Rural Portugal sites rich in myth

Sunday, June 2, 2002

EVORA, Portugal -- The skulls of hundreds of medieval monks stare out of an ancient chapel's chilly walls in this myth-rich region where Arab fortresses from Crusader times keep watch over an enticing landscape of vineyards and cork and olive trees.

The Alentejo province is mostly arid but it is a majestic and little-known corner of Portugal, one of the world's top 20 tourist destinations.

Portugal, a country of 10 million people, is hardly effected by terrorism and enjoys one of Europe's lowest crime rates.

A world away from the cultural sophistication of Lisbon, the capital, or the mass sun-and-sand tourism of the southern Algarve coast, the Alentejo covers an area the size of Greater Washington D.C..

But this farming province is anything but dull.

It offers a Roman temple rising from a medieval town; a palace where the last king of Portugal whiled away his days writing and decorating Portuguese menu cards; desolate, centuries-old fortresses sprouting from the plains; and an ancient market town at the heart of Portugal's wine industry.

"It's as if nothing's changed for centuries," says Mike Tate, 36, a British visitor.

Remnants of the past

Evora, a fortified town whose narrow, winding streets and many of its 50,000 inhabitants fit snugly within its medieval walls, is the region's main city.

Perhaps its main attraction is a hilltop Roman temple whose graceful columns stand alone in a square that is faced on one side by the Pousada dos Loios, a former 15th-century convent where you can dine in elegant cloisters. 'Pousadas,' like Spain's paradors, are palaces, castles and monasteries or convents converted into upmarket hotels.

Then there is the Great Square centered on a 15th-century fountain and lined with shops beneath medieval arches.

Evora, about 65 miles east of Lisbon, is a symphony of architectural styles and ages.

A block away from the Great Square, the 12th-century cathedral's soaring arches grace a building that has a serene cloister and a Sacred Art Museum.

Next door is the gruesome Chapel of Bones, a testimonial to the thrift of 16th-century church authorities.

When they wanted to use the town's 42 monastic cemeteries as real estate, the authorities dug up the bodies and covered the walls and pillars of the chapel with the skulls and bones of about 5,000 monks.

Today, whispers of visitors drift out of its claustrophobic gloom, whose quietness is occasionally disturbed by children saying 'Ugh!'

For lighter sightseeing, visitors can leisurely admire Evora museum's collection of Renaissance sculpture and paintings.

Leaving the town you pass through the sprawling agricultural estates spread in a style of farming that Julius Caesar founded when he divided up the land on Roman conquest from Celtic tribes.

The landowners' white manor houses top the gentle hills of their holdings, surveying the lines of olive and cork trees and vines that stretch to the horizon.

"The land's vast. It just opens up before you," says Joaquina Alexandre, 40, a secretary from the nearby village of Alvita.

Legend tells of Hannibal marching his North African army with its war elephants through this gentle landscape to cross the Alps and storm Rome in 218 B.C.

Outside the town of Terena is the site of a Carthaginian temple where Hannibal's father, Amiliar Barcino, made offerings of gold and which Caesar's troops plundered in 63 B.C.

The Arabs followed in the 8th century and stayed in the Alentejo for 500 years.

The old women dressed in traditional black clothes and headscarves, who sit by fountains in orange tree-lined squares, seem to hint at its Arab heritage.

Other towns of interest dot the province and are easily reached by car:

ESTREMOZ: At the foot of a hill with its castle's great keep and massive wall nestles the market square of Estremoz where you can buy everything from orange trees and live turkeys to jars of homemade pickles and huge, fresh cheeses.

The region's specialty is cheese from sheep's milk bound with thistle flower. Famed local cheeses are Estribeiro, Queijo Evora and Serpa. They can be hard and aged for up to two years cured with olive oil and paprika, or soft and creamy with a pungent flavor.

Estremoz's greatest fame, stems from nearby quarries whose white marble with few veins is of such good quality that it is shipped to Italy, Japan and Israel. The town's sidewalks sport marble cobblestones. The lintels and doorsteps of shops and homes are made of marble.

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