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.
Things to do in Évora
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 on Mondays) 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.
Other sites of interest include 15th century San Francisco Church and the 13th century cathedral. There are restaurants, bars and cafes dotted all over the place so finding somewhere to wine and dine will be no issue.
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.
Templo Romano (Temple of Diana)
The graceful ruins of the Templo Romano stands at the very heart of the old city. It was built in the first or second century, supported by fourteen granite Corinthian columns, making it undoubtedly the most impressive Roman building in the country. Popularly known as the Temple of Diana (the Roman goddess of hunting), it was more probably dedicated to several Roman gods. The little square in front of the temple has an alluring 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.
Leave at least an afternoon or two to explore Évora’s environs, which have some significant attractions. Some, like the castle 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. While it’s tempting to take the fast road to Beja and the south, there’s an attractive detour to be made into deepest rural Alentejo, via the small historic towns of Viana do Alentejo and Alvito. From Évora the first stop, Viana do Alentejo, is a simple twenty-minute drive down the ruler-straight N254. There’s no reliable public transport along this route – you’ll need a car.
The Iberian peninsula’s largest and most impressive stone circle lies 13km west of Évora, just south of the small village of Guadalupe. To get here 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 fewer 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.
Featured Image, Evora, Portugal © Ross Helen / Shutterstock