Alentejo derives its name from the Tagus River – the longest river in the Iberian peninsular. A combination of the words além and Tejo, Alentejo is literally beyond the Tagus. This is a historic and geographic region that stretches from the Tagus River in south central Portugal to the Algarve in the south. For over 300 years the rolling plains typical of this area have been the world’s most important area for the production of cork. Dotted throughout these flatlands, perfect for cycling holidays, are the enigmatic Neolithic cromlechs, concentrations of standing stones, and walled, hilltop towns that have been settled since Roman times and fortified since during the various battles between Moors and Christians and the later dynastic disputes between the Portuguese and Spanish.
Overlooking the town of Alandroal, construction of this Gothic fortification was carried out at the end of the 13th century. Although built after the Reconquista, it has a Moorish appearance because it was by a Muslim stonemason. Built from local red schist, it has a striking appearance. Following years of neglect the castle fell into disrepair until the mid 1900s when the castle was heavily restored.
This collection of around 100 standing stones of various shapes and sizes is the largest known group of standing menhirs on the Iberian peninsula, and one of the largest in all of Europe. When first recorded in the 1960s, most of the stones had fallen. The stones were raised between 6,000 and 4,000 BCE – during the Neolithic period. Archaeological excavation have not revealed evidence for any funerary function.
A single standing stone, not far from the Almendres Cromlech. Thought to have been erected in the middle of the Neolithic period, if you look carefully, in the upper portion of the menhir, you will see a single engraved crook symbol – common Neolithic imagery in Europe. This single stone and the cromlech are aligned with the rising sun on summer solstice, suggesting the two monuments were somehow related.
Part of the royal church of Saint Francis, the Chapel of Bones was created by Franciscan monks in the late 16th century. The human remains came from the town’s cemeteries, which were fast filling up. Instead of placing the bones out of sight, the monks chose to use the chapel to remind their congregations that death comes to all, including the wealthy. There are the remains of an estimated 5,000 bodies in the chapel.
The archaeological site of São Cucufate (Saint Cucuphas) is a complex of ruins of a Medieval monastic community that was built on top of what was a Roman villa. A typical rural villa with a bathhouse and peristyle was constructed in the 1st century AD. By the 4th or 5th century AD the villa was abandoned and by the 9th century a religious community established itself amongst the Roman ruins, which lasted until the 13th century, and dedicated itself to the martyred Spanish saint Cucuphas.
As one of the finest Portuguese cities, Évora is rightly a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Much of the remarkable architectural heritage dates to the 15th century. Évora was, however, also an important Roman town, then known as Liberalitas Julia. Built during the 1st century AD on the ancient town’s acropolis, the ruined temple is one of the most significant Roman landmarks in Portugal today.
Officially known as the Museu Nacional Frei Manuel do Cenáculo after the man who began bringing the objects together, the Évora Museum is housed in what was the Archbishop’s Palace. The museum has over 20,000 artefacts reflecting the various periods of the city’s history. This ranges from Roman inscribed and carved stone artefacts to an important collection of 15th century Portuguese paintings showing Flemish influence.