Évora and the Alentejo

The interior section of the Alentejo region is often passed by, or maybe just touched on with a quick day trip or one-night visit to Évora from Lisbon. We identified several spots we wanted to see and decided on a five-night itinerary so we would have four full days to delve into the area.

Our points-of-interest planning map created a roughly circular route. But how best to travel it? We considered moving to a different location each night, staying in two of the places and taking day trips from there, or staying in one spot and taking day trips. We settled on the latter, with our base in the biggest and most-happening town of Évora and then two day trips to cover the majority of our targeted locations. We had visited our southernmost chosen town, Mértola, while we were in Faro so we didn’t have to fit that in.

Instead of renting a car one way from Faro through the Alentejo and then onto Lisbon, where we needed to be for a flight five days later, we reduced our travel time and rental-car costs by booking an inexpensive flight from Faro to Lisbon and picking up a car at the airport (to be returned to the same location at the end of the journey). A couple of hours later we were in Évora.


Évora’s historic center is surrounded by impressive medieval walls. A well-preserved 16th-century 18-kilometre-long aqueduct (Aqueduto da Água de Prata or Silver Water Aqueduct) ends in the historic center, where buildings creatively fill the gaps between the arches. The city has some slight hills and is easily walkable. On our first day, we covered about 8.5 kilometres (we used Walkbox‘s Evora Essentials as a guide) and still went back to explore more on the second day.

Though we don’t bother touring most churches and cathedrals anymore, it was worth it for us to climb up to the top of the Catedral de Évora. The roof is architecturally and historically interesting and the views of the city are well worth the climb up the narrow stairs.

We also enjoyed the Capela dos Ossos (Chapel of the Bones), part of the Igreja de São Francisco (Church of San Francisco). Perhaps it sounds a little strange to enjoy viewing walls and pillars decorated with thousands of bones taken from nearby burial grounds, but the patterns were intriguing, the display is thought-provoking and it wasn’t nearly as creepy as the underground catacombs in Paris (that one is creepy, but a must-see nevertheless).

A ticket to the Chapel of Bones also includes access to an unusual and fascinating exhibition of nativity scenes from possibly every country on the planet. The private collection is installed in nooks and crannies in the church’s upper levels and even had us climbing out onto the roof to enter into another attic-like space to see the rest of the displays. The variations in interpretation, materials and colours are intriguing. (I don’t remember if photos of the collection were not allowed, but I don’t have any for some reason).

On our way back to Évora on one of our out-trip days, we took a detour to go find another Bordalo II installation (the link is to other mentions of Bordalo’s work in this blog–I guess we’re a wee bit obsessed). This one was just a couple of oversized snails, nothing incredible, but it did give us a chance to see two wall murals made by removing rather than adding paint on nearby buildings, as well as a spectacular full (and sometimes double) rainbow.


Estremoz is visually different from other Portuguese towns since so much of it is built with locally sourced marble. The pastel corals, pinks, and blues even paved the sidewalks. One public space was getting a makeover, and it was interesting to watch the tile setters at work and hear the rhythmic rat-a-tat-tat of their hammers as they worked to quickly re-pave the space.

It wasn’t until we noticed the massive piles of marble slabs as we drove through nearby Vila Viçosa that we remembered the possibility of taking a quarry tour. After checking others’ photos of the quarries, this one has been added to our next-time list.

Estremoz tiles (calçadas)

Pinky marble adds a little colour to the usual black and white designs.


It was hard not to be impressed by Elvas when, as we approached the town, we were greeted by multi-level arched walls that crossed the landscape right in front of us. The imposing walls are part of the 16th-century seven-kilometre Amoreira Aqueduct, which was built to supply water to the city of Elvas. Considered a masterpiece of architecture in its time, the aqueduct has 843 arches and, at its highest point, is 31 meters tall.

If you are interested in military history, there are also 12 kilometres of fortification walls around the city and a significant fort (Forte de Nossa Senhora da Graça) just outside of town.

We just enjoyed the amazing aqueduct and wandered around the old city before heading off to our next destination.


Monsaraz, near the Spanish border, was our first stop in the Alcheva Lake area, and our introduction to a fascinating landscape. On the map, the lake looked intriguing, with all sorts of jagged edges and inlets. In reality, it was a beautiful blue waterscape filled with green islands and land formations–something we hadn’t seen before. We learned later that Alcheva Lake is the reservoir of the Alcheva Dam, covers 250 square kilometres, and is the largest artificial lake in Europe.

As well as the stunning views of the surrounding landscapes, Monsaraz is a pretty little medieval hilltop village that we easily visited in an hour or so. We spent some time climbing around in the 13th-century castle built by the Knights Templar. The village was very quiet but we noticed many of the houses bore vacation rental signs so expect it would become quite lively during tourist season. A couple of cute shops were open (for example, a beer shop and a wine shop featuring products of the area), and we could see that there would be several other stores, museums, and restaurants to keep visitors entertained in the warmer months. There was plenty of free parking below the village and a few lots a little higher up, with narrow, steep access roads.


From Monsaraz, we had seen what looked like a floating bridge across the lake, so we were happy to see that our route to our next stop, Mourão, had us driving across it. Though Mourão, another hilltop town, is larger in population than Monsaraz, its major attraction seemed to be the castle ruins. We drove through the town and up to the castle. We parked in a bare dirt area just outside of the castle and wandered through an opening in the walls. There wasn’t much in the way of interpretive signs so we just explored the ruins for a bit and moved on.


Moura, near the Alcheva Dam, was a planned visit before we knew about the dam’s existence. We drove in but turned it into a quick, late-lunch stop only since we wanted to have plenty of time at the dam.

Alcheva Dam

The Alcheva Dam’s visitor center was in an old building that wasn’t particularly welcoming, though we appreciated the gigantic sign in the parking lot. Once inside, we found an enthusiastic guide who had us watch a video, further explained the project to us, and answered our many questions. When we asked about the construction up on the hill on the other side of the dam, she excitedly told us that this would be the new visitor center–a project that had started and stopped a few times, but appeared to be heading toward completion. (For the sign in the parking lot, she had no explanation at all.)

Though controversial, as you would expect any project to be that involves displacement of people and impact on ecosystems, our guide explained that the dam was needed–and had been for many decades–to convert the land from being a high drought risk to an agricultural region with stable irrigation. The project had taken slow steps forward over the years and then been shut down with changes in politics, the economy, and environmental concerns. Finally, after many decades, the dam was completed and opened in 2004.

Our guide shared that the 300 people impacted were able to vote on three possibilities for how the displacement would be handled: a dike around their village, everyone being moved to multiple locations individually, or a new village where they could continue to live together. The residents chose the latter solution and a new community was built for them nearby. Our guide was also proud of the fact that the animals that would be affected were re-homed. Work on the project was stopped again when a bat habitat was discovered, and a project was created to provide a new environment for these creatures. That project is considered to have been very successful since the current bat population is estimated at over 10,000. A museum that we had already unknowingly passed by, Museu da Luz, provides insight into the processes and impacts of building the dam and moving the people of Luz. We didn’t have time to go back to it, but will definitely go if we get the chance again (another for the next-time list).

As well as stable irrigation, the newly created lake brought a lot of tourism to the region, with many new water-related recreational activities–beaches, boating, fishing, and the like. This is a beautiful area where we could easily spend some leisurely days in warmer weather.

And that was it for the Alentejo region. We returned the rental car to the Lisbon airport and hopped on a plane to our next destination.


  • Rental car: Lisbon airport through KLM partner website (CarTrawler), five days, economy car, no insurance (covered by credit card) €46.13 total including taxes.
  • Évora accommodation: We were very happy with our choice of accommodation. We hadn’t been able to locate a suitable AirBnB with a kitchen so we settled for a hotel with breakfast included and found a gem, the Vitoria Stone Hotel. It was more luxurious than we usually pay for but at a reasonable off-season price. The breakfast, served in a comfortable lounge area with views, was fantastic and offered an incredible selection of dishes. The lounge was also a great place for an evening drink or a quiet spot to hang out and get some planning done. The hotel is not that far outside of the old walled city. We parked our rental car (free) and walked to tour the town.
  • Catedral de Évora: Tickets are €2.50-4.50 depending on which combination you purchase. €3.50 for the church, cloister and rooftop, €1 more to add the museum.
  • Capela dos Ossos (Chapel of Bones): Entry fee €6 adults, €4 seniors. The tickets included the Chapel of Bones, nativity scene collection, and the museum installed in the old monk’s dormitories.
  • Sé de Évora (cathedral): Entry fee €3.50 each, including a visit to the tower (climb those stairs–the view is worth it!), cloister, and cathedral.

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