Stones and Bones of the Alentejo

Castle of Arraiolos

Castle of Arraiolos

Driving through the Alentejo, it’s one of those experimental travel days when we leave our itinerary entirely up to choice and chance. The only thing we know for sure is that we need to reach the Algarve by nightfall. What happens between now and then, here and there … who knows? Who cares? It’s a beautiful day in Portugal.

We arrive in Arraiolos, drawn to the town by its history of rug making. But first, we’re drawn to the decaying stone castle on the highest hill. We take a left turn and drive up to investigate.

A modest stone wall trims the hill around the Castle of Arraiolos. The wall feels proportional and reasonable — as if the architect was motivated more by aesthetics rather than fear. The castle was built between 1306 and 1315, and shows its age in partial walls and missing cornices. A few beautiful details remain like the keyhole window and castle keep. According to the plaque at the entrance, D. Nuno Alvares Pereira, a Portuguese commander who was eventually beatified and canonised, lived here at some point during his life.

We get back in the car and roll on down the hill to Arraiolos. It’s a sleepy town. None of the shops are open yet but we arrive at the central plaza where a gaggle of men is stationed along a bench, ready for whatever the day brings.

We walk to the Arraiolos Rug Interpretation Center which tells the story of the region’s history of rug making from the 16th to 19th centuries. Arraiolos rugs are hand-embroidered rather than woven, with a thinner profile than traditional carpets. Early Arraiolos rug designs were influenced by Oriental and Persian carpets but this was followed by a transitional design period in the 17th century. According to the Center, “Arraiolos embroidery was always a freely practiced craft that fell between the scholarly oriental form and the popular concept influenced by local traditions and artistic freedom.” Arraiolos rug making nearly died out in the late 1800s but visual artist José Queiroz revived the craft through classes and a dedicated workshop in Évora which resulted in new appreciation and demand for Arraiolos rugs that still exists today.

One of the most interesting things about the Arraiolos Rug Interpretation Center is what was found underneath and outside of it. The plaza became the subject of an archaeological dig when a centuries-old dying complex was discovered just below the surface. As you can see in the photo above, large circular vats were used to dye the wool for the rug embroidery. The dying vats have since been covered up and in their place is a decorative stone mosaic.

Cork trees in the Alentejo, Portugal

Cork trees in the Alentejo, Portugal

Back in the car, we aim for Évora but yet again we’re intrigued by what we see on the map. We make a few quick turns down a few small roads and arrive at a cork tree forest. I’ve never seen a cork tree before. Mature and evenly spaced, the trees have wide, wandering canopies above their trunks which have been stripped of their bark. The bark regenerates every 8-10 years, making it a sustainable resource. Portugal is the wine industry’s leading cork supplier, exporting a quantity valued at more than US $1 billion in 2016.

Just past the cork trees, we arrive at Cromeleque dos Almendres. This place is a bit of a mystery — kind of like Stonehenge. It’s a megalithic complex with 95 granite stones set in a circular arrangement, possibly related to the vernal equinox and winter solstice. The stones were placed between 6,000 and 3,000 B.C. Truly ancient! I had no idea that such a place existed in Portugal. The countryside is loaded with history.

We arrive in Évora and park the car just inside the fortress wall. Walking into the town center we come to the Igreja de Santo Antão. A Canterbury cross marks the front entrance of this 16th century church. The vaulted interior suspends elegant chandeliers above a beautiful runner extending through the nave.

We stop for lunch at Café Alentejo. This is not grab-and-go cuisine for tourists. This local hangout has a cozy interior where an afternoon could easily slip by with the help of a couple bottles of Portuguese wine. I decide to be adventurous and try the fish casserole — a stick-to-the-ribs dish that could feed an entire family.

Ceramics are everywhere in southern Portugal and as we wander Évora’s streets we see lots of colorful pieces with intricate patterns and signs of Moorish influence in geometric patterns.

We arrive at the Cathedral of Évora. Initially built in the late 12th century, the cathedral has been the subject of continual architectural additions during the centuries since then.

The cathedral’s full mass becomes evident as we climb the stairs to the rooftop terrace and lantern tower — the highest point of Évora. We descend to the cloisters and view the grandeur of the main chapel. My own faith is of no particular type or description, but I never tire of experiencing the magnificence of divine spaces such as this.

Back on the streets of Évora, we hurry to see one more sight before it closes for the day: Capela dos Ossos. This is one of Évora’s most popular sights but I haven’t read much about it or prepared myself for what we’re about to see. The art museum is nice, but the 16th century chapel below it is a rather creepy experience.

Capela dos Ossos is an ossuary. The bones and skulls of more than 5,000 people are stacked and stuck at every turn, even lining the arches of the vaulted ceiling. I can’t imagine that any of the people whose bones and skulls are here would have expected this to be their final resting place. The purpose of the ossuary isn’t entirely clear, at least from what I’ve read about it.  It may have been built to encourage self-reflection about our mortality or it may have been a solution to overflowing graveyards of the time. Either way, I feel lucky I can walk out of here, unlike so many others.

It’s late in the afternoon so we find an outdoor cafe near Evora’s stunning relic of a Roman temple, where we stop for a cold beer and contemplate the scenes of the day — including this poem at Capela dos Ossos (translated by Father Carlos Martins):

Where are you going in such a hurry traveler?
Stop … do not proceed;
You have no greater concern,
Than this one: that on which you focus your sight.

Recall how many have passed from this world,
Reflect on your similar end,
There is good reason to reflect
If only all did the same.

Ponder, you so influenced by fate,
Among the many concerns of the world,
So little do you reflect on death;

If by chance you glance at this place,
Stop … for the sake of your journey,
The more you pause, the further on your journey you will be.


  • Peggy and I really enjoyed Portugal, Kelly, and found Evora a treat— other than driving into the city and forever figuring how to get out. My camera battery decided to die in Capela dos Ossos and I considered it a message. 🙂 Thanks for the revisit. –Curt

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  • That looks like a fun day! I don’t know if I could have one of those experimental travel days. I need an itinerary. That said, Altanejo and that whole area seem fascinating. Not your usual travel places when it comes to Portugal.


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  • I’ll be spending two weeks in Portugal in February. Thanks for such a helpful post. I’ll be rereading it before I go.


  • Interesting overview…you covered it all. Thanks


  • This has been a very pleasant read and feast for the eyes, Kelly. That stop at the hilltop castle was such an interesting ‘discovery’, and the rug making tradition in Arraiolos is really fascinating! It’s amazing how they managed to uncover those beautiful mosaic tiles! As for Capela dos Ossos, despite its sinister atmosphere it does look very intriguing. What a trip you had! This shows that sometimes (or most of the times?) the most rewarding trips are those without strict itineraries.


    • Thanks so much, Bama! Agreed — the rug making in Arraiolos is really intriguing and so unusual as a form of embroidery. It’s really fun to discover how different cultures interpret similar crafts. Totally agree with your point about not having a strict itinerary. I think spontaneity in travel is highly under-rated. Thanks for your comment!

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  • This is absolutely stunning! the writing and the pictures have me itching to book a ticket now! ❤


  • A lovely post Kelly. I traveled with you for the day, feeling your sense of freedom and easy pace, stopping here and there to see whatever enticed you. And what variety you found! I love the carpets – exquisite. The bones not so much. Some where in Europe (maybe Prague?) is a church full of bones, even chandeliers made from bones. The poem was very a propos.

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    • Thanks, Alison! Agreed, I thought the poem was frightfully on point. I couldn’t not include it! Happy you enjoyed the post. Wish I had more photos of rugs to share. I think I decided to put the camera down in the museum so I could take it all in, but I left with hardly anything to show. Oh well. Thanks for your comment!

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  • What a lovely day and terrific collage of sights along the way. I really love tge okd photo shoeing the vats for dying the rugs in the street. It reminds me of the still current vats we saw years back (for dying leather) in Morocco.

    The cork trees are such a wonderful sustainable material. As a child my bedroom floor in South Africa had a beautiful spft cork floor. It felt like walking on a cloud! So much beauty in Portugal and you certainly captured it….and the feeling of being right there jumps right out of this post!


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    • Thanks, Peta! Funny you mention the dying vats in Morocco — I almost mentioned them in this post. We saw them in Fes about a week after this day in Arraiolos. They are very similar. Although Portugal and Morocco are separated by the Strait of Gibraltar, there is so much tangible cross-cultural influence. It’s such an interesting region! And yes … cork floors! Aren’t they sublime! Lucky you to grow up with that material under your feet! Great to hear from you. ~K.


  • It gave me a warm feeling reading this. 🙂 🙂 A few years ago we stayed at Constancia, near Tomar, and were not too far from Arraiolos. I remember seeing signs from the castelo at Almourel but the other half had had enough driving for the day. I love your photo of the old guys on the bench. If I’m up that way again I’ll go looking for them. Evora is beautiful too. Thanks for sharing!

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    • Thanks, Jo! Very sweet comment. 🙂 Yes! Look for the old guys! They were all sitting there, so bright and early, dressed for the day, but hardly talking to each other. Would love to know their stories. There was another group standing under a tree nearby, but the two groups did not mix. Different sides of the tracks, maybe? Or childhood grudges? Who knows … life in a small town! Thanks for reading and sharing your thoughts!


  • Perfect day summarized in a perfect post of prose and photos … and the ending poem could not have been more fitting itself! I love days like this, and we had a few on our own road trip in September in Central Europe. We had bones, too, in creepy piles underground in Vienna (we never made it to the creepiest place of all – Kutna Hora near Prague, to which Alison referred). When I first opened the post, I loved the sweeping tail of a wall in the first photo and was brought up short when you called it “modest.” Then I looked at the following pictures and saw what you meant about its scale, and I admired your phrasing when you said it looked “as if the architect was motivated more by aesthetics rather than fear.” So good!

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    • Thank you, Lex! Happy you enjoyed the post. Kutna Hora! That’s it! I couldn’t remember the name and didn’t get there when I was in Prague. No matter — I think I’m done with ossuaries. 🙂 Thanks for your thoughts about my wording related to the castle wall. It was really thought provoking because it isn’t an insurmountable wall. It could have been easily scaled so there has to be some other reason for its construction. I’m guessing there wasn’t much of a threat from the outside, or maybe they just couldn’t have a castle without a wall so they built one that was demure and beautiful. Or maybe the engineer did the math, based on the volume of stones, and determined that it couldn’t be very tall. That being said, it seems like the wall could have had a much smaller diameter around the castle but then again we have no idea what was held within the wall — it might have been an entire village. Such a mystery but so fun to think about!

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  • There certainly is a lot of beauty and history in Portugal. We had but a small sip of it a few years back, it’d be nice to have the freedom of an exploration day or two.

    As for the ossuaries, I’ve never quite been able to figure out why folks would want to end up separated and stacked like that. For that matter, I remember the first time I encountered the finger bones of a presumed saint in a German church, 37 years ago. It’s still a mystery to me why folks would want such a thing, or be willing to dissect their religious heroes. Seems disrespectful somehow, and I’m not sure the saint would approve.


  • Portugal is so remarkable, Kelly! Discovering such hidden gems is a real treasure. Alentejo seems definitely worth exploring!


  • The Cromeleque dos AlmendresWe are so fascinating. We had planned a day trip to Evora just to see them, but the logistics were too complicated without a car. Am certainly returning to explore the region in depth. Happy to explore virtually through your fabulous post in the meanwhile. Beautiful photos as always Kelly. The old men on a bench remind me of Greece somehow 🙂


  • Good post, I enjoyed reading it. I must put this region on my to do list when I return to Portugal.

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