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Roman ruins, megaliths and bones – It’s Évora!

By Jerry Olivas

Visiting Évora and the surrounding area in central Portugal is like a big school field trip that lasts for days. It’s easy to get overwhelmed by all the culture and history. Take it slow and savor this special place.

Visiting a place where the #1 tourist attraction is bones and skulls made me a little uneasy. Old cemeteries are always fun with their large tombstones and crypts, but you don’t usually see human remains. This cemetery was different.

Historical Bonanza

Even if you’re not into history, it’s hard not to be impressed by all that Évora has to offer. For starters, the Historic Centre of Évora is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, along with 16 other sites in Portugal. And as soon as you approach the city from the north, visitors see the huge arched aqueduct built in the 16th century by King João III, although the Romans were probably the first builders of an aqueduct here.

Romans

The aqueduct extends into the medieval centre of Évora, and hiking and cycling along the aqueduct is available just outside Évora.

Évora’s main attraction is the Temple of Diana, just a few blocks from the city center. What makes the site so impressive is that about half of the main columns are still standing. Climbing it is one of those “WOW” moments. A picnic in the small park in front of the Temple made me say once again, “Maybe I should have studied archaeology.” To see more Roman ruins, visit the Roman Baths, which are located at the Évora City Hall, just 5 minutes from the Temple. The visit to the temple and the thermal baths is free, but the thermal baths are only open from Monday to Friday, from 9:00 to 17:30.

Évora itself is a great museum, with plenty of actual museums to enjoy if you want to delve a little deeper, warm up, cool down or shelter from the rain. The Museu da Cidade de Évora is a good first choice and is right next to the Roman Temple. This museum will give you a good overview of all that Évora and the Alentejo province have to offer, and has some fascinating archaeological pieces. It is open from Tuesday to Sunday, from 10:00 to 18:00, and costs 3 euros for adults, with discounts for seniors and students. There must be about ten museums in Evora, so there is plenty to enjoy. Celts, Visigoths, Romans, Moors, the Golden Age of Évora and much, much more make Évora a great fun history lesson.

Remains

There are so many things to do in Évora that you may not have time to explore some of the Alentejo province. But if you do have time, top of the list has to be the megalithic Cromlech de Almendres. The 95 large standing stones, dating back to long before Christ, form two circles. They are located on a small elevation overlooking the Alentejo countryside, and the setting couldn’t be more pristine. They are always open and free of charge. Although we visited them on our own, a guided tour might be a good option to get the full impact of this interesting and mysterious site. They are located about 12 kilometers from Évora, near the village of Nossa Senhora de Guadalupe.

Don’t miss the little gift shop in Guadalupe, on the road to Almendres Cromlech. It has some unique gifts, restrooms, and there is a nice little park for a picnic that has some great outdoor archaeological and nature educational panels to read and view. Also, just around the corner from the Almendres Cromlech, heading south, near the village of Valverde, is the ancient burial chamber Gran Dolmen de Zambujeiro. The signage is a little confusing, but a little perseverance will make the experience worthwhile. The path is quite hilly, so it can be a good time for a hike.

Cork

Near Évora there are numerous vineyards, oil orchards, cork forests and some cork processing factories. All of them are easy half-day trips and can be visited on your own. As for the cork factories, we visited Cortiçarte, near the small village of Azaruja, northeast of Évora. We couldn’t visit it, but the gift shop was full of all kinds of cork products. The cork lamps were very cool, but there was no room on the roll for that. It’s good to call ahead to Cortiçarte because opening hours can be flexible.

Wine

If you want to visit some wineries around Évora, you need to be a bit strategic in your planning because opening times can vary, so it’s a good idea to call first. And, unlike the Napa Valley (California) tasting room experience, you have to set aside a bit of time to savor some of the best Alentejo wines. We had a great seated tasting at Quinta de São José de Peramanca, about 6 miles from Évora. The wines here were lovely, with great glasses and very knowledgeable staff. We bought two bottles to take away. There are other vineyards near Évora, especially north of the city, which are easy to find or just take a taxi from Parça do Giraldo.

If you prefer to stay on foot, there are plenty of wine tasting opportunities in Évora itself. In this case, it’s best to find a small café and ask for what looks good. The waiters will help you choose what you like best. Louro Wines is a wine shop in Évora that has a wide selection of Portuguese wines, ports and sparkling wines, and they also sell olive oil.

Évora Getaway

This is a full day trip, but the small village of Monsaraz with its castle is well worth it. It’s an easy drive about 50km east of Évora and the castle and village can be discovered on your own. If you are thirsty, the Ervideria wine shop next to the main church in the village offers a great wine tasting. It is open from 10:00 to 18:00 seven days a week. And if you haven’t had enough megalithism, visit the stone circle of Cromeleque do Xarez, near Monsaraz.

Eating in Évora

When it comes to world foods, Portuguese is in the top tier and Évora has many excellent restaurants. Hanging out in the main square Parça do Giraldo in one of the several outdoor cafes is a must. If you want to have a coffee and cake, try Gema D’Évora, at Parça do Giraldo no. 16. There are many pastry options to choose from, including delicious puff pastries. Open every day from 7:30 to 23:00.

However, my favorite for sweets is Pastelaria Violeta pastry shop, at R. José Elias Garcia no. 47. It was the place my wife and I would go for a second coffee in the mornings, a Pasteis de Nata (or two) and to take away for a picnic or to take home for late night sweets. It’s open Monday to Friday, 7:30am to 7pm, and Saturday, 7:30am to 2pm, and closed on Sundays. It’s a bit small and the service is a bit slow, but it’s worth the squeeze and the wait.

One of the problems with dining out in Evora is that there are too many good options. Asking other travelers is always a good idea, but you always get good reviews of all the restaurants. Adega da Talha Velha on Rua Romão Ramalho no. 56, was excellent, especially the fish dishes. It was so good that my wife and I ate there three times in one week. It is open from Thursday to Tuesday, from 12:00 to 23:00, and closes on Wednesdays. The slightly superior Dequst’Ar restaurant, located in the M’ar de Ar Aqueduto hotel, at Rua Candido dos Reis no 72, was a two-night dinner. A few appetizers, split a main course, a good bottle of Portuguese red wine and also dessert, will leave you more than satisfied. Dinner is served seven days a week from 19:30 to 23:30.

You may not think vegetarian cuisine is popular in Portugal, but it is. Salsa Verde on Rua do Raimundo no. 93, was absolutely delicious with a lot of choices, including desserts. And it’s a vegetarian restaurant, so it’s all good vibes.

There are plenty of street markets around, so you don’t have to worry about picking up groceries, and there is a main covered Municipal Market at Praça 1º de Maio no 28. There are plenty of fruits and vegetables at this market, but get there early. It opens at 7:00 and closes on Mondays.

We rented a car and did some of our grocery shopping just outside of town at Pingo Doce. This is one of those great grocery stores that has everything, including lots of fresh fruits and vegetables, as well as a good selection of Alentejo cheeses, olive oils and wines. And if you like, there’s plenty of Bacalhau (dried and salted cod) which is delicious any way you prepare it.

Sleeping in an aqueduct

Like restaurants, accommodations are plentiful in Evora. And, like restaurants, they all seem to get good reviews and prices vary widely, from the cheapest to the most expensive. All of the accommodation websites for hotels and holiday apartments provide most of the information you need, including the ability to ask specific questions of the property owners or managers, which we often do. We like Booking.com because it has several options for changing and cancelling bookings and its booking system, with mobile notifications, is quite streamlined.

We chose a unique apartment in Évora, built on the aqueduct itself. Casa do Aqueduto da Prata has two floors with a small roof terrace. It was an unusual experience to sleep next to walls that were built in ancient times. But sure enough, one day we woke up to find that the water was turned off. Lesson learned: sleeping in an aqueduct does not necessarily guarantee water.

How to get there

By bus or train

Evora does not have a commercial airport, but trains, buses or renting a car are good options from Lisbon, which is where most travellers come from. The bus from Lisbon is the Rede Expressos from Oriente station (Lisbon Metro red line, Oriente stop) or Sete Rios station (Lisbon Metro blue line, Jardim Zoologica stop). It costs about 12 euros and takes about two hours, with several buses a day. We took the Comboios de Portugal train from Oriente station (Lisbon metro red line, Oriente stop), which makes several trips a day. If you can get there early, there is a train that leaves at 7:02 a.m. It takes about an hour and 30 minutes and costs 10 euros. Note that on Portuguese trains there are always discounts for students and seniors (65+) at 50% off normal fares, and keep an eye out for special sale fares, which occur frequently. And there’s no problem with online reservations and purchases.

By rental car

Here you will find all the major car hire providers such as Budget, Hertz and Europcar. We opted to rent from Budget and pick up the car in Evora. Although Budget was on the outskirts of town, requiring a taxi ride from Parça do Giraldo, Budget took very good care of us with an upgrade and chauffeur service back to our old, albeit modern, aqueduct house when we returned the car. And top tips on driving in Portugal are: Drive defensively and always give way, because Portuguese drivers know where they are going, and visitors often don’t know exactly where they are going.

We took a late afternoon train to Evora from Lisbon. We opened a bottle of wine to share and exchanged travel ideas with other excited travelers. One of the first topics that came up was the Capela dos Ossos (Chapel of Bones). It seemed like a pilgrimage site that all travelers should visit. And so we did.

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