A Travellerspoint blog

An Iberian Exploration: Evora and return to Lisbon

I've always noted how flat and featureless the landscape of Spain appears from the major highways, but this was particularly apparent in the western region of Extremadura. This is probably Spain's least visited region as well, the home of cities with familiar names such as Mérida and Cáceres that did not evoke any particular images. The highway skirted even the smallest towns with a wide margin so we didn't get any sense of Extremadura besides the unremarkable flatlands, but we made a mental note that one day we should return. For the present, we'd decided that our best bet for an overnight stop was the Portuguese town of Evora, a full five hour drive from Madrid.
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Far from the Atlantic coast, Evora is off the map of international tourism but it was a welcome discovery for us. The historic center of the small town is filled with character and also boasts a very well-preserved Roman temple. We arrived in the evening and had a hearty Portuguese dinner which was most memorable for our first bottle of Alentejo wine. Evora is at the heart of the Alentejo wine country, far less well-known abroad than the Douro and Dao but in my opinion equally deserving of recognition. The deep red wine provided an immediate pleasurable astringency at the first sip coupled with a long, savory finish. In the morning we explored the compact center which was almost completely devoid of tourists.
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The Temple of Diana occupies a splendid position in the center of a cobblestone square, incongruously surrounded by a park and traditional Portuguese whitewashed facades. Oddly enough there's no real reason to think the temple has anything to do with the goddess Diana. It was built to honor the Roman Emperor Augustus as a god and the association with Diana is an invention by a local priest in the 17th century.
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One of Evora's more macabre sights is the Capela dos Ossos, a Franciscan chapel whose walls are covered by thousands of human skulls and long bones. This is the only ossuary in Portugal, although there are a few others scattered around Europe including the famous Catacombs of Paris. It seems the motivation of these bone churches is to remind the visitor of the fleeting nature of life, but I would have been satisfied with a simple inscription to that effect.
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We returned to Lisbon on somewhat different terms than our first arrival. We now had navigation to keep us safely on the main roads until we reached our destination, and we were staying in an Airbnb instead of a hotel. Our choice paid off, as we had more space in the apartment as well as a working kitchen for about half the price that we had paid for our hotel. Since that trip we have rarely stayed in a hotel in Europe, and never in the United States. On our first evening back in Lisbon we only had time for a quick dinner and a ride up the short funicular called Elevador da Glória for the views over the city from Bairro Alto.
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We had one final day in Lisbon which we spent mainly on a return visit to Cervejaria Ramiro and a visit to the municipal market to gather ingredients for a final home-cooked meal. Cervejaria Ramiro was a little anti-climactic as we had already pulled out all the stops on our first visit weeks before. Before returning to the Airbnb to cook we took a stroll down one of the tiled pedestrian streets in Baixa towards the river. A crowd had gathered to watch a few people dancing to the beat of a street drummer. Someone began blowing a horn in time to the drum, a few others began singing, and suddenly the crowd erupted into a spontaneous dance party that lasted for several minutes. Cleo was really excited by the scene and was pulling Mei Ling into the center of it, although she was terrified when one tall fellow bent down to dance with her. Then it was over as quickly as it had begun and we continued back on our route.
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A short distance further we found ourselves at the most well-known place in Lisbon that we had missed on our first visit. A triumphal arch heralds the entrance into Praça do Comércio, an expansive square lined with government office buildings in the shape of a U. The open side of the U faces the water. The ground floor of the buildings was dedicated to restaurants and cafes which weren't particularly busy on this chilly winter night. In the center of the square is a monument of King José I mounted on his horse. The steps around the monument were mostly occupied by drinkers oblivious to the strong smell of urine. Cleo found herself a balloon and occupied herself chasing it around the square while I followed close behind to make sure she didn't stray to close to the noxious monument steps.
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We had an early flight back to Miami and hauled ourselves out of bed at the crack of dawn to bundle the bags and sleeping kids into the car for one final drive to the airport. As we passed through Lisbon's silent, deserted streets I couldn't believe that we'd pulled off everything we had planned with only minor inconveniences. We had been pretty lucky along the way, especially with some of the navigational blunders and almost being separated when the train stopped in Marrakech. The success of the road trip opened up a whole new world for us in Europe of small towns and out-of-the-way places that would be unreachable with public transportation. In the five years since then we've repeated the feat five more times, with each adventure more ambitious than the last.

Posted by zzlangerhans 17:57 Archived in Portugal

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