Alentejo Adventure (Part 2)

Cloisters of Sé de Évora

Horses, gin, cathedral roof tops, medieval castles, human bones, and ancient stones...

Hmmm…I didn’t make much of a dent in the above list in last week’s blog post – except for the medieval castles…we hit two of those in one day. But, this week’s post includes ancient stones, human bones, and cathedral roof tops, so let’s get started!

It was Saturday, June 19 – the date of our 22nd wedding anniversary – and we decided to keep it simple. The room rate at L’AND Vineyards included breakfast every day so we took advantage of that perk while there. After breakfast we headed out and planned to spend the day in Évora before returning to the hotel for a special dinner that evening.

Won and I had been to Évora once before and we were completely charmed by the city. That quick visit left us wanting more and this was a great time to go back, because Évora is only about a thirty minute drive from the hotel. However, on our way there we made a stop to see something pretty special.

Cromeleque dos Almendres (Cromlech of the Almendres) is a megalithic complex located outside the village of Nossa Senhora de Guadalupe at the end of a 4.5 km (2.8 mile) road. This time the Google gods were not toying with us…that 4.5 km “road” was pretty much all dirt…groan, our poor car. Honestly? We should have shipped the blasted SUV to Portugal and not the sedan. Oh well, too late for regrets now. To avoid doing any harm to the car, we drove very slowly. Thankfully, we encountered only one car going the opposite direction and no one was following us. After parking and walking down a path, we came to this sacred place. There was no ticket office, no barrier, no fence. Amazing.

Schematic showing the evolution of the cromlech from early Neolithic until today.

This particular cromlech (circle of standing stones) consists of more than a hundred menhirs (tall upright stones erected in prehistoric times) and was constructed in a semi-ellipsoidal formation along an east/west axis. It is believed that the monument either had a religious or ceremonial purpose, or functioned as a primitive astronomical observatory. This cromlech is the largest existing group of structured menhirs in the Iberian Peninsula and one of the largest in Europe. It dates back to the 6th millennium BC (4000 years older than Stonehenge). About a dozen monoliths still exhibit some form of carved drawings, but they have extensively eroded over the millennia due to exposure to the elements. The schematic to the right shows how the site has evolved over time.

It is also believed that these sites helped to mark the winter and summer solstices. We happened to be there on the 19th of June and the summer solstice took place on the 21st. Blast…we missed it by just two days. It would have been pretty cool if we had been there on the 21st.

It was very peaceful and enjoyable to walk around looking at the stones and imagining what life might have been like 8000 years ago. There is a sign nearby that points out which stones still have barely visible carvings. We tried to find them all, but I only found one (it’s in the the grouping above…see if you can find it).

We decided to leave when a young couple showed up who were having a giggling conversation via the speaker on their mobile phone. So much for sacred spaces.

It was lunchtime and our plan was to eat at one of the highest rated restaurants in Évora (pronounced ehvoo-rrha), called Taberna Tipica Quarta Feira. This place has almost 2000 reviews and a near perfect 5 stars, but we didn’t make a reservation in advance. Do you think we got a table? HA! Not on your life (and by the way, we weren’t the only ones who showed up thinking they could get a meal…this place is in high demand). We hung our heads and chided ourselves as we walked away. We found an alternate place to eat nearby and during our meal we mapped out a plan. The historic center of Évora is very walkable, but it helps to know where things are in relation to each other so you are, at least, efficient with your time.

(I won’t tell you about how our first stop was to buy a cord to link my external battery to my phone. Again?!! Yeah, feel free to shake your head, I am. On the plus side, I’m nearing cord saturation status so it won’t be much longer until this issue is finally resolved.)

First stop, err, I mean second stop, was the Capela dos Ossos (Chapel of Bones). How do you pass up an entire chapel decorated (is that the right word??!!) with human skulls and bones? Sacred spaces was going to be the order of the day, because when you step into this place you certainly have a palpable sense of finality when you stare directly into the ‘faces’ of the dead.

Inside the chapel a poem about the need to reflect on one’s existence hangs in an old wooden frame on one of the pillars. It is attributed to Fr. António da Ascenção Teles (1845 to 1848).

The Capela dos Ossos was built by Franciscan monks in the 17th century. An estimated 5,000 corpses were exhumed and used to cover the walls of the chapel. The bones came from ordinary people who were buried in Évora’s medieval cemeteries.

Two desiccated corpses, one of which is a child, are in glass display cases. Legend has it that the mummified bodies are of a father and son who had treated the mother of their family badly. It is said she cursed them on her deathbed, May the land of your graves not decompose you. The bodies had been hanging on the walls since the 18th century and were finally taken down in the 21st century and placed in glass cases. A poem accompanying the mummies reads:

Apparently, scientific testing has shown they are both female, so not much drama there after all.

Before we leave the bones, and for anyone interested in how they were placed onto the walls, here’s peek at how it was done. Cement was used to hold them in place.

The chapel is connected to the Igreja de São Francisco (Church of St. Francis), but we were unable to go into the church because a wedding was taking place – a nice happy counter balance to the seriousness of the chapel, I think.

With our mortality top of mind, we headed off to see the Sé de Évora (Cathedral of Évora). Positioned on the highest spot of the city, it is one of the oldest and most important local monuments of the region. The cathedral was declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 1988.

The church came about after Évora was reconquered from the Arabs in 1166 by Geraldo Sem Pavor (Gerald the Fearless). New Christian rulers of the city began to build a cathedral, dedicated to the Virgin Mary, to acknowledge this important event. The first building, built between 1186 and 1204, was very modest and was enlarged sometime between 1280-1340, this time in early Gothic style. The cathedral received several important additions over time, such as the Gothic cloisters in the 14th century, the Manueline chapel in the early 16th century, and a new, magnificent main chapel in baroque style in the first half of the 18th century. It is the largest of the medieval cathedrals in Portugal, and one of the best examples of Gothic architecture. (If anyone would like to learn more about the different types of architecture in Portugal, click here to read my post dedicated to that subject.)

We didn’t get to go inside of the church last December when we were here and were curious to see it this time, and boy, did we ever! We got to see way more than we had hoped.

When we stepped up to the ticket booth we were told we had the choice of seeing just the church, or the church and cloisters, or the church, cloisters and tower. I figured let’s go for it all. We paid a total of 7,00€ and were directed to the tower. Having no clue what to expect we gamely stepped up…and up…and up…and up…following a dizzyingly narrow spiral staircase with stair treads that were barely wide enough for my feet! I have no idea if I was out of breath because of the exertion or because I was having a panic attack at how claustrophobic the experience was. Won was behind me so I just kept climbing.

I just noticed all the scuff marks on the wall next to each step in the image above. It’s pretty obvious that people kick the wall as they try to stay on the “widest” part of each stair tread. You can also see how the granite has been worn down over the centuries by countless numbers of people climbing those stairs.

I nearly expired as we continued to climb, but after what seemed like a never-ending hell of winding steps we popped right out and on to the roof of the church!! What!?! We had no idea this is where the tower steps would terminate. The views of the city were amazing, but what was even more wild is that we were allowed to be up there at all. I mean can you imagine going up on the roof of any church in the US for example?

These are the very first images we saw when we exited the tower.

But, it gets better! We weren’t restricted to one part of the roof, we could literally crawl all over it.

It was time to head back down to earth so we began to search for the exit, convinced that the way we came up could not possibly be the way down. There was NO WAY anyone would be able to pass another person in that narrow space. As it turned out, that was the only way up and down. We gave anyone coming up a yell that we were coming down and held our breath. Thankfully no one was coming the other direction. I’m hoping they have people standing at both ends of that staircase when it’s busier with a pair of walkie-talkie’s giving people permission to go up and down to avoid a mid-staircase traffic jam.

With the tower behind us, we headed to the cloisters which were built between 1317 and 1340 in Gothic style. Despite the use of Late-Gothic tracery, the use of granite in its construction gives it a heavy-looking overall impression. You can look down into the cloisters from the roof where we had been earlier, but we didn’t notice because our eyes were mostly glued to the vistas or to where we were placing our feet (and I didn’t want to get too close to the edge).

After we had taken some time to sit and absorb the peace and serenity of the cloisters, off we went to see the cathedral. Interestingly, the main chapel was totally rebuilt between 1718 and 1746 under the guidance of King João V. The style favored by the King and his architect a that time was Roman baroque, with painted altars and polychrome marble decoration (green marble from Italy, white marble from Montes Claros, red and black marble from Sintra). Although the style does not really fit the medieval interior of the cathedral, the main chapel is nevertheless an elegant baroque masterpiece.

Anyone who has been reading my blog for awhile might be thinking this church seems vaguely familiar, especially the ceiling over the altar. Good eye!! The architect responsible for the renovation of this church was also responsible for Mafra Palace. Click here to see images and note the ceiling design over the altar at Mafra.

While we were up on the roof of the church, we saw what looked to be a lovely park not too far away and decided to check it out before heading back to the hotel. I’m so glad we did. Based on what I could find out, it is simply a public park with areas for children’s play, coffee kiosks, and entertainment events. Musical events are held here regularly and they were actively preparing for one that very evening.

The park also has a Ruínas Fingidas, a pretend ruin (it is called a “folly” in England). I’ve never come across anything like this, but I was completely charmed! It is roped off to keep people from climbing on it and it is home to a family of peacocks. I did my best to capture the peahen with her two chicks, but she kept tucking her head into her feathers to preen. A bit later, I looked up to see that the peacock had relocated and was perfectly framed under an arch. Just as I brought my phone up to get the picture, he moved. I assumed I had missed getting the shot and had no idea I caught him in mid-flight until I looked at my pictures later that day!

We decided to head back to the hotel so we wouldn’t be rushed for our anniversary dinner that evening. We made reservations at the hotel because the reviews were very good and we wouldn’t have to drive afterwards (i.e. we could enjoy wine with dinner). The restaurant, which doesn’t have a name, uses organically-grown citrus fruits, vegetables, and aromatic herbs. Their seafood comes from nearby Setúbal and they source special products like cheeses, grass-fed beef, and traditional olive oil from the Alentejo region. I wanted to drown myself in that olive oil it was so good.

For all you foodies out there, here are the details:

We started with a Portuguese sparking wine. I remember having it the year before at a divine little restaurant near Cascais called Casa Davolta. I found the picture on my phone and showed it to the sommelier. He was surprised Casa Davolta knew of it, because it has a very limited distribution within Portugal. I loved it just as much this time as I did the last. Mmm, mmm, good!

Won ordered an appetizer of seared tuna. I preferred to keep gorging myself on the bread and that sumptuous, fruity olive oil.

For his entrée, Won ordered the lamb (a work of art!!) and paired it with Voltface Reserva 2019 from the Alentejo region.

I drank a dish of olive oil.

Just kidding!! I had the asparagus risotto, which was not quite as beautiful as Won’s dish, but oh so tasty!! My meal was paired with a glass of the 2019 Peripecia Chardonnay from Évora. By the way, the wines we drank that evening were delicious and, it turns out, exceedingly affordable (I looked them up later). The sparkling wine (an award winner) retails for 11,95€ per bottle, Won’s red wine retails for 11,50€ and my white wine retails for 9,50€ per bottle. I LOVE Portugal!!

For dessert, Won had the chocolate torte and a glass of 10 year old Barbeito port from Madeira. (Apologies for the shadow across Won’s dessert – by this time it was a miracle I could still focus my eyes.)

I had a medley of citrus sorbets while sipping a glass of DSF muscatel superior, a yummy dessert wine that provided a nice sweetness to offset the tartness of the citrus flavors.

We managed to get back to our suite safely and slept like babies. Next week’s blog will wrap up our trip. I’ll be covering our ride through the vineyards on horseback, a visit to a gin distillery, and walking the ancient cobblestone streets of a walled medieval city in Monsaraz that provided spectacular views of the countryside and the largest artificial lake in Europe! Here’s just a little peek…

Until next week, please stay safe, stay healthy, and stay in touch.

From Portugal with love,

Beth

Published by Beth Thomas-Kim

After working in corporate America for companies like Mattel, Nestlé, and Johnson & Johnson, I retired and moved to Portugal in January of 2020 with my husband Won and our 12-year old wire fox terrier, Sweet Pea. We now live in Monte Estoril, a lovely seaside town just outside Lisbon. We spend our days happily exploring this beautiful country and learning about its fascinating history, engaging culture, warm and welcoming people, delicious food and wine, and stunning architecture. This blog was started primarily as a way to keep family and friends updated on our transition from the US to Portugal. Now, my subscribers include people from all over the world. Enjoy!

6 thoughts on “Alentejo Adventure (Part 2)

  1. First things first…that peacock caught in flight photo, GORGEOUS! Frame that puppy!🤗 It is always amazing to us that Europe let’s you climb rickety stairs up the outside of a broken down castle, and climb tower steps to church rooftops etc! I’ve been to Stonehenge which was amazing and these stones are interesting too. The cathedral bone mosaics artistically are intriguing. However there’s also a real “eeeewww” factor. This coming from the person who has a shelf of baby doll heads in her studio loft! Ruben and I were watching YouTube videos about Portugal the other night and they all stunk! The people were awful and it was just bad. Also, one woman started giving advise to people at a cost of $129 a session. (She hasn’t even seen half of the things you guys have!) Omg, your presentations, photos and humor are so enjoyable!

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    1. 😊 thanks so much, Brenda! Love to receive your comments. They always make me smile. I read your comment to Won who replied (re the woman who’s charging money for advice (!?)…”ours is free!” 😎 Take care!

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      1. Glad they make you smile! Kinda embarrassed I spelled “advice” “advise” though!!! Now on to the horses!!!🤗

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      2. 😁 (I never get everything right when I publish and am typically horrified when I go back and read a post the next day to find some kind of error. Oh well, no one’s perfect. 🤷)

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  2. Wow! It has taken me days to finish reading this entry because I keep stopping to bookmark places in my google map, and copying information into my (someday) itinerary. It is all so gorgeous!

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    1. Ha!! I’m so happy that these posts are inspiring you to visit and that they are helping you to build an itinerary. One important tip if you plan to visit the Alentejo region…avoid mid-to late summer. It can get really hot. I wouldn’t go between mid-July and end of August (maybe even mid-September), unless of course you like hot weather.

      Liked by 1 person

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