|As he guides visitors past a church dedicated to Our Lady of Grace, Professor Libiano Reis breezily refers to the figures overhead as âthe boys.â History in Ãvora is so present, the locals are on a first name basis with it. (Patricia Borns for The Boston Globe)|
Fortunate Evora still glimmers
On the thread of its history are Caesar, kings, Moors, great wealth, and long influence
ÉVORA - “Where should we go for lunch,’’ a Lisboan will ask, and invariably, “Évora’’ is the reply. An hour and a half south of Lisbon, this UNESCO World Heritage site has been a favorite for millennia. Julius Caesar showered Évora with privileges. Portuguese kings made it their summer address. For a brief time, Évora was even a candidate to become the capital.
Passing beneath the Aqueduct of Silver Water, I found Évora sitting on a hill, surrounded by medieval and Roman walls, a “museum city,’’ our guidebook called it. But it is also a changing city, as I discovered in the company of Libiano Reis.
In the words of Nobel laureate José Saramago, “Évora is mainly a state of mind.’’ He could have written that for Reis, a high school professor who for the sheer love of his city guides visitors part time. My first minutes with him in Giraldo Square offered a glimpse of the mindset:
“Can you believe,’’ Reis said, rolling his eyes skyward, “McDonald’s lobbied the town fathers to put their restaurant here.’’ No elaboration was needed as we stood amid a scholar-king’s palace, a Renaissance fountain, and Moorish arcades. But he added, “They opened in an industrial park outside the city instead. It’s very popular.’’
Such, according to Saramago, is the way in Évora: “To hold onto the thread of history, and grasping it firmly, to walk boldly toward the future.’’
But which thread to hold? Hours with Reis traced Roman walls weaving like a Christo installation among shops and cafe tables; alleys where a Moorish moat once stood; chapels like that of the ancient Esporão family in the Cathedral of Évora, lavished with fortunes of gold leaf (their descendants produce popular wines); and the Capela dos Ossos (Chapel of Bones) of St. Francis Church, with skulls, femurs, and all. (The inscription above the entrance, “We bones in here wait for yours,’’ was meant as a sober reminder to Évora’s 15th-century residents during a golden age of excess.)
To awaken in a bed-and-breakfast whose owners trace their nobility to King Manuel I (1469-1521), or to sip wine in a medieval cistern, is to rethink one’s place in the world.
“Why do they call it Vasco da Gama,’’ I asked as we turned onto a street of that name.
“Because he lived here - though Gama never lived anywhere for long,’’ Reis said, speaking of the great 15th-century explorer as if they had met only yesterday. History in Évora is so present, Reis said, “We’re afraid to dig a post hole for fear of what we’ll find.’’ At City Hall, we paused before a roped-off area where a new cafeteria was supposed to be built. No sooner had the work begun than a Roman bath was uncovered - three of them actually. “We think there are more than these, but if we keep digging, we won’t have a City Hall,’’ Reis said.
Until recently, Évora rested on the laurels of its celebrated past: a star that waxed and waned with its Jesuit university, founded in 1559 but shuttered in 1779 during an era of sweeping secular reform. The present-day city is worthwhile, too. The beautiful monuments house world music performances, art exhibits, and marionette shows. Owner-chef restaurants like Luar de Janeiro and Dom Joaquim pack in the locals for roasted game, bread soup, and Elvas plums, foods that express Évora’s abiding regionalism. Some of the best moments are small, everyday ones like an espresso in the public garden, or chatting up the roasted chestnut vendor in Giraldo Square surrounded by students who once again fill the university’s Azulejos-tiled classrooms.
Staying a second day, I entered the future Saramago wrote about, the one Évora walks boldly toward after centuries of turning away. It unfurls in the distance as you stand with your back to the Roman temple: the green and gold heartland of the Alentejo, stretching across south-central Portugal from the Atlantic Ocean to Spain. The Alentejo landscape of cork and olive trees appears timeless, yet it was created as recently as the 1950s when António Salazar, Portugal’s dictator (1889-1970), deforested the region to grow wheat.
“Beja has a problem. It’s not Évora,’’ said Catarina Gonçalves about the Alentejo cities, alluding to the historical tension between Évora, always favored by the ruling classes, and the rest of the region, which was exploited by them.
A fresco specialist who offers cultural excursions, Gonçalves moved to the humble countryside from Lisbon, a popular migration these days. “People used to call Alentejanos slow. Now they’re realizing the Alentejanos have the right idea. For them, time isn’t money. Time is still time,’’ she said.
There was time and lots of it in Alvito, a half hour’s drive from Évora, where Antónia Manilhas taught us to make Alentejo bread. The lesson, held in a town so far from poor that Évora’s university professors vie for real estate there, was a sidebar to seeing rural frescos made with pigments from the local earth. (A shorter Friday tour called Barroca de Evora can be booked for $30 in the Évora tourist office.)
“The secret to bread is in the kneading. You have to knead the dough for at least an hour,’’ Manilhas said in Portuguese with Gonçalves translating. Her most useful tip for me was a prayer she chants as she shovels the shaped dough into an outdoor oven heated with woods of olive and cork. Unlike my prayers, hers produces perfect loaves every time.
From the vast holdings of absentee landlords to communist cooperatives, the Alentejo is rich again with wine estates created by once-banished owners and entrepreneurial ex-pats. I first tried Alentejo wines in the bright new regional wine headquarters located on Évora’s Joaquim António de Aguiar Square. They were an acquired taste.
“Wait an hour. At the end of the meal, it will be a different wine,’’ said Reis, suggesting a red Cartuxa for our lunch table. Sure enough, by dessert, the aroma was gone and the flavor became very nearly worthy of the $44 bottle. My personal pick was a $29 bottle of 2008 red Navagante made by Adega Cooperative.
A few miles outside Évora, we visited the Hieronymite monastery Convento Do Espinheiro, founded on a shepherd’s vision of a thorn bush that was on fire but didn’t burn, containing the Virgin Mary within. Royals and nobles visiting in the 1400s used to stay in the hostel here. Today the site has been restored by the Camacho family and discreetly integrated with a luxury hotel. In the church, which is used by everyone, the tile panels and paintings are so refreshed that the colors are almost shockingly bright. It was written of Frei Carlos, the best loved of the monastery’s painters, that his luminous images were drawn from this local landscape of “sweet austerity and intense lyricism.’’
From here we went for a drink in the hotel’s piano bar, a cozy space in the monks’ former kitchen. Then outside on the open plain, where the air smelled deeply of rosemary from the kitchen garden and dogs barked into the dusk, we started back. There was no need for directions. The brightest star, Évora, twinkled on its hill.
Patricia Borns can be reached at email@example.com.