city of bones
Crossing the Tejo River and heading east from Lisbon, one enters the province of Alentejo — a sleepy land of whitewashed villages, rolling vineyards, and traditional farming with a focus on cork manufacture and a multitude of pork products. In warmer months, it would make for a great road trip destination for anyone interested in wine, good food, and local culture. As our Portugal vacation took place in January, we simply paid a visit to Évora, Alentejo’s capital city.
Like Sintra, Évora has been designated a World Heritage site by UNESCO. This owes to the large number of monuments from various historical periods that have survived to the present day in this quiet, wind-swept city. Among other ruins, Évora boasts the remains of a Roman temple to Diana, goddess of the moon. It is the largest extant Roman relic to be found on the Iberian Peninsula, though its fourteen remaining columns are not much to look at.
Only a handful of trains ply the 1.5-hour route between Lisbon and Évora, and they all leave the capital early in the morning, returning in the late afternoon. Lisbon still slumbered under a cold mist as we rushed from our apartment to the Sete Rios train station. The last train leaves a few minutes after 9am, and we intended to be on it. The metro zoomed across town faster than we had anticipated, leaving us with enough time to grab a hurried sandwich and a warm beverage from the station cafe, which turned a brisk business during the morning rush hour.
Old electronic monitors announced each incoming train and the stops it would make en route to its destination. Unfortunately, there were only a handful of monitors on each platform and none near the bench that we occupied. Several minutes before our scheduled departure, a train pulled into our platform. D had walked over to one of the monitors and, after ascertaining that this was not the train we needed, walked back to tell everyone to stay put. As soon as the train left the station, the monitors were updated, but the next train had a departure time subsequent to ours. D wondered if we were on the wrong platform and led a mad dash downstairs, where we learned from the departures monitor that our train had been delayed a quarter hour.
We returned to the platform and watched as train after train pulled into the station and quickly departed towards an unknown region of the country, the destinations spelled out in little light bulbs on the side of each wagon being as varied as they were unfamiliar to us. Knowing that we were trying to catch the last train to Évora and that the scheduled time for its departure had come and gone made us all a little nervous. S’s mom, in particular, grew more anxious with each passing locomotive, and when the fourth wrong train approached the station she became convinced — despite all evidence to the contrary — that it had to be the one we needed.
The destination listed on the locomotive was wrong, and Évora did not figure in the list of stops displayed on the platform monitor. Nevertheless, S’s mom half-boarded the train and, with one foot on the platform and the other inside the wagon, began querying the other passengers whether the train stopped at Évora. Not really understanding what she was asking, or not really caring, they nodded their assent while D tried to reason with her that the train was not the one we needed. The episode might have ended very badly if another passenger, who was standing nearby and whose English was flawless, had not interceded to explain that the train was just going to the outskirts of Lisbon. S’s mom disembarked right as the doors slammed shut. Mercifully, the overdue Évora train arrived a few minutes afterwards.
A thick blanket of frigid fog enshrouded the train station as we disembarked in Évora an hour and a half later. Fortunately, the fog lifted as the sun neared its noonday peak, and we enjoyed a pleasant afternoon strolling around Évora. Many of the houses are painted with yellow trim, which gave them a cheerful appearance. After our frantic rush around Sintra, we appreciated the chance to take a more leisurely approach to our sightseeing.
In addition to the Roman ruins, we visited the university and a number of religious buildings, and enjoyed a delicious lunch that featured plenty of locally-sourced, farm-fresh produce and highlighted Alentejo’s specialty porco preto — black pig that is fed almost exclusively on acorns from cork trees.
After lunch, we ascended to the top of the imposing cathedral. The sign promised access to the bell tower, but instead the staircase led us directly to the roof of Évora’s tallest building, from which we had an unimpeded — and also unguarded — view down. We did not linger inside, but spent quite some time walking around the cloisters, which were hewn out of massive stone blocks that gave them the appearance of being an ancient worshipping place of giants.
Overall, Évora was pleasant but fairly sleepy, and might be entirely skippable if not for the Capela dos Ossos — one of the most remarkable and macabre places we have ever visited. The Church of St. Francis, which subsumes this bone chapel, is under extensive restoration, but access to the chapel in unimpeded. Built in the 16th century by a Franciscan monk who sought to showcase the transitory nature of earthly life, the chapel entrance warns, “we bones that lie here naked for yours await.” The repugnancy of raiding a boneyard for building supplies aside, the bone chapel is one hell of a memorable sight.