Romans, Visigoths, Moors all came, saw and conquered. Now a new flight is encouraging us to drop by, says Adrian Mourby.
Once a week, the immaculate new civilian terminal at Beja airport welcomes tourists into the Alentejo region of Portugal.
Then the staff go home again. The 34m euros (£30m) terminal only started receiving flights on 22 May and, at the moment, only Sunvil uses it to ferry out UK holidaymakers, who get the full VIP treatment of an airport opening just for them.
But Beja could soon make a big difference to Alentejo, Portugal’s breadbasket, a landscape famous for its cork and pork, its wines, olives and cheese. Locals claim Alentejo should be the new Tuscany. Direct flights to Beja could make it so.
As to what to see, well, it’s only 40 minutes by road to Evora, which was a real surprise to me. If Evora were in Italy or Spain, tourists would be all over it like ants. This ancient city stands on a hill above the Tagus River. It was built more than 2,000 years ago by the Lusitanians, fortified by the Romans in 57BC, made King Leovirgild’s Visigoth capital in AD584 and conquered by the Moors in 715.
There were minarets on the skyline for 450 years until Gerald the Fearless took the town in September 1165 and it passed to the Portuguese crown. Guides today will show you where Gerald and his men broke through the Roman gates and, if they’re anything like my guide, Gertrudes Alfacinha, they’ll complain about the cavalier way Portugal’s medieval kings dealt with the architectural heritage of this city.
“Here is a fragment of the Roman city wall,” Gertrudes tells me. “And here is where the aqueduct ends.” Gertrudes is tiny but her gestures are big. “It used to go all the way down there past the Convent of San Paulo, but King Manuel destroyed the aqueduct to build convents!”
I don’t want to make light of Gertrudes’s complaints. She is very proud of her city and has every reason to be so, but when the worst thing that has happened to your home town is a medieval king erasing one level of history to build another, you’re not doing too badly.
As we stand on Praca de Sertorio I can see rows of white and ochre convents, all with glorious Baroque facelifts from the years when Evora was dominated by the Jesuits. I can also see the white Gothic town hall, which is considered to be of no importance because it is only 19th century. However, when Gertrudes marches us inside (she knows everyone and no one gainsays her), we find the town hall was built over Roman baths. Behind the modern internet point, a wall has been removed and I’m looking down into a circular laconicum, the dry sweating room of Roman times.
“There is not enough money to restore the baths at the moment,” says Gertrudes with a shrug. “Come, I have much else to show you!”
Our next stop is the Igreja dos Loios, a 15th-century church that was decorated in the 18th century with blue and white azuelos tiles depicting the life of the Blessed Laurence Justiniao. I have seen naves of azuelos tiles before, but here their muted beauty only emphasises the glory of the chancel beyond, which positively glows in gold leaf.
The church is next to the Cadaval Palace, home of one of Evora’s ducal families and often a royal residence when the kings of Portugal were down this way. The kings used Evora as a base for the holy “Requonista”. It took them 85 years after the capture of Evora before the last Muslims were expelled from the Algarve.
Outside it is starting to rain, so Gertrudes takes us into the Pousada de Loios, which is next to the Cadaval Palace. This, along with the church, was once a monastery complex, but after the Peace of Evora-Monte (1834), which concluded Portugal’s civil war, church property was nationalised and ecclesiastical living quarters were turned into state hotels known as pousadas.
The building is a warren of lofty white and ochre cloisters, with each room a former monastic cell. Gertrudes marches us up the main staircase of monumental marble, hung with geometric Arraiolos carpets. We walk straight in to the presidential suite, a monastic cell with Baroque ceilings, cut-glass chandeliers and, thankfully, no president.
It’s all much more sumptuous than I expected. Our last stop is the 16th-century University of Evora, which was the Jesuit College until the events of 1834. It sits on the edge of the old walled city with views out to the vineyards beyond. The building is huge, yet another Baroque structure in white and ochre with a two-tier quadrangle. Gertrudes leads me into one of the classrooms, bypassing the students in their long black hooded gowns.
Each of the 40 classrooms is decorated in blue and white azuelos again, with a low bench running round the room for students. But what makes all 40 exceptional is the ornate wooden pulpit in the middle from which the priests taught. It’s a real curiosity, quite delightful, and not at all what I expected. That’s Evora.