This is the second in a three-part series about Cynthia Cunniff’s tour through Portugal and Southern Spain with Insight Vacations. Check out the first story, on Lisbon, here. Cynthia, on Insight Vacations:
“My trip through Iberia can planned on your own, but I highly advise looking into Insight Vacations if you want to take the biggest, most robust bite out of Portugal and Southern Spain you can in limited vacation time. Their expertise on the geography, use of local guides and ability to connect travelers to the everyday people of Iberia is uncommon in a tour.
Through Iberia alone Insight offers 10 different trips on luxury Mercedes buses with Wi-Fi, reclining seats that also adjust sideways and a restroom below seating level (because no one wants to sit next that). The tours are ever-morphing to accommodate feedback from clients and the changing desires of travelers in general. I was once a naysayer, but have converted to this form of travel that’s a big bang for the buck as well—I added up the individual cost per day to plan a trip like this on my own and it was almost double the cost of a luxury guided Insight tour.”
Arriving in Évora
Sintra is often considered the crown jewel of Portugal, but Insight Vacations introduced me to a place that made my heart leap. Évora is an authentic slice of Portugal’s lovely simplicity of daily life that remains unchanged over the course of hundreds of years. The town is surrounded by an intact Roman aqueduct and a city wall that encapsulates the peaceful everyday happenings of this must-experience town.
Where to stay
Also at the top of the list is Évora’s M’AR De AR Aqueduto Hotel and Spa, where we had two memorable nights of stay. The mid-century interior is sleek—and looking out my room window to see a 2,000-year-old Roman aqueduct with a modern pool flanked by an orange grove and outdoor lounge was a mix of worlds, yet seemed to make perfect sense as I sipped my coffee and welcomed the morning.
Tip: If you’re in need of some cardio after all the delicious local fare you’ve ingested, you can run the 5K outer perimeter of the aquaduct. If possible, pick a non-rush hour time to avoid the fumes of traffic from the roads in and out of town.
A walk through Évora
It was the early evening stroll through Évora on my own that provided a key part of my view into the daily life of this area, and I was grateful that Insight gave me the opportunity and time to explore. Portuguese is a language few seem to know outside of the country itself, Brazil and some of the other places once a part of Portugal’s domain. The locals understand that few travelers speak their language, and have an easy-going attitude when it comes to interpreting the wants and needs of visitors.
I made sure to learn a few basic words, but I have to say even the pharmacist who only spoke Portuguese went out of her way to get me the allergy eye drops I needed. On my way back I had to smile as I strolled past shopkeepers happily bantering over the traffic of the main road, yelling from one side of the street to the other. There is a gentle, friendly approach to life in this country—and it’s very hard to not feel at home.
Tip: The stores in Évora stay open late on Thursdays, until 8 or 9 pm. So, walk off the Iberian pork and port with a post dinner stroll, to hunt for souvenirs or just people watch.
Temples, churches and Portuguese irony
As in so many European cities, the Romans trudged through and made their mark on Évora. The columned Templo Romano Évora is hard to miss. It’s a towering presence in the center of the city, and during the Inquisition it was used as a site of execution in the name of Catholicism. It’s flanked by Santa Maria Cathedral, the Palace of the Inquisitor and the Court of the Inquisition among other historic, but sad, reminders of an age of persecution.
Santa Maria Cathedral houses a statue of a pregnant Mary and a century later the statue of the Archangel Gabriel was installed across from her. The positioning of the two statues makes it appear as if the virgin is looking down upon Gabriel with a hand on her heavily pregnant belly. It’s as though he’s delivering the message of her pregnancy. Portuguese irony? Perhaps.
Chapel of Bones
If you’re into the macabre, you’ll love the Capela dos Ossos (Chapel of Bones) located in the Royal Church of St. Francis. Comprised of human bones and a few desiccated bodies (one of a child), it’s hard to take your eyes off the odd details and ornate display of human skeletons—lots and lots of human skeletons, like 5,000 of them. The idea was derived from a Franciscan monk who needed to clear much needed land of its graves and who also wanted to convey the message that we all end up dead, with only the soul living on to make a difference.
Day trip: José Maria da Fonseca Winery, an hour and 15 minutes from Évora
Vila Nogueira de Azeitao is home to vintners who have produced the gamut of Portuguese wine. The José Maria da Fonseca Winery has been handed down through the generations and remains a family business. They create Portugal’s oldest table wine, Periguita, and the Moscatel de Setubal cellar houses wines over 100 years old that are produced with brandy.
The ever-exploring Portuguese of times long past exported these wines and would take the Moscatel de Setubal-Torna Viagem on ships with them for a year, crossing tropic lines four times over as sea air permeated each barrel, aging the wine more quickly and creating a flavor unmatched by any other. The winery grounds at José Maria Da Fonseca are comprised of lush gardens that lead to dank, eery cellars bathed in colored light from stained glass as Gregorian chants echo in the background. It’s a cathedral to wine of sorts and an excellent arena to hear a tale or two about the area, the vintages and the family that produces them. As the tour wound to a close, we had the opportunity to meet a representative of one of the younger generations, Sophia Soares Franco, who guided us through a tasting and was, in the most Portuguese way, understated, warm and charming.
Day trip: Monsaraz, 50 minutes from Évora
Set on a lone hilltop surrounded by a palette of greens on the shared planes of Portugal and Spain, Monsaraz is a glowing jewel of a town with 360-degree views. Every direction bares a rich and new site of countryside. The castle was once held by the Knights Templar during the time of the crusades, and it’s not hard to envision them on guard at the towers.
We had the place to ourselves while we ambled through uneven stone streets—as the skies were low and gray, with a bit of chill in the wind. We didn’t care. The glow of the whitewashed houses, the ancient stone stairway to the fortressed 13th century castle walls, the vast expanse of farmland leading to a gleaming Lake Alqueva was just too romantically Arthurian and other-worldly to worry about the weather.
Day trip: Lake Alqueva, one hour from Évora or 15 minutes from Monsaraz
Taking a 100-year-old Dutch barge across Europe’s largest man-made lake wasn’t on my list of must-dos, simply because I hadn’t thought of it. I’m grateful the Insight team did and put it on our itinerary. Captain Tiago, of Dutch decent, was the ultimate host—who also just so happens to be a chef.
As we sat on barge’s benches cushioned by rugs handwoven by Tiago’s mother, the sails hoisted and we took off on the Guadiana River. Flanked by Spain on one side and Portugal on the other, we were served exquisite artisanal goodies: sausage, bread and cheese sliced in front of us while we were given a historical overview of the area and some insight into how the locals use the area for recreation. The Sem-Fim boat also hosts stargazing trips, as the Alentejo region is known to have the darkest skies in Europe. We landed at the other Sem-Fim, an old olive mill, converted to a farm-to-table restaurant and art gallery. In the adjacent bar, weathered locals gathered for drinks and social time—which, in my book, meant we were in good hands.
The afternoon was casual as we sipped wine and coffee after stuffing ourselves with beautifully prepared pata negra and enjoyed the back terrace of the restaurant that has a view of paddocks and farmland. There’s even a garden swing that looks like it has given a few hundred years of joy to the children who’ve passed through this piece of Iberian heaven. It was a wonderfully civilized way to just simply enjoy each other’s company, slow down and fall in love with Portugal.