Portugal’s story is a fascinating Game of Thrones brew of intrigue, plotting and conquest rendered bittersweet with tragic love stories, ribald kings and romantic heroes, and Alentejo is the perfect place to come to see some of the best relics of this complex history. Here are some our favourite historical highlights of the region.
Capela dos Ossos, Évora
The Capela dos Ossos is a gruesome reminder of the Spanish Inquisition © Alex Robinson
The Capela dos Ossos serves as a chilling reminder of the gruesome side of Iberian Christianity, which saw the viciousness of the Inquisition. The walls of this grisly chapel are built out of the bones of thousands of victims of the Inquisition, stolen by the morbid monks from graveyards throughout the city. The chapel is part of the grim Igreja de São Francisco, itself a vast, grey cavern of soaring Gothic arches.
Roman Temple, Évora
The Roman Temple is the crowning jewel of Évora’s historical sites © Filipe B. Varela, Shutterstock
Évora is littered with magnificent churches and monuments, so much so that nowhere in Alentejo boasts more historical sites. Perhaps it’s crowning jewel, however, is the ruined Roman Temple, a relic that looks back to the capital’s humble beginnings as a small Roman settlement named Ebora. It once stood on one edge of the main public square, or forum, which would have served as the Roman town’s principal meeting place and market. The building you see today is not original, but is rather a romantic reconstruction built in the late 19th century by the Italian architect Giuseppe Cinatti.
Castelo de Evoramonte
The massive round towers of the Castelo de Evoramonte are visible for tens of kilometres © John Copland, Shutterstock
Perched romantically on a barren hill in the Serra de Ossa, high above the surrounding plains, the massive round towers of the Castelo de Evoramonte (Evoramonte Castle) are visible for tens of kilometres. The castle has been an eyrie watching out for attack and invasion since the time of the Reconquest. The views from the battlements are breathtaking, and wandering around the tiny village that spreads around the castle’s feet within the secondary walls is a delight.
Castelo de Marvão
Castelo de Marvão has one of the best strategic positions of any castle anywhere © ARoxoPT, Shutterstock
The striking Castelo de Marvão, perched high on a ridge that rises to a peak, is built out of layer upon layer of history. Marvão’s mountaintop location has been used for strategic purposes since pre-Roman times, by the peoples who built the prehistoric monuments that sprinkle the plains around Castelo de Vide. But it was the Romans who first built a settlement here – a hilltop lookout for the town of Ammaia that they built at the foot of the hill. Half-Galician Moorish noble Ibn Maruán built the first village on the hilltop itself, out of the ruins of the Roman city.
Castelo de Elvas
Wandering the winding alleys around the old Moorish castle of Elvas is a delight © Martin Froyda, Shutterstock
This spectacular garrison town (and UNESCO World Heritage Site) crouches behind massive star-shaped fortifications a stone’s throw from the Spanish border. Wandering the winding, whitewashed alleys, which run like mycelia around the old Moorish castle, is a delight. Elvas’s ancient fortress sits at the highest point in the city, commanding a sweeping view of the plains from the battlements. Like most Alentejo fortresses it’s a hodge-podge of Roman, Moorish and Christian Reconquista.
Menhirs and megaliths
The landscape around Évora is littered with cromlechs and megaliths © Filipe B. Varela, Shutterstock
Explore the countryside around Évora, Castelo de Vide and Monsaraz and find stone circles older than Stonehenge and vast pinnacles of Neolithic worked stone pointing to the sky like giant fingers. One of the most famous examples is the Cromleque dos Almendres outside Évora, but the countryside around Monsaraz is also covered with prehistoric monuments. The Xerez Cromlech consists of 50 small standing stones around a central 4m menhir, while the Menir do Outeiro at nearly 6m tall is one of the largest freestanding menhirs in Europe.
The dolmen churches
The Anta de Pavia in Mora is the most famous of the dolmen churches © Duca696, Wikimedia Commons
Despite the rigours of the Inquisition, one of the Catholic Church’s great strengths has been its ability to assimilate the sacred traditions of other faiths into its own. In Portugal it is most concretely seen in the Alentejo, where prehistoric sacred dolmens have been incorporated into chapels and churches. The most famous of these is the Anta de Pavia in Mora – a tiny town 50km north of Évora. There’s a similar chapel at São Brissos in Montemor-o-Novo.
Braganza Ducal Palace, Vila Viçosa
The lavish Braganza Ducal Palace in Vila Viçosa was the childhood home of the queen who brought tea-drinking to Britain © Alex Robinson
Between the 13th and 19th centuries Vila Viçosa was one of the most important locations in the Alentejo, as the site of an magnificent ducal palace, built by the powerful Braganza dynasty. From the early 1500s the Braganzas lived in this vast and monumental grey marble palace, set on an even vaster, bone-white courtyard. From end to end the three-storey building is longer than a football field and its frowsty rooms are stuffed full of antiques and priceless pieces collected by the nobles. Catherine of Braganza, the much-misunderstood wife of Charles II of England, was born here in 1638.
Want to find out more about the historical highlights of Alentejo? Check out our comprehensive guide: