The Alentejo – Arraiolos and Evora:
Evora in the Alentejo region of Portugal was not entirely new to me; I’d visited this Unesco listed Heritage City twenty years or so ago on my first trip to Portugal. At that time we were Pousada hopping. The State owned and (at the time) run historic hotels are scattered throughout Portugal and for me at the time seemed the height of luxury. We’d picked a route across Portugal which took us from Estramoz to Evora and then along the coast. For our first night we stayed in utter luxury in Estramoz at the Pousada Rainha Santa Isabel, a striking white fortified Palace on the borders of Portugal and Spain. Our scheme, to arrive just in time for a late dinner ask politely at reception if there was a room for the night and explain we only had limited funds, worked brilliantly in this remote part of the Country and we ended up in a grand suite with a vast velvet draped bed and a marbled bathroom.
In Evora though we had no such luck and after looking around the City we were forced to travel on to find a bed for the night. Twenty years later though on this particular visit to the Alentejo, we were staying just outside Evora in the equally luxurious and stunning Convento Do Espinheiro. The first evening we feasted on regional Portuguese specialities at the traditional Portuguese restaurant D. Joquim before spending the next day looking round the City.
I think I must have been a little diverted on my previous visit. I didn’t remember seeing the Temple of Diana, one of the landmark sites that Evora is famous for, one of the most significant Roman landmarks in Portugal that was used both as an execution site during the inquisition and a slaughter house from the fourteenth century right up until 1836. Nor did I remember the Cathedral where you can climb the tower and look out over the rooftops of this pretty medieval City.
With something of a fascination with the macabre, I did however vividly recall the Chapel of Bones where we wandered in unaware of the ‘decor’ before realising that the walls and ceilings were made of human bones. On this occasion I was slightly disappointed to find that much of the chapel had been protected by large glass screens and the whole experience seemed a lot more formal. Peering through a screen just doesn’t have the same impact as being within touching distance, a few centimetres from the walls made of human remains.
Little else seemed to have changed in Evora since my last visit. The City was once home to Portuguese kings and is still home to The University of the Holy Spirit, where the Jesuits taught from 1553. Black cloaked students wander through the streets, much as in Coimbra looking as if they are extras from a Harry Potter film. It is undeniably charming, a network of whitewashed, red tiled houses ornate with wrought iron and azulejo decoration. And, the kind of place to sit in the main square drinking coffee and just letting the day pass by.
If Evora was the familiar, Arraiolos, a smaller town some twenty six kilometres from Evora, was the unexpected. Although I’d seen the tapestry carpets that the town is famous for on the floors of the Portuguese Embassy in London, I knew nothing of their origin or of the carpet making tradition of Arraiolos.
Each are unique and stunning. Embroidered in wool on a linen background the designs range from traditional Arabic through to abstract contemporary patterns. Arraiolos carpets date back to the fourteenth century, and the techniques used to make these rugs has changed very little over time. There are two theories about the origin of this handicraft.
The first is based on the expulsion of the Moors from Portugal in 1496. All non-Christians were required to leave Portugal at this time, or convert. And many moved away from Lisbon and out of the spotlight, some say settling in towns like Arraiolos and setting up businesses that capitalised on the local produce (wool and linen). The second theory is that the technique was simply brought back from the Far East during the years of the Portuguese Empire and copied by the local people. Certainly the Alentejo, birthplace to Vasco da Gama and a home to Portuguese Royalty during the Middle Ages, had the components and the market for these fine carpets at that time.
The town, apart from shops selling all kinds of goods made from the tapestry, has a new museum where you can not only learn how the carpets are made but for most of the day actually watch one of the women at work. It’s a great, if unusual, way to allow visitors to really understand the intricacies of the work involved.
Arraiolos, like Evora is also home to a Pousada, this one with a rather splendid chapel and an amazing view back to the fortified town, surrounded by all that remains of Castelo Arraiolos, the walls of an ancient fort built by order of King D. Dinis in 1405.
The Pousada itself was a convent, built in the sixteenth century, but now a luxurious hotel which seamlessly combines ancient and modern.
Since the days when I first visited Portugal management of the Pousadas has been contracted out by the State. From what I remember they have changed a little; the staff are rather less formal and rack rates seem a little more reasonable, although as a relatively impecunious MBA student, I might simply have had different expectations. Whether you can still Pousada hop as we did, I don’t know. And I doubt I’d have the cheek to try again, one of the advantages of youth is a willingness to try and a lack of any embarrassment if the answer is no. But, however you do it, it’s certainly worth staying in one or more of these historic hotels and using them as a base to explore the Alentejo and other parts of Portugal for a sense of time and place that an international group of hotels may struggle to provide.
- Restaurante D. Joaquim Evora – average price without drinks – 20€ per person
- Hotel Convento do Espinheiro (Double room / 2 Pax / B&B) – from 250,00€
- Pousada Arraiolos (Double room B&B) – from 120,00€
- TAP Portugal (0845 601 0932 www.flytap.com) flies from London Heathrow, Gatwick and Manchester to Lisbon
- For more information on Alentejo, Portugal visit: www.visitalentejo.pt
- For more information on Portugal visit: www.visitportugal.com