Stones and Bones of the Alentejo
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.
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.