Contents / quick links:
- Gruesome: Chapel of Bones
- Unexpected hit: Collection of Nativity Scenes
- Culture: Temple of Diana
- Gorgeous: Igreja de São João Evangelista
- Traditional: Evora Cathedral
- Inspirational: Standing Stones of Almendres Cromlech.
- Practical information
Evora is an ancient, sun-kissed city rising handsomely out of the cork oak forests and parched ground of the Alentejo, southern Portugal. Less than two hours from Lisbon, its compact size and wealth of sights makes it a perfect destination for a short break or, as we did it, a culture-packed and rewarding day trip.
The thermometer had already zoomed past 30°C by the time we reached Evora in mid-morning. We had lost our battle to beat the heat, so we decided to beat the crowds instead and headed straight for Evora’s most infamous tourist attraction – the gruesome Chapel of Bones.
Chapel of Bones
The Capela dos Ossos is one of a number of interesting curiosities found within the walls of the Igreja de São Francisco. It exists principally because Evora is a very old city. A very very very old city, in fact: people have been living here for over 5 millennia. Celts, Romans, Visigoths, Moors – just about everyone who was anyone in this part of the world has probably ruled Evora at some point in time. However, it was during the Middle Ages that the city really began to flourish, by which time quite a lot of expired Evorians were already clogging up the city’s cemeteries and, rather inconveniently, using valuable land.
The solution: dig up the cemeteries and relocate the bones to this purpose-built chapel. It was a win:win – Evora freed up more land for development, and its devout citizens obtained a place in which to reflect and meditate on the transient nature of life and the inevitability of death.
The kids’ reaction to this macabre place was understandably mixed. Ash (13) remembered reading about it in a Percy Jackson book and was intrigued and impressed in equal measures. Meanwhile the younger kids (7 and 5) didn’t really understand the scale and meaning of what was on display. By contrast, the more sensitive Mia (10) was obviously uncomfortable in the face of so much death. With my permission, she slipped out quietly to explore the remainder of the convent with her big brother… and she found an absolute gem…
Collection of Nativity Scenes
Last year in France, we stumbled across our nomination for oddball museum of the century: a collection of stick men in Champagne. Well, the Colecção De Presépios in Evora is possibly even more unusual… and arguably even better.
Imagination and humour are not exactly qualities that one would automatically associate with the rather austere subject of nativity scenes, but both were in abundance here. Reverence, by contrast, seemed to be chucked out of the stained glass window: most of the 300 dioramas on display simply either made us smile in admiration or laugh out loud with pleasure. After the doom and gloom of the Chapel of Bones, this was unexpectedly heart-warming and wonderful, regardless of any religious persuasion (or lack of it). We couldn’t drag Mia away from it.
The exhibit is, in fact, only a tiny portion of a private collection of over 2,600(!) representations of the birth of Jesus, owned by the local Canha da Silva family. By sharing their extraordinary compilation with the public, the family hope to transmit “the universal message of love, peace and humility”. Well, it worked on us.
Temple of Diana
After the joyous and wholly unexpected wonder of the nativity scenes, the darling of Evora’s postcard industry – the Roman Temple of Diana – was not such a big hit with the kids. For us adults who can appreciate its clean, classical beauty and antiquity (2,000 years and counting!), it’s undoubtedly impressive. However, there understandably isn’t really much that a family can do at the Temple of Diana except gently admire it and pose for a photo or two.
Is it still too early for ice cream?
Igreja de São João Evangelista
But whilst dreaming of gelado at the Temple of Diana, Evora managed to surprised us again: directly opposite was the humble-looking Igreja de São João Evangelista, an attraction that wasn’t mentioned in any of the online guides to Evora that I had read in advance. In fact, bizarrely, this building doesn’t even appear on Apple Maps at all (still true as of May 2019!)
We are always intrigued by obscurity, so gladly handed over a few coins to peek inside and… holy Saint John the Evangelist!!! What had we stumbled into??
Modern tourist guide books to Portugal tend to gush about the famous “azulejo” tiles which adorn many houses, churches and monuments in the country. Well, we have been to Portugal countless times (OK, about ten) and are struggling to think of a more impressive and beautiful display of azulejos than in this church.
It’s weird, but the Google reviews of this church (yes, there are a few!) are mixed, with many “reviewers” complaining about having to pay an entrance fee. This is absurd. I entered São João with three kids, and it cost us €4. In total. That’s about the equivalent of a cup of coffee in an expensive city such as London or Paris. Personally, I am more than happy to pay a small but fair entrance fee if that money goes directly to the upkeep and preservation of beautiful places such as this.
The nearby Cathedral is slightly cheaper than São João (€3.50), and claims to be the biggest medieval cathedral in Portugal. It sounds like good value for money, and it is. But unless medieval religious art is your thing, the interior probably isn’t going to leave a hugely lasting impression. Cathedrals are a tough market to crack.
But Evora’s Sé has a welcome quirk: visitors can climb up to and clamber over the massive Romanesque roof of the building, thus enjoying spectacular views over the city whilst indulging in something a little different. The adjoining cloisters are also pleasant-but-nothing-special except that – again – twisting spiral staircases take visitors up onto the roof. Running around on the roof of an ancient cloister – what more could culture-loving boys want?
But we weren’t finished with Evora yet. In fact, we had saved the best for last.
On our way out of the city – sweaty, dusty, exhilarated – we steered Daisy the bus down quiet dirt tracks, following signposts to the most significant megalithic monument in the Iberian Peninsula – the Almendres Cromlech.
Here, ninety-five massive granite menhirs eerily align with the moon, wind and stars. Sounds like Stonehenge? In a way, yes, but the Almendres Cromlech is at least 2,000 years older than its more famous English cousin, yet wonderfully off the mainstream tourist radar.
As for many monuments of this type, the precise function and symbolic meaning of Almendres Cromlech has been lost to time, but the size and deliberate positioning of the stones testifies for its importance. As I stood in their shadow, I reflected on the astonishing similarity between these stones and the megalithic monuments in my native Ireland; what common belief inspired different people in different landscapes thousands of kilometres apart to create such similar monuments? As I pondered this, Mrs Daisy the bus was proclaiming that certain stones vibrated softly upon her touch, that she could feel the ancient, mystical energy within. I believed her.
You see, whatever your thoughts, beliefs or backgrounds, places such as Almendres Cromlech can only continue to inspire. There is, undoubtedly, something special there and I find it utterly endearing that the only access to a monument of this size and importance is via four kilometres of dirt track. I genuinely hope this never changes, that there will never be a visitor centre, an “interactive immersive experience”, a faux-chic café nor a souvenir shop here. Otherwise, amidst the overbearing noise of mass tourism, the silent magic of Almendres Cromlech may be lost forever.
PRACTICAL TIPS FOR VISITING ÉVORA, PORTUGAL
Chapel of Bones / Collection of Nativity Scenes – In the church of São Francisco, Praça 1º de Maio. A combined ticket costs €5 for adults and €3.50 for children. Family tickets available too. It does get busy, so get there early.
Temple of Diana – Largo do Marquês de Marialva. Free of charge.
Igreja de São João Evangelista – Largo do Marquês de Mariavla. €4 for adults, kids go free. Beautiful but compact; a visit of 30 minutes may suffice.
Cathedral – Largo Dom Miguel Portugal. €3.50 for adults (reductions for kids). This includes access to the rooftops which, in our opinion, is the most interesting part. Nevertheless those with vertigo can keep their feet on the ground and pay only €2.50.
Almendres Cromlech Stone Circles – Down a dirt track, but well-signposted from the main road between Evora and Montemor. Free of charge. Car park is only a couple of hundred metres from the stones. No tourist facilities.
Daisy the bus visited Evora in August 2018
(c) 2019 Jonathan Orr