ÉVORA is one of Portugal’s most historic and unspoilt cities: indeed its Roman temple, Moorish alleys, circuit of medieval walls, ensemble of sixteenth-century mansions and ochre-trimmed, whitewashed houses have resulted in its being awarded UNESCO World Heritage status. A vibrant university helps support a modern town that spreads beyond the old walls, though its current population of around 56,000 inhabitants is fewer than in medieval times, and its compact centre is easily explored within a day or two. Évora’s agricultural roots are recalled on the second Tuesday of each month, with a huge open-air market held in the Rossio, south of the city walls, and in the lively Mercado Municipal (closed Mon) on Praça 1 de Maio, where you can sample local produce – beneath the fish section is a wine cellar that offers tastings; it also hosts farmers’ markets most weekends. The town’s big annual event, the Feira de São João, takes over the city during the last ten days of June, with handicraft, gastronomic and musical festivals.
Praça do Giraldo is the city’s 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 incorporated. Wherever you wander, nothing is more than a ten-minute walk from Praça do Giraldo.
The original settlement was probably founded by the Celts, but it was the Romans who fortified the city in 57 BC. Its position on trade routes allowed Évora to flourish and soon after, the Temple of Diana was erected. In 715, Tariq ibn-Ziyad began a 450-year period of Moorish rule which established the city’s maze of narrow alleys. It was recaptured by the Christians in 1165, who began to construct the cathedral in 1186 (though it was not finished until the fourteenth century). The period from 1385–1580 saw the city prosper when the royal House of Avis established their court here, and it was during this period that most of Évora’s finest buildings were built. In 1553, the Jesuits founded a highly-rated university, but this was closed down by the King’s chief minister, Pombal, in 1759; he distrusted the Jesuits’ influence. The Vauban-style defensive town walls were constructed in the seventeenth century under the French engineer Nicolas de Langres and remain little changed today. Once the Portuguese court moved nearer Lisbon, Évora drifted into relative obscurity for much of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. However, the university was re-established in 1973 and in 1986, the town was awarded UNESCO World Heritage status as “the finest example of a city of the Golden Age of Portugal”. It is now thriving again thanks to its lively student population and as a popular tourist destination.