Evora – October 17 and 18

Now here’s a town that invented charming! Evora is a walled town dating back to Roman times that just reeks with stylish and historical beauty. The shops are beautiful, the twisting streets and white washed walls are beautiful, the cobbled pavements are beautiful and the people strolling the streets and sipping coffees in the terrace restaurants are, if not beautiful, certainly soulful. There is an unperturbed solidity about Evora that seems to arise from its survival for so many centuries as the principal city of the region. You feel safe and enclosed in Evora—as if it was built especially to nurture and protect its citizens.

We stayed at a lovely hotel – the Albergaria do Calvario. I chose it because it was ranked first on Trip Advisor and yet still more or less within my price range. At 105 euros a night (including breakfast), it turned out to be a major bargain. The breakfast alone was worth almost the whole amount! I only wished my appetite had been equal to the spread. More on breakfast later.

Courtyard of the hotel; we sat outside and had cappuccinos
Lobby of the hotel; lots of interesting things to look at

We arrived around noon at the hotel after an uneventful and virtually traffic-free journey from Lisbon. Since the room was not yet ready, we relaxed in the courtyard with a fabulous cappuccino brought by the very friendly staff and then took a walk around town. I was totally captivated! The town is small enough to traverse in about 20 minutes and yet large enough to feel like a real town. Since it was Sunday, all the shops were closed and the streets virtually deserted in the strong October sun. There weren’t even any tourists to speak of!

Evora has been declared a Unesco World Heritage site. The town obviously takes its role as a major tourist attraction very seriously. Very little traffic is allowed inside the walls and many of the streets are pedestrianized. There are no modern buildings and all the white plastered walls are in good repair. Compared to the crumbling facades and chopped up pavements of Lisbon, Evora is a paradise of effective restoration.

Typical street in Evora

Every so often, stone arches that look Roman (and probably are) span narrow streets. With few cars, there is little noise. You feel as if little has changed in 500 years.

Central square in Evora

In the center of Evora stand the ruins of the Roman temple of Diana—an evocative series of Corinthian columns starkly grey against the deep blue sky. The cathedral squats solidly nearby. I went inside to see the only representation of a pregnant Mary that I’ve ever seen. It sort of makes sense that Mary would be depicted pregnant, but I can’t say I remember ever seeing any paintings or sculptures of her looking anything but skinny and serene. The large sculpture of Mary with one hand placed on a very pregnant belly was really rather touching.
Temple of Diana and to the right the Pousada (posh hotel that used to be a monastery)

Of course a major highlight of Evora for me was the street of tourist shops—all selling objects made from cork.The vast plains of the Alentejo region are dotted with thousands of twisted cork trees. Some of the trees have been stripped naked to show their brilliant ochre-red inner bark. These trees look almost as if they are screaming in pain. Other trees show varying stages of new bark growth. The cycle is nine years so at any given time a tree could be bare, half clothed, or fully barked in thick, black growth. When sliced into, the rough outside bark reveals several inches of creamy, springy cork.

Close-up of the bark of a cork tree

I have become a cork fanatic. The next morning in Evora, I bought just about every cork-related object I could find. Everything made from cork is impossibly light and smooth. I want to clothe myself in cork and go bobbing in the ocean – where I would remain both buoyant and dry!

After checking into the hotel, we took off in search of the modern Evora so that Gregg could buy a memory card for his video camera. We found a typical shopping center—as useful and tacky as anything in North America. I think one of the many, many things I like about Europe in the 21st Century is that you can spend the morning wandering the alleys of an ancient walled city and then after a hearty lunch nip out to a huge modern supermarket in the sprawling suburbs to stock up on all the necessaries. Life is just a lot easier here now than I remember back in the seventies! And I find that the Europeans do modern better than anyone. Their bathrooms alone are worth the price of the airfare. Well, most of their bathrooms! I have run across the odd one in public places that lacked the toilet seat and any claim to antiseptic glory. But mostly – great plumbing!

We bought Gregg a memory card and then set off in search of the largest megalithic site in Iberia (according to the guidebook). Gregg and I are suckers for a good megalithic site and this one was more than worth the drive over dusty dirt roads deep into a huge grove of cork trees. Many of the tree had an 8 scrawled in white on their bark indicating that the bark had been growing eight years and so would be due soon for harvest. I guess they repaint the number every year over the nine year cycle. The bark of these #8 trees was black and thick. I picked up a hunk that had fallen off one of the trees. It’s wonderful to feel the rough back on the outside and then feel the smooth springy cork beneath. What an amazing tree!

Recently stripped cork tree
A cork tree that will be stripped again in one year

We had a wonderful time prowling around the massive oval of standing stones spread across the top of a plateau. Below us spread a gorgeous view of the surrounding countryside while behind stretched thousands of cork trees.

A few of the many standing stones surrounded by cork trees

Standing stone close ups – they’re big

Who built the ring? The interpretative guide said the ring was over 7000 years old but that there is little information about who built it and why, although some of the stones do line up with the solstices. I never fail to be amazed by megalithic sites. The ingenuity required to build them is remarkable enough, but apart from the technology is the greater question of how the builders figured out that dragging a whole lot of very heavy stones a very long distance and then sinking them into the ground in precisely measured geometric shapes would tell them when the sun would rise and set. Whoever built these monuments definitely knew something we don’t know.

Fabulous view from the standing stone oval
One side of the oval

Move of the oval (it’s big)
Carol plays Druid priestess

Solitary menhir at another site close by

We finally tore ourselves away from the stones and drove back to the hotel to spend a few hours just hanging out. Gregg did some drawing and I did some work on Novel #2 while sipping a large glass of local wine. The people at the hotel are extremely friendly and helpful. They all speak perfect English. In fact the owner is from Los Angeles and one of the bar staff lived many years in Massachusetts. They were all extremely committed to making sure we had everything we could possible want. No wonder the hotel was rated #1.

On the recommendation of the girl at the bar, we went for dinner at Restaurante O Fialho – one of the oldest and most famous restaurants in Evora (which is saying something). Apparently many celebrities have eaten at Fialho and there is even a hard cover book about the place (I thumbed through a copy at the hotel). The restaurant was reputed to be one of Evora’s most expensive so I was feeling a bit intrepid. However, we were assured that if we had just one night in Evora is just had to eat at Fialhos.

Well, are we ever glad we did! We were ushered into a large room with wood beamed ceilings and walls full of colorful Portuguese plates and a lot of antlered deer heads. Obviously this was no place for vegetarians. Each of the tables was already laden with dishes of various delicacies. We had been warned already (and knew anyway from Lisbon) that all these lovely appetizers were not free. As soon as we took any food we would be charged. We decided to pass on the octopus (although I heard later that it was amazing) and the plate of sausages and just sample a plate of broad fava beans and tuna. Fantastic! We have not been all that enamored with Portuguese cuisine in our two weeks in Portugal so it was wonderful to taste food that rivaled anything we had in Paris.

After the bean appetizer, we were served a lamb stew with roast potatoes that would have any gourmet weeping with pleasure! It was tough to slow down and savor each bite—the temptation was to shovel it down as if we hadn’t eaten for weeks. Next to us sat a couple from New York. We struck up a lively conversation; both were retired teachers and quite intrepid travelers. The evening was definitely a success as we polished it off with homemade chocolate ice cream for Gregg and coconut ice cream for me. Delectable!

During our walk back through the quiet and dark streets of Evora, I actually felt chilly for the first
time on the trip! The weather has basically been like Vancouver in July – just perfect. October is definitely a great month to visit Portugal.

The next morning we enjoyed the best breakfast of the trip (which is actually saying something since many of the hotels have been wonderful). All the produce was fresh and organic. Here’s an excerpt from the review of the hotel I posted on Trip Advisor:

I particularly liked the local bee pollen and organic flax seeds for sprinkling on cereal, the fresh figs (to die for), the poached eggs on toast with bacon made to order, and the best fruit salad I’ve had in a long time. The coffee was also wonderful as was the three kinds of fresh juices – carrot, orange, and I think watermelon.

Yes, breakfast was about as good as it gets! We reluctantly checked out of the hotel, left the car in the underground parking lot (very convenient) and spent the morning wandering around Evora taking pictures and buying everything made of cork that wasn’t nailed down.

And then it was back in the car and off to Estremoz – a tiny hilltop town about 20 minutes away. Stay tuned.

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