28.11.14

Cycling In Portugal: Alentejo's Capital - Evora

A typical view throughout the Alentejo plains.

Soon across the Rio Tejo the landscape changed dramatically. It became drier and more remote, with towns spread further apart. Long gone were the compact small villages, lazily suspended beneath the ridge tops of the more mountainous north.

The view ahead was reduced to a long and lonely road, made for nothing better than swift, uncomplicated travelling. It’s during moments like these, you forget about the slow revolution of your bike computer, your uncomfortable buttocks and the annoying aches and pains that arbitrarily travel from one body part to the next like a pinball machine. You instead find yourself absorbing a kaleidoscope of changing scenery, from the rows upon rows of olive grows to the sight of tractors towing trailers laden with a conglomeration of timber poles, randomly stacked vegetables and overcrowded cages of livestock.

Evora's main square, Praca do Giraldo
Crossing into Portugal’s Alentejo region, I shortly passed the sign to Évora, the magnificently preserved medieval city we’d visited on a previous cycling journey through the country’s east. The region’s capital and another UNESCO World Heritage site, it has accumulated a rich history over its two millennia existence. A Celtic settlement before Roman times, it became a military outpost due to its favourable position above the vast Alentejo plains. Ruled by the Visigoths until conquered by the Moors in the early 8th century, it reached its zenith during Portugal’s Golden age when it became a major centre for the humanities and the arts. Similarly to Coimbra further north, renowned sculptors, composers and painters, including the great European Masters, gathered to share their works and knowledge. Given rise to such a heightened thirst for learning and exchange of ideas, the University of Évora, founded in 1559, became Portugal’s second-oldest university.

Evora's Rua da Cano
Despite its greatness and grandeur, Évora has tasted its share of depravity and wanton violence. Its luminary main square, the Praça do Giraldo, has born witness to the brutal execution of a duke, Fernando II, Duke of Bragança, as well as public burnings of victims of the Inquisition. Formally commenced by the King João III in 1536, the main target of the Portuguese Inquisition was the Sephardic Jews expelled from Spain. Nevertheless, anyone who refused to adhere to the strictures of the Roman Catholic Church, particularly if accused of divination, witchcraft or bigamy, was more than likely to suffer a similar fate.

While unlikely to ever return to its glory days of the 16th century, Évora remains one of Portugal’s most fascinating tourist destinations. With its narrow cobbled lanes, architectural history and 14th-century walls that still encircle the northern section of the old town, it seemed to us, very reminiscent of Spain’ s own historical treasure, Segovia. But it’s Évora’s medieval aqueduct, the Aqueduto da Agua de Prata that is its main attraction. Built during the early 16th century, it was designed to carry clean water to the city from the Ribeiro do Divor, nine kilometres to the north. Eventually terminating in the narrow Rua da Cano, the aqueduct’s arches, which accommodate an assortment of shops, houses and businesses, have gradually embraced the city’s changing landscape over time.

Another of Évora’s major attractions is its Templo Romano (Roman Temple), which somewhat mistakenly, also answers to the name of the ‘Templo de Diana’. Most likely built during the first or second century A.D., to pay homage to Rome’s first emperor, Augustus Caesar, it appears to have had an interesting history in its own right. Badly damaged by Germanic tribes during the 5th century, its ruins became incorporated into the structure of a castle tower during the middle ages, until used as a butcher shop until 1836. It wasn’t until 1872, that a programme to restore the primitive face of the Roman temple, with 14 of its original granite Corinthian columns still intact, finally became executed.

The Templo Romana, with its 14 Corinthian columns.


Of all the city’s interesting sights, its’ Capela dos Ossos (Chapel of Bones) is undoubtedly the most thought-provoking. Carefully arranged in the walls of a small room behind the alter of its most well known church, the Igreja da São Fransisco, are the skulls and bones of some 5000 people. Constructed by Franciscan monks during the 17th century, to free up land for alternative use and development, it carries the sobering inscription as you enter beneath its imposing stone arch, ‘The bones here await yours’. The idea of displaying the bones rather than hiding them is certainly a more ghoulish spectacle, but one that provides the opportunity to contemplate and confront the advent of death that awaits us all. 




 
 

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