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City trip Évora and the stone age

Over 130 dolmens are scattered around this city alone

Portugal, Alentejo - Almendres cromlech

Évora is a worthwhile destination just by itself: a Roman temple, an aquaduct, atmospheric streets with whitewashed houses and lots of landmarks. As an extra, in the surroundings of the city you can find many remains from the Stone Age. Around Telheiro and Monsaraz you can see menhirs, near Almendres a menhir and a cromlech. There are also dolmens around Zambujeiro and Sao-Brissos.

Travelogue and photos: Kees van Tol

The province of Alentejo with its rolling hills and its capital Évora, situated in the higher lying region Alto Alentejo, are not as well known as the Algarve and cities like Lisbon, Coimbra, Porto and the pilgrim site Fatima. But connoisseurs will enjoy the city (population 55,000) and its surroundings.

Portugal, Alentejo, Évora - One of many splendid windows

Unesco added the city to the World Heritage List in 1986 because of its many landmarks and because Évora is a prime example of Portugals Golden Age. Even though this was 500 years ago, the riches of the past are still clearly visible.

The whitewashed houses with azulejos and cast-iron balconies were also the blueprint for Portuguese architecture in Brasil.

The country flourished in the 15th and 16th centuries because of the trade in pepper and other exotic produce. The capital Lisbon was a metropolis, but the king's favorite residence still was in Évora, 135 kilometers inland.


Next to the cathedral are the ruins of a Roman temple

Portugal, Alentejo, Évora - Ring road below the aquaduct

Évora is located in the northeast of Alentejo, the part of Portugal that lies - seen from Lisbon - on the other side of the Tagus (além do Tejo). Évora has all kinds of accomodation, a train station and a camping site just outside the city.

The city center is for the most part walled in. Around it is a rather busy ring road, but within the city walls it's quieter and the atmosphere is one of ages past. Within the old city used to stand a second, smaller city wall, but hardly anything of it remains. A name like Largo da Porta de Moura refers to a former gate in this wall.

Portugal, Alentejo, Évora - Orange-red roofs seen from the square

Keep following the ascending streets and alleys and you'll arrive at the both literal and figurative highpoint of the city: a square which on one side looks out on the rural surroundings, with orange-red roofs - in our minds so connected with mediterranean architecture - in the foreground.

The view on this side is pretty, but even better is the view of the other side of this hospitable square: an early Gothic cathedral which forms a wonderful contrast to a Roman temple, which was devoted to Diana, goddess of the hunt. Forteen Corinthian columns remain of the structure, making it easy to fill in the rest of the ancient building in your mind.

Portugal, Alentejo, Évora - Diana-temple, Convento dos Loios and cathedral

The temple dates from the second century BC, when the Romans had conquered the city of Évora, which already existed. The Alentejo was one big grain silo to the Romans and they called Évora "Ebora Cerealis" to indicate how important the grain was to the colonists.

The construction of the cathedral, devoted to Maria, started in the twelfth century. With several additions made later, it took until the 16th century to complete it. Temple and cathedral can be caught in the same picture, just like the nearby Convento dos Loios, a former convent that now offers luxury accomodation to hotel guests. It's partly open to the public.

There are works of art everywhere in the city, also on this square: a stone sculpture of a human figure lying in a coffin or, to put it more gently, a box.

Portugal, Alentejo, Évora - Sculpture in box

For those who like to get their horror kicks, there is, like in many places in Portugal, a bone chapel: Capela dos Ossos. Its walls and columns are covered with skulls, thighbones and other recognizable bones of 5,000 monks

The cathedral and the Museum of Sacred Art in the adjoining bishop's palace house more sophisticated religious art.

Aquaduct and Praça do Giraldo

Houses were built below the archs of the aquaduct

Portugal, Alentejo, Évora - Casa Cordovil with Manueline loggia

Wandering around in Évora you find narrow streets and remarkable buildings, like the beautiful Casa Cordovil on Largo das Portas de Moura, which reminds one of the Moorish past of the Iberian Peninsula. The window frames are eye candy.

Portugal, Alentejo, Évora - Street in Moorish quarter

There even is an old Moorish quarter, Mouraria, with many whitewashed houses and narrow streets with cobblestones. Each and every one of them is picture perfect. Unfortunately cars sometimes spoil the view.

The Romans built many aquaducts in their empire, but the one in Évora is Portuguese made: the impressive construction that once brought water from the hills to the city, was built only in the sixteenth century. The Evorans named it Aqueduto da Agua de Prata, or "aquaduct of the silver water". Nine kilometers of aquaduct remain.

Portugal, Alentejo, Évora - Houses below the arches of the aquaduct

The space between the arches dictated centuries later the width of the lanes of the ring road. If you follow the Rua do Muro, with some remains of the outer city walls, toward the city center, you will see the first open arches.

Towards the end, the arches are filled in with houses which have been built to match the shape of the above ground waterworks.

Portugal, Alentejo, Évora - Aqueduto da Agua de Prata

The city lies on a hill and because water doesn't flow uphill, the arches get lower and lower. In the past the aquaduct ended on the central square Praça do Giraldo, but now it ends abruptly somewhere half-way the Rua do Cano.

Praça do Giraldo is often a backdrop for events and in general it's a place for people to meet. The tourist office is here and it offers many places to stay, but also without this service it's hard to miss the many signs in the narrow streets that advertise accomodations.

Portugal, Alentejo, Évora - Praça do Giraldo

The square is named after the warlord Giraldo sem Pavor (Gerald without Fear) who drove away the Moors in 1165. Islam made place for Catholicism, which did not always treat its adversaries gently.

Also in Évora the Inquisition was a cruel instrument against dissenters. In 1573 there were stakes on this market square.

Portugal, Alentejo, Évora - Façade Banco de Portugal on Praça do Giraldo

The square - which also has a pretty fountain - is surrounded by arcades. There are buildings that project prominence, like the office of the Banco de Portugal with its perfectly maintained façade. There are outdoor cafés everywhere, where you can enjoy the view and the passers-by.

There isn't a lot of public green space within the city walls, but in the Jardim Publico, which is located at the top of the southern wall, are benches to sit down and rest if you don't feel like sitting in an outdoor café. Within the city walls it's hard to find parking space, but there is plenty just outside the walls.

Évora is also a university city, which guarantees that there are some large bookstores, affordable restaurants of every imaginable kind and lots of young people in the streets.

Walking to Monsaraz

Every building in the fortified mountain village is striking

About 55 kilometers from Évora is the picturesque fortified town of Monsaraz. It is one of many fortifications on hill tops along the Portuguese- Spanish border. Monsaraz lies at an altitude of 325 meters above sea level, but it is only a hundred meters higher than the surrounding landscape.

Portugal, Alentejo, Aldeia de Outeiro - Public laundry place

After a one-hour drive I park the car at walking distance from Monsaraz in the quiet village of Aldeia de Outeiro, ten or so kilometers north of the N256.

Just outside the village I find one of many collective laundry places, of which Portugal has an abundance. There are at least twenty ribbed stone washboards and a basin. But the introduction of more up-to-date household appliances is making them obsolete. Here and there rusty clothes lines make it clear that no woman ever comes here anymore to do laundry. In my three months of traveling in Portugal I have seen only one person at a place like this. He was rinsing something.

Portugal, Alentejo, Aldeia de Outeiro - Hiking trail to Monsaraz

The hill in the distance is my destination. At first the buildings on the hill are only vaguely discernable, but with every step they get more into focus.

The route at first leads through Telheiro, where the quiet is rudely disturbed by the horn of the groceries van, which also carries a large selection of sodas. Most customers are elderly people.

Portugal, Alentejo, Telheiro - Village water pump

The village water pump, which was constructed between 1700 and 1800, is well maintained and not so long ago liters of white and blue paint were applied to it. The collective laundry place, on the other hand, makes a delapidated impression.

Portugal, Alentejo, Telheiro - Monsaraz gets closer

I leave the village via a narrow mountain path between the village school and the police office. Here the climbing really begins. But the increasingly clear view of Monsaraz with its impressive city walls makes up for a lot. The views of farmers at work outside the town are also great.

Portugal, Alentejo, Monsaraz - Just below the city gate of Monsaraz

I enter Monsaraz via one of the city gates. I directly go to the 13th century castle which used to be a Templars stronghold. The courtyard turns out to be some kind of arena, in which a young man is training a horse with a rope around its neck that is walking in circles in the sand.

Portugal, Alentejo, Monsaraz - View of the town

The young man doesn't seem to notice the onlookers. There aren't that many on this day in June, but during the tourist season there must be crowds.

Portugal, Alentejo, Monsaraz - View of the city

Bull fights are also held here. Spain is condemned by many for continuing this cruel amusement. Portugal has succeeded in not drawing the attention of militant animal lovers. Maybe because the bulls aren't killed in the arena.

Portugal, Alentejo, Monsaraz - Town square with pelourinho (pillory)

Stairs lead to the rampart of the castle, which is converted into a fighting arena, with enough stands to seat the complete population of the town. The view of the wide valley of the Guadiana is breathtaking. The river is fed by numerous tributaries near Monsaraz.

Portugal, Alentejo, Monsaraz - Alqueva reservoir

Until the beginning of this century the water flowed in meandering ribbons through the Alentejo landscape, but then a dam was built in the area, Barragem d'Alqueva, which created a bizarrely shaped lake and pushed the water up against the slopes of the surrounding hills.

A lovely village and cute farmhouses were sacrificed to ensure the water supply in the driest region in Portugal and to generate electricity.

Portugal, Alentejo, Monsaraz - Bridge over Alqueva reservoir

To bridge the water of the Alqueva reservoir, the largest artificial lake in Europe, a fly-over has been built for the N256. At a few kilometers distance there is a passenger ship on the lake and on a peninsula I see tentative signs of upcoming tourism on the new waterfront.

Some puppies are napping outside the arena in Monsaraz. It is symbolic for what happens today in this pedestrians-only town (outside the gate is a parking lot). Quiet beauty.

Portugal, Alentejo, Monsaraz - Alqueva reservoir

Old people are sweeping the narrow, cobblestoned streets, rather unremarkable signs indicate that there are some places to stay, I smell food at one of the restaurants. Outside some guests are having lunch and a glass of white wine.

There are some, not overly in-your-face tourist shops, which offer regional embroidery. There also is a museum of religious art.

Portugal, Alentejo, Monsaraz - Every building is remarkable

Every building here is remarkable. The eye never gets enough of the interaction of lines and colors that was initiated centuries ago. The town only has a few streets and before you know you are outside via one of its gates.

Stone Age around Telheiro

It doesn't take a lot of imagination to see a penis in the menhir

Portugal, Alentejo, Telheiro - Convento da Orada

From Monsaraz I descend to the Convento da Orada, east of Telheiro. The former convent is supposed to be a museum, but all its doors are locked and my impression is that it isn't just for the day. Is it a renovation, closed indefinitely, closed for a period? In some ways Portugal is thrifty with information.

Somewhere on the grounds of the museum are 52 rocks that used to form a circle with a four meters high menhir at the center in a spot that is now part of the Alqueva reservoir. Unfortunately I can't find them.

Portugal, Alentejo, Telheiro - Roman bridge

The closed ex-convent is a beautiful building with an almost even more beautiful row of trees in front of it. Monks used to till the soil here, but that was long ago, like the times when the Romans built a bridge here over a brook.

Even older is the menhir in a pasture along the asphalted road between Telheiro and Outero, some two kilometers from the convent. A path leads to the lone stone standing on end, which was carved and put there 5,000 - 6,000 years ago.

Portugal, Alentejo, Telheiro - Menhir

It doesn't take a lot of imagination to agree with the guidebook's suggestion that it represents a phallus and that this place was meant to boost fertility. According to the scant information on the spot there should be inscriptions on the penis-like menhir, but I can't find them.

Portugal unfortunately isn't famous for boasting about its Stone Age remains, unlike England with its Stonehenge and Germany with its Externsteine. Still, people lived here in that age and left these stones to prove it.

Portugal, Alentejo, Mourão - View from castle

Unfortunately guidebooks have little information about this and also on the spot the curious traveler doesn't get much wiser. The tourist industry probably focuses on attractions that generate more income.

After my walk around Monsaraz I drive to the N256 for dessert. A crossroad leads to a peninsula where you get a close look at the new river bed, in company of an icecream vendor.

Portugal, Alentejo, Mourão - Castle ruins

Back on the N256, eastward in the direction of Spain, you cross a long bridge that has become necessary because of the artificial high water level. On the other side of the valley is Mourão, a town famous for its little houses with big chimneys.

Just outside the town I admire a delapidated 14th century castle that looks on the Guadiana from the other bank.

Almendres cromlech

A collection of stones in a deserted forest

The area west of Évora also offers some nice Stone Age remains. The most impressive is the Almendres cromlech. It is hidden deep in a forest. The route is indicated from the N114 Évora-Montemor. The last few kilometers lead over a dirt road. It's doable, but don't drive too fast, because you could damage your car's suspension system.

Portugal, Alentejo, Almendres - Cromlech

This is the all but unused road between the villages of Guadalupe and Nostra Sierra da Boa Fé. Along this road stands, hidden behind an olive grove, another ancient landmark, the Almendres menhir. For now, I skip this sight; I will get to it on the way back, I promise myself.

I often stood at Stonehenge, deeply impressed, I can say that I know the mysterious row of stones at Avebury, I enjoy every Drents "hunebed" (dolmen) in The Netherlands, and other feats of human "stone management" but the collection of stones that is the Anmendres cromlech immediately scores high on my list of favorites.

Portugal, Alentejo, Almendres - Cromlech

Here, in an open spot in a deserted Portuguese forest, a seemingly chaotic collection of somewhat ellipse-shaped stones was placed. There are 95 stones and with some stretching you can say that they are standing in an ellipse-shaped field. I walk between the stones in the morning sun and enjoy the beauty.

Also here, on this site in the woods there is hardly any information about the constellation of man's height and even taller stones. A sun temple? Where the English have been trying for ages to decipher the secrets of Stonehenge and Avebury little by little and to share their finding with visitors in the visitors center, Portuguese scientists remain silent.

Portugal, Alentejo, Almendres - Cromlech

The only advantage of the Portuguese situation is that it allows you to use your own imagination. And that there aren't crowds of tourists. You can walk between the stones and touch them; that is strictly prohibited in Stonehenge. Here I only see a German camper van with a mellow Alsation and when I prepare to drive away after one and a half hours, another car arrives.

I drive out of the woodse, too full of what I have seen to remember to stop at the Almendres menhir.

Zambujeiro and Sao-Brissos dolmens

The Stone Age burial chamber has been converted into a chapel

Portugal, Alentejo, Zambujeiro - Dolmen

Just outside Valverde lies the Zambujeiro dolmen. A dolmen is called anta in Portuguese. Early in this trip I assumed that it meant "ancient artifact" in general, but it means a burial chamber made of stones that stand on end and that are covered with a large flat capstone.

The Zambujeiro dolmen lies beyond the end of a little road in bad condition between the fields. You have to search, but you will be rewarded with the largest dolmen in Portugal.

Portugal, Alentejo, Zambujeiro - Dolmen

It has a whopping forteen meters long access passage that leads to the burial chamber which is walled-in with huge flat stones. You can't go inside, but because the dolmen lies more or less inside the hill slope, it's possible to look inside from above.

In Valverde I see a store on wheels stuffed with clothing. The truck isn't as old as the dolmen, but it can't be long until the vehicle dies and this kind of trade belongs to the past.

Portugal, Alentejo, Sao-Brissos - Dolmen chapel

Many farmers villages in Portugal are being deserted. They are kept alive by old people who do their shopping in a decreasing number of Mom-and-Pop stores. To fill the gap, there are stores on wheels, but judging from the condition of the vehicles and the ages of their owners this also will be history soon.

I drive to the Sao-Brissos dolmen. In Évora the pagan Roman temple and the Catholic cathedral are almost a unity, but here two cultures even farther apart in time are welded together.

Portugal, Alentejo, Sao-Brissos - Dolmen chapel

It takes some effort to distinguish a Stone Age burial chamber in the shape of the orange-red, white and blue chapel, but with some patience you can. Unfortunately the door is locked.

The same unfortunately goes for the nearby Grutos de Escoural; these caves with at least 15,000 years old wall paintings remained undiscovered until 1963. The kindness of the waitress in a café in Santiago do Escoural helps me to overcome this huge disappointment.

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