walls. Évora’s big annual events are the Feira de São João and São Pedro – handicraft, gastronomic and musical festivals which take over the city during the last ten days of June.
Praça do Giraldo is the central hub, with the main historic kernel just to the east. Within the surrounding city walls are several distinct old-town areas, with another concentration of sights in the streets between the main square and the public gardens. Meanwhile, to the north of the centre you can follow the course of the medieval Aqueduto do Água Prata (Silver Water Aqueduct), into whose ever-rising arches a row of houses has been incorpo- rated. Wherever you wander, nothing is more than a ten-minute walk from Praça do Giraldo.
Leave at least an afternoon or two to explore Évora’s environs which have some significant attractions. Some, like the castles at Évoramonte, warrant a quick stop en route elsewhere, though the famed carpet town of Arraiolos, just to the north, is a popular day or overnight trip from the city.The administrative district of Évora also contains over a dozen megalithic sites – dolmens (funerary chambers), menhirs (standing stones) and stone circles – which have their origins in a culture that flourished here before spreading north as far as Brittany and Denmark.The stones of Os Almendres, in particular, provide one of the country’s most extraordinary sights. With your own car, you can easily combine a visit to Os Almendres with the dramatic dolmen of Zambujeiro.
Évora was shaped by its Roman and Moorish occupations: the former is commemorated by a temple, the latter by a characteristic tangle of alleys, rising steeply among the whitewashed houses. Most of the city’s other monuments, however, date from the fourteenth to the sixteenth century, when Évora prospered under the patronage of the ruling House of Avis.To them are owed the many noble palaces scattered about the city, as is the Jesuit university and the wonderful array of Manueline and Renaissance buildings.That the city’s monuments have survived intact is due, in large part, to Évora’s decline after the Spanish usurpation of the throne in 1580. Future Portuguese monarchs chose to live nearer Lisbon, and the university was closed down. For the next four hundred years, Évora drifted back into a rural existence as a provincial market centre.Read More
The graceful Templo Romano stands at the very heart of the old city. Dating from the second century AD, it is the best-preserved temple in Portugal, despite its use as an execution ground during the Inquisition and a slaughterhouse until 1870. The remains consist of a small platform supporting fourteen granite columns with Corinthian capitals and a marble entablature. Its popular attribution to Diana is apparently fanciful; Jupiter is the more likely alternative. The little square in front of the temple has a kiosk-bar, while from the terrace you can look north across the rooftops – and see just how small contemporary Évora is, with the fields beginning only a few hundred metres away.
The Iberian peninsula’s largest and most impressive stone circle lies just to the west of Évora, south of the small village of Guadalupe, 13km from the city. To get there directly from Évora, take the N114 towards Montemor/Lisbon and follow the signs from Guadalupe. If you’re approaching from the south, from Escoural and Valverde, you need to turn left in Guadalupe, at the Café Barreiros.
You are directed out along a dirt road (largely flat and in good condition, fine for cars), reaching the Menir dos Almendres after 2km. This is a single, three-metre-high standing stone set in a quiet olive plantation five minutes’ walk from the road. Despite its obvious Neolithic origins, the local legend has it that it is the tomb of an enchanted Moorish princess, who appears once a year on the eve of São João and can be seen combing her hair.
Another 2.5km along the dirt road there’s a parking area beside the extraordinary Cromeleque dos Almendres, where no less than 92 stones are aligned for 70m down a dusty hillside. Placed here in several phases, between six and seven thousand years ago, they are thought to have been erected in a horseshoe shape as some kind of astronomical observatory and site of fertility rituals. Even today, the power of the site is undeniable, the stones resembling frozen figures gazing across the surrounding cork plantation to a distant Évora.