Portugal: Évora & The Pagans

April 10, 2015.  After witnessing Good Friday festivities in Lisbon, we decided that for a well-rounded approach, we’d take in some pagan spots in and around the walled city of Évora.  For those of you who haven’t heard of the town, Évora is a UNESCO World Heritage site that is chocablock with Neolithic, Roman, Moorish, and Medieval ruins — enough to keep us busy for at least a week.  But as usual, we decided to cram it all into two days.

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The pool at the Pousada dos Lóios.

Our first order of business involved checking into the only hotel in the central part of town with a last-minute opening — the Pousada dos Lóios.  Formerly a 15th-century monastery, it now rents out the monks’ cells to those who don’t mind small but elegantly appointed spaces.  Of course, the place has been upgraded quite a bit since Medieval times, so guests can hang out in the pool, dine in the orange-grove cloister, or get a drink in the bar.

The decor is as you’d expect for an ascetic order: simple clay-tiled floors and white-plastered walls.  Mission-style furniture, lots of oak, leather, and wrought iron — as well as several paintings of dogs tearing bears to bits — remind you that this was originally the domaine of men, just in case you forgot.  But the overall atmosphere is peaceful and serene, a great place to take shelter from the heat of southern Portugal.

After checking in to the hotel, we decided to pop in right next door to the Church of the Lóios, which has been the mortuary chapel for the Cadaval family for centuries.  Sure enough, you can walk over generations of Dukes, Duchesses, and their offspring (their graves are marked with beautifully etched tombstones) — as well as a legion of dead monks whose bones have been bundled together into a mass burial visible via a trap door in the floor.  (A second trap door leads to a cistern from Moorish times.)

The Church of Lóios is right next door to our Pousada.  The front porch of the hotel dates back to the original convent of 1485 and is one of the few sections left intact after the great earthquake of 1755.
The Church of Lóios is right next door to our Pousada. The Manueline front porch of the hotel dates back to the original convent of 1485 and is one of the few sections left intact after the great earthquake of 1755.

The living Dukes had their own gilded balcony from which to watch the Mass that took place in front of the church’s impressive gilded altar — and just in case you didn’t know the family was rich, the nave and aisles of the church are coated in blue-and-white azulejos tiles, which, at the time they were installed, were probably more costly than the gold fancy bits scattered around the church.  “Who are these fabulously wealthy Cadavals?” you might ask.  Our curiosity, too, had been peaked, so we headed next door to their palace.

Turns out, the Cadaval line is still alive and well, thank you very much, and their private home is now also a museum and open for tours.  It was kinda fun to see family photos of weddings, christenings, and occasional meetings with heads of state, all just sitting out on side tables and mantlepieces.  Though quite lovely, “palace” might be too grand a word, as the home’s size and casual décor gives it more the feeling of a well-loved and lived-in country manor (with a few pieces of armor tossed in for flair).  My favorite room was the spectacular 16th-century kitchen — I now have serious copper-pot envy!

Our “Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous” moment over, we trotted across the street to the evocative Roman Temple.  Still used today for concerts, the temple is atmospherically lit at night, and you can admire it closeup from the outdoor cafe situated in the shade of its massive bulk.  Fourteen Corinthian columns still stand, a testament to Roman construction methods, along with a nearby, beautifully preserved Roman arch, a portion of a wall, and part of a bathhouse.

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Mary the fertility goddess, patting her baby bump and swearing it’s an immaculate conception.

Continuing our tour around the city, we jumped forward in time to the Medieval Era with a tour of the Cathedral of Évora, which has an elaborately gilded chapel housing a statue of a pregnant Mary.  As the story goes, the first priests hoped to convert the Celtic pagans to Christianity by capitalizing on the fertility goddess aspect, hence Mary’s “baby bump.”  Family members of pregnant women supposedly still come here today to pray during difficult deliveries.

Climbing up to the roof of the Cathedral — an amazing experience I’d highly recommend because, hey, how often do you get to climb around on the roof of a 12th-century church? — we encountered a fabulous view of the Alentejo plain stretching towards the Algarve.  After a peek down into the orange-tree-studded cloister, we hunted around and finally managed to spot the carving of Giraldo the Fearless, a Christian knight and local hero who managed to boot out the Moors via a surprise attack in 1165.

Our church hopping not yet complete, our next stop was the Church of St. Francis and the Chapel of the Bones.  While most of the church was under wraps due to restoration, the Chapel of the Bones was luckily still open for business.  And boy, could it give Paris’s catacombs a run for their money.

Femurs, skulls, ribs, and other body parts of around 5,000 monks have been eerily and “artistically”arranged into arches, columns, and other decorative elements.  And like the Paris tombs, the chapel flounts pithy phrases, such as my favorite, which appears next to the shriveled corpses of a man and child hanging from the rafters: “The day that I die is better than the day that I was born.”

For a little more cheer and sunlight, we returned to Praça do Giraldo, the city’s central square, where we enjoyed an ice cream and sat next to the cooling spray of water from a 16th-century marble fountain.  A bit more walking brought us to the fountain’s source, an aqueduct reservoir by the name of Mãe d’Àgua (Mother of Water), built in the same century.  We continued to trace the aqueduct as it gradually rose in elevation atop graceful arches until it brought us near the peaceful lane that housed our dinner spot.

Following the recommendation of our Rick Steves guidebook (Rick rarely steers us wrong), we decided to opt for the low-key Taberna Tipica Quarta-Feira, known for its expertly served game meats — and the place did not disappoint.  The owner, Zé Dias, was a delight, who served up some amazing appetizers, including a baked cheese, locally sourced and smoked ham, and a dish of mushrooms that made me yearn for the recipe.  Our main course was an enormous slab of black boar that, I have to say, was the best meat I’ve eaten in years.  Melt-in-your-mouth tender and juicy, I only wish I could have eaten the whole thing.

I had to laugh at one point, when, after turning away potential diners from an empty table, the owner shrugged his shoulders and said: “I’m tired.  I stop serving when I’m tired.  But no worry, they’ll be back tomorrow.”  We knew how he felt, as we dragged our burgeoning bellies back to the hotel, stopping along the dark alleyways just long enough to pluck a ripe lemon from an overhanging tree and enjoy the peaceful cooing of doves settling down for the night.

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