Peter Morrell visits this undiscovered region of Portugal and finds excellent food, a warm welcome and culture stretching back thousands of years.
I was standing in front of the very well preserved Roman Temple of Diana in the UNESCO world heritage town of Evora. The surrounding buildings represented the timeline of Portuguese history. To my left was the Fundação Eugénio de Almeida, home to the Holy Office of the Inquisition in the 16th century. Behind was the impressive Cathedral of Evora, to my right, the historic building where I would be staying the night and just beyond the towering Roman walls.
This eclectic display of architecture was the physical testimony of the many people and cultures who have passed through the town. From the Visigoths, who tried to destroy the temple, to the Moors driven out by the Christians and even Napoleon’s army during the Peninsula War in the early 19th century. The British fought alongside the Portuguese during that conflict reconfirming the alliance between the two countries that was signed in1373 and is still in place.
I took a look at the impressive Gothic cathedral before wandering down a quaint, cobbled pedestrian street, taking a look at some of the local handicrafts made from cork, one of the surrounding area’s biggest industries. The bottom of the street opened up into the town’s central square, the Praça do Giraldo, dominated at one end by the Igreja de Santo Antão church. The square is named after Giraldo the Fearless, the warrior who conquered the Moors in Evora. I walked under the shade of the porticos which once carried the town’s water supply, gazing at the row of shops. It seemed like every other window had a display of patisserie, each offering their own version of Pastel de Nata, delicious little egg custard tarts that are a real Portuguese delicacy.
The foodie theme continued as I came across the nearby food market, mounds of plump fruit and veg sat side by side with piles of pungent cheeses and there was a shop selling Portugal’s most famous dish, salt cod.
A few steps away was the church of St Francis, currently undergoing extensive renovations, attached to it is one of Evora’s best know curiousities The Capela dos Ossos or Chapel of Bones. It was built by Franciscan monks in the 16th century as a place to contemplate the transitory nature of life. An ominous motto across the entrance says We bones that here are, for yours await. Inside, the walls are lined with some 5000 skulls, many of them of children. It’s a thought-provoking place to visit.
My last stop of the day was the town hall, during recent building work well preserved Roman Baths were discovered and are now viewable. These sites and more are explored on a guided tour of Evora which leaves the tourist information centre in Praça do Giraldo
My home for the night was the Pousada dos Loios, originally the São João Evangelista Monastery it is now one of the Pousada chain, historic buildings which have been turned into luxury accommodation. The rooms are primarily the cells of the monks but updated with all the mod-cons. Cloisters, a sweeping staircase and charming areas to sit and relax both inside and out are all very atmospheric. My room, the Kings Suite, was enormous with a painted ceiling in the separate sitting room and a large balcony overlooking a vine clad courtyard.
That evening I dined like royalty, as I sat in the cloisters overlooking fruiting orange trees. The area has a long tradition of raising sheep so the menu features lamb as well as other delicious locally produced ingredients. This was matched with the very good wines which are made in the Alentejo.
There was so much to see in Evora that I stayed for the morning of the following day just peering through windows which exposed views of the Roman walls and walking along the ramparts where once lookouts scanned the horizon to the east for enemy activity. Before leaving I had lunch at the very authentic Café Alentejo, just off the main square. This bustling eatery with its vaulted ceiling serves traditional Alentejo dishes. I feasted on a large piece of salt cod and potatoes washed down with a local beer.
My next destination, quite close to Evora, was the charming little town of Arraiolos. This is right in the middle of the area which supported huge herds of Merino sheep. Bred for the quality of their wool, the town is renown world-wide for the rugs which are produced here. To become more acquainted with the industry I paid a visit to the Centro Interpretativo do Tapete de Arraiolos. In this interpretive centre the story of wool and carpet making is told, starting from wool dyeing pits dug in the 13th century as still visible through a glass floor, through the evolution of the Persian rug patterns to the relatively recent manually intensive labour of processing the wool and weaving the carpets. It was a fascinating journey through this traditional craft.
That night I stayed at the Pousada Convento de Arraiolos, and what beautiful place it was. Standing on its own in the Alentejo countryside it was originally the ancient convent of the St. John the Evangelist religious order, which was devoted to assisting the poor and the sick. The foundation stone was laid in 1527 and the building and bell tower are still there, solid and imposing. By the entrance is the perfectly preserved vaulted chapel covered with decorative blue and white tiles.
My footsteps echoed on the flagstones of the cloisters as I walked to my accommodation, I passed cosy rooms with comfy sofas where it would be so easy to relax. My room was huge with a large picture window looking across tree dotted green fields and rolling hills.
After a preprandial drink in the comfortable bar dinner was again well up to Alentejo standards with equally good service and those highly enjoyable local wines.
It was my last day but before setting off for Lisbon airport I wanted to see where some of the ingredients for the meals were produced. Deep in country, along a dirt road was the Herdade da Amendoeira, a farm that makes goat’s cheese, it’s own flavoured liqueurs, charcuterie and preserves, in addition to offering rooms in this sea of tranquility.
I toured the farm accompanied by the resident faithful (three legged) companion, Pennyroyal the dog. Arriving at the Queijaria, the cheesemakers were hard at work separating the curds from the whey before forming the cheeses, which are left for varying times to create different levels of flavour. It was then on to the distillery to see the antique copper stills making spirits with botanicals like wild almonds. I was impressed with the commitment to quality of everyone I met.
Disappointingly it was time to leave for the airport, only just over an hour away. This region of Portugal is almost unknown to the British traveller, it has a culinary heritage that is difficult to beat, the historic Pousadas to stay in and a highly varied, well preserved culture. I will return.
For more information about the Pousada network go to www.pestana.com
Information about the Alentejo can be found at www.visitalentejo.pt/en/
TAP, the Portuguese airline operate daily flights to Lisbon www.flytap.com/UnitedKingdom/en/
For more about Portugal go to www.visitportugal.com/en