Rising from the plains of Portugal’s Alto Alentejo region, the tiny walled city of Évora has tremendous enduring appeal, having been consecutively settled by the Celts, Romans, Visigoths and Moors, before the Portuguese eventually wrested control. Its Roman ruins – temple, baths, walls – sit among glorious churches, convents and the former palaces of Portuguese kings.
Strolling under aqueduct archways, through immaculate, labyrinthine cobbled streets flanked by ornately tiled homes with Lilliputian doors, is to be assailed by reminders of a succession of once-great cultures. I first visited the city as a university student with a clutch of friends 12 years ago. We rollicked through Évora’s cultural hit list – the imposing portal of the medieval cathedral; the vividly Roman, Corinthian-columned temple; and the macabre, yet strangely unmoving, Chapel of Bones.
Subsequent trips revealed so much more: you can clamber – rather precariously – over the roof of the cathedral for the best view of the landscape beyond the fortified walls; venture inside the Town Hall and you’ll find excavated Roman baths; or follow the splendid 16th-century aqueduct that marches into the city along Rua do Cano and you’ll see houses and shops cleverly built into its archways.
Ironically, it’s Évora’s own university that now thrills me most. Opened in 1559 and run by the Jesuits before they were evicted by the Marquês de Pombal in 1759, its elaborate classrooms look onto a serene courtyard with a central fountain (all graduating students symbolically bathe here to pass their knowledge onto freshers).
Feel free to walk through its marble cloisters, look in on classrooms with teaching pulpits and 18th-century blue-and-white azulejos (tiles, painted here to reflect the academic subjects) and don’t miss the chapel’s tapestry and the stunning painted ceiling of the library. The students are unfazed by visitors.
With little shopping on offer in Évora, the focus is on the many small restaurants serving Alentejan cuisine. As a former vegetarian, I once suffered opposite a university friend who devoured a gelatinous pig’s foot with gusto.
Now a confirmed carnivore, I find Évora’s rich and rural food a terrific adventure, particularly when faced with an untranslated or set menu (maybe not so much the “pig’s privates” I saw advertised this year, but certainly the black pork, porco preto, and oxtail stew, rabo de boi estufado).
Évora is the birthplace of several sweet delicacies (to add to the hefty collection of Portuguese desserts) that were invented in convents here during the 16th century. Each convent has its signature sweet dish: the almond-infused pão de rala from the nuns of Santa Helena do Calvário is the local favourite; the encharcada do Santa Clara is sticky and yolky, with a stupendous cake to egg ratio. Across town, you’re likely to see three generations of women propping up a pastelaria bar, enjoying coffee, cake and conversation.
Flat-capped, wizened-faced old gentlemen gather on corners outside, to smoke and stare as students and visitors pass by.