travel

An elegant and unspoilt walled town in the heart of the Alentejo wine country, Evora is an ideal destination for lovers of culture and cuisine, says Paul Richardson.

The motorway powers out of Lisbon, heading east towards the Spanish border, through countryside as unpopulated and as little messed about with as any in Europe. The thinner the traffic and the emptier the landscape, the greater the sense of relief that seeps into one’s stress-tightened muscles.

Description: Map of Alentejo So the Alentejo, located in southern

Map of Alentejo So the Alentejo, located in southern

Welcome to the Alentejo, a region that occupies more than a third of Portugal’s surface area, despite being home to just seven per cent of the population.

The “land beyond the Tagus” is calming in its uncluttered, minimalist beauty. Pastureland and wheat fields alternate with vineyards, olive groves and sparse forests of cork oak. The region is the world’s most important cork producer, and the acorns that fall from the oaks go to feed black-footed porco preto pigs for presunto ham. Occasionally a small white town appears, clustered on a hill, or a low-rise, high-chimneyed farmhouse, its whitewashed walls picked out with ochre or bright-blue trim.

Description: The rooftops of Evora in the Portugal's Alentejo region

The rooftops of Evora in the Portugal's Alentejo region

Slatherings of history overlay this landscape and these pretty towns. More than 150 menhirs, dolmens and cromlechs are dotted aroung the northern Alentejo, making this a rich seam of Neolithic culture. Even for non-antiquarians, the stone circle at Almendres, outsides Evora, is atmospheric in its sylvan setting. During the first century BC, the Romans established a seat of power in the region and called their settlement Ebora Liberalitas Julia. The city continued to enjoy a measure of importance until the 18th century, when it began to sink into provincial obscurity. But if its monuments and its streets of historic houses fell into desuetude, most of them were eventually restored, and Evora fully deserves the UNESCO World Heritage status conferred upon it in 1986.

Capital of the upper Alentejo (as Beja, 64km to the south, is of the lower), Evora has nothing of the fast, modern city about it, and quite a lot of the slow-moving, sleepy country town. The historic centre is encircled by a ring of medieval walls which creates something like a nature reserve for buildings, embracing and protecting everything of value within. Nothing is allowed to spoil Evora’s cityscape of whitewash and ochre and granite. After several days of dedicated exploration, I still found it hard to believe that real people were able to lead real lives amid all this loveliness, to do the weekly shop, get to work on time and remember to pay the gas bill.

Description: Evora is sometimes called a cidade-museu (“museum city”)

Evora is sometimes called a cidade-museu (“museum city”)

Evora is sometimes called a cidade-museu (“museum city”), and it does have something of the imperviousness to change, the all-pervading weight if its own history, that this epithet implies. Yet it’s also a university town – students make up 10,000 of its 50,000-odd inhabitants – and perhaps this injection of youthful energy explains the city’s growing, if still marginal, interest in modern design. Funky little bars and boutiques are popping up among the countless pastry shops, the old-fashioned hardware stores and the clothes shops selling flesh-coloured lingerie for the large lady. I was intrigued to discover an exhibition of “readymades” and other artworks by the sculptor Marcel Duchamp – a show you’d be surprised to find in a much more sophisticated city – at the avant-garde Fórum Eugénio de Almeida exhibition space near the cathedral.

Description: The Palácio also incorporates ones of Portugal’s most beautiful churches

The Palácio also incorporates ones of Portugal’s most beautiful churches

Evora is one of those places where you can either easily see enough in a weekend, or you can spend weeks finding curious things in every nook and cranny: secret gardens with lemon trees that spill their fruit over high walls; granite windows with the flounces and furbelows of the fantastical Manueline Gothic style, unique to Portugal; shady alleys where the only sounds you’ll hear are cooing pigeons; and sprawling aristocratic palaces which, to your surprise, turn out to be open to the public. One morning I spend a pleasant hour in the company of Prince Charles-Phillippe d’Orleans, a scion of the French royal family (I treasure his visiting card), who take time to show me around a house that has been in the family of his Portuguese wife, the Dusches de Cadaval, since the 15th century. The Palácio Cadaval is a miscellany of ecclesiastical art, Portuguese antiques, and touching evidence of domestic life (in the palace kitchens, a wood fire crackled in the grate). The Palácio also incorporates ones of Portugal’s most beautiful churches, and, in a country where one can become blasé about blue-painted azulejos, its sumptuous 18th-century tiles – 600 square metres of them – successfully revived my flagging enthusiasm for the genre.

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