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World heritage sites in central Portugal

World heritage sites in central Portugal

On this fourth day of our road trip in Portugal we had planned on visiting five World Heritage Sites. Would that be possible? Almost anywhere else, the answer would be negative. In Portugal clearly yes. The sites are neatly laid out over a reasonably short distance but there would still be an obstacle not easily overcome: Our ability to take them all in at one go, mentally.

 

The town of Évora, the monasteries/convents of AlcobaçaBatalha and Tomar and the University of Coimbra are all designated by the World Heritage Committee as sites of “outstanding universal value”. If these were not enough, we had even laid our eyes on the towns of Óbidos (a nice little medieval town) and Fátima (one of the world’s most important pilgrimage centres receiving four million pilgrims each year). Anyway that was the master plan we made before going to Portugal.

Leaving Lisbon, where we had spent the last couple of days, driving a rented car across the Tagus river (Tejo in Portuguese), we were unsure about the outcome. Évora would anyway be our first stop.

 

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Ponte Vasco da Gama across the Tejo (Tagus) River in Lisbon

 

This is (roughly) how we ended up travelling. The return from the Douro to Lisbon is not included here.

 

 

Day 4, The white town of Évora

Ebora Cerealis was the name the ancient Romans gave this hilltop town rising above the flat landscape of Alentejo. The wheat production in this region was allegedly large enough to feed half of Rome’s population. A few hundred years later the Moors ruled the territory of Yeborath only to be butchered by the Christians in 1166. Évora was in the middle ages the second largest town in Portugal.

Later the Jesuits controlled the city, establishing a university. In 1759, two hundred years after their initial priviliges, the central government prohibited the Jesuit order and expelled the monks from Portugal. After this the town turned into a rather remote provincial town, with antique temple columns and a baroque university in a gradually worsening condition. The industrial revolution went unnoticed in Évora, and little has changed for centuries.

The UNESCO World Heritage Committee came to the town’s rescue by putting it on their famous List stating that “Its unique quality stems from the whitewashed houses decorated with azulejos and wrought-iron balconies dating from the 16th to the 18th century”. And more: “Évora is the finest example of a city of the golden age of Portugal after the destruction of Lisbon by the earthquake of 1755”.

This is certainly an important label and tourism has become an important source of income. Still, in the beginning of July there were not many around.

 

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Praça de Giraldo, the main square in Évora

 

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Jardim Diana – Templo Romano de Évora

 

The heritage site is actually the entire town centre, partly behind old walls. We made a walk around town to the major sights but for the sake of not over-doing things we skipped the museums and churches. We could however not resist the rather curious Capela dos Ossos. Inside a chapel off the São Franciscochurch there is a large room filled with human remains; skulls, ribs, thigh bones and so on. 5000 humans are stacked on all four walls. The sign on the doorway into the chapel reads: “We, the bones that are here, await yours.”

 

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Évora – Capela dos Ossos (The Chapel of Bones)

 

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Évora – A more elaborate and lovely part of the Capela dos Ossos

 

Évora was a really nice little town, and we could easily have spent more time here. We had more to see this day, and we rolled our rented Fiat 500 out of the car park and speeded back west to the string of towns now beckoning us.

Here is a video from Evora, with an illustration of what UNESCO likes.

 

“The Historic Centre of Évora” is no. 361 on UNESCO’s World Heritage List. 

 

On the way to and from Évora we had taken the large, new motorways. The quality was very good, and the traffic was very low. We would later on this vacation notice that few if any trucks use the main motorways, which invariably are toll roads. There were actually very few private cars as well. It may be that Portugal had entered the summer season with minimal needs of transportation. It may also be that the level of economic activity in this country is very low. I rather believe this is the reason.

Zeroing in on our next targets we mostly evaded the toll road and followed the old national roads and some local roads. There was more traffic here, but still very few trucks.

 

Day 4, The walled medieval town of Óbidos

Our next stop was Óbidos. This is not a world heritage site, for it never was an important town. On the other hand it is even more preserved than Évora. Had this been in the U.S. one would suspect that Disney had been involved. (CNN has rated Óbidos one of the world’s ten best medieval walled towns.)

 

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Souvenir seller in Óbidos

 

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Main street in Óbidos

 

One of our guide books hardly mentions this old town, whereas the other reckons it as the most beautiful in Portugal. Well, it consists of an elongated shaped city wall encapsulating the ancient whitewashed houses in town, a church and a long main street filled with souvenir shops. It is possible to take a walk on the wall, just make sure you climb it near the main entrance – I walked beneath half of it without finding a place to climb.

 

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A view of Óbidos with city wall in the background

 

This means that Óbidos is a popular destination for tourists to Portugal, and not only day-trippers from Lisbon. We found it very picturesque. My only regret is that I discovered the way to the top of the wall only as we were leaving.

 

Day 4, The monastery of Alcobaça

The town of Alcobaça is a short drive from Óbidos, but the lesser roads are not very well signed so we might have spent longer finding it than the average local would. Anyway, we found a parking lot in the city centre and set about looking for the reason of our visit, the World Heritage Site called Mosteiro de Santa Maria de Alcobaça. Once you find it, there is no doubt which building it is.

This church and monastery combination has a 200 metre long façade to a huge square, a few houses and a hill, and is designed to be awe-inspiring to the visitor. The trick worked on us.

 

“The Monastery of Alcobaça” is no. 505 on UNESCO’s World Heritage List. 

 

What we now see dates back to a construction period between 1158-1252. The church and monastery were among the first Gothic buildings in Portugal and like so many other Gothic cathedrals in Europe, it was by default a site to include on UNESCO’s prestigious list. Surely, it is a very nice place. The church has huge pillars, lofty vaults and is very “clean” in the sense that there is no extravagant artwork inside the large nave. This is the Gothic ideal, and certainly that of the Cistercian order. The impression of monumentality is strong inside the church as well as outside. The church of Alcobaça has for 800 years been the largest in Portugal.

The exterior and the rest of this building complex is somewhat different. Here we find amazing masonry in the the two-storey arcades and galleries surrounding the lovely and tranquil cloister garden.

 

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Vaults and courtyard at the Monastery of Alcobaça

 

To the Portuguese the marble tombs of King Pedro I and his beloved Inês de Castro are very important, to the rest of us they have a more macabre significance. Pedro was king in the mid-14th century. He was sometimes called the Cruel but probably revealed more tender feelings towards his darling Inês. She was murdered and he had the perpetrators executed, naturally. The story goes that he had her body exhumed after a couple of years, dressed her up and placed her on the throne forcing members of the court to kiss her hand.

 

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Tomb of King Pedro I in the Monastery of Alcobaça

 

We found the decorated tombs more appealing and left the building heading for our fourth stop today, the second monastery.

 

Day 4, The monastery of Batalha

The Mosteiro da Batalha or Mosteiro de Santa Maria da Vitória belonged to the Dominican order and was constructed between 1386 and 1517. Being more than 200 years younger than the equally famous church in Alcobaça, Batalha still relied on the same Gothic ideals – gaining it a World Heritage Site status as well.

 

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Corridor in the Monastery of Batalha

 

The monastery in Batalha is large, tall and is set apart from the town almost like a fortress behind a wide moat, the moat actually being open space. The high spires and the rooftop vaults have, in addition to the monumental Gothic style, also large portions of the extravagant Manueline style we had seen in Lisbon.

The church was closed for the day when we arrived in the afternoon, but we managed to spend some time inside upon returning from the north of Portugal. The massive, and to some presumably ugly exterior appearance, gave way to beautiful artwork when we got close to it and entered the cloisters and halls inside the monastery. The church itself looked quite like the one in Alcobaça.

 

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Manueline style ceiling vault in the Monastery of Batalha

 

As Capelas Imperfeitas (The Unfinished Chapels) are accessed from outside the church (and on the same ticket), and have the most detailed, intricate stonemasonry of all of Batalha. This part of the monastery was actually never finished and has no roof. This is truly amazing, just look at this illustration:

 

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Detail from the Unfinished Chapels in the Monastery of Batalha

 

“The Monastery of Batalha” is no. 264 on UNESCO’s World Heritage List. 

 

Day 4, The university town of Coimbra

By now it was late afternoon. The day had passed without us even visiting the interior of Batalha monastery. In addition we were facing at least an hour drive to get to our final stop today, the old university town of Coimbra. There would also be the continued challenge of following the right local and regional roads. Our ambitious plan had been to visit Tomar (another World Heritage Site), possibly passing through the pilgrimage town of Fátima on the way.

Plans are made to be broken, and we had no qualms about letting go of Tomar and Fátima. There would be a possibility of visiting them on our return journey from Porto and the Douro Valley (which we, incidentally, didn’t), as well as the interior of Batalha (which we did). We made Coimbra just in time to find our hotel, the Astoria, and get a sunset view of it and the town from the opposite side of the Rio Mondego.

 

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View of Coimbra and the Astoria Hotel

 

I wrote this in my review of the Astoria Hotel: “An absolutely amazing grand old hotel. Step back to the time of Gatsby and enjoy the surroundings. Perfect location right in the centre of town”. They must have stopped their clocks in 1929 or something and decided to keep everything as it was. It was well functioning and clean though, and the breakfast the next morning was very good.

 

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Restaurant at the Astoria Hotel, Coimbra

 

Dinner was eaten at the Serenata restaurant not far from the hotel – quite good. We were not in the mood for the night life this vibrant town boasts. Instead we were pleasantly reminded of our booking: Late night chocolate fondue and Champagne in our spacious room. It had been a most wonderful day.

Before continuing north to Porto for the last part of our Portuguese road trip, we paid a visit to the University grounds high above the river. The university was in 2013 awarded a place on UNESCO’s World Heritage List for offering “an outstanding example of an integrated university city with a specific urban typology as well as its own ceremonial and cultural traditions that have been kept alive through the ages“. The university dates back to the 13th century but has been here since the early 1500s.

We found the old buildings more interesting than the edifices erected in the 1950’s in a rather heavy fascist style. In addition to tour groups there were actually students attending summer classes, making this more than a museum even in early July.

This video is from Coimbra with the front illustration showing the main building of the Universidade de Coimbra.

 

“University of Coimbra – Alta and Sofia” is no. 1387 on UNESCO’s World Heritage List. In addition this video shows some scenes from the town of Coimbra.

 

Further reading

In her fascinating guide book from 1828, pp558, Mariana Starke describes a 9-day journey on draught-horses or mules, from Lisbon to Porto. Our road-trip as of 2013 used different means of transportation, but read what she had to say about these towns. On the fourth day she stopped in Alcobaca and the continued the next day to Leyria. “Travellers may stop, during this day’s journay, at the Convent of Batalha, which has a fine Gothic Church, with a beautiful tower. The road is good, and the country adorned with plantations of olives, and forests of cork-trees.” On her 7th day: “Coimbra contains 13,000 inhabitants, and a University. Here are a Roman Bridge and Aqueduct, almost entire.”

Miss Starke was probably misinformed on that aqueduct. It was not mentioned in our guidebook but we accidentally drove by the length of it leaving the university area. I later looked up various sources and identified the aqueduct as the Aqueduto de São Sebastião, known as the Arcos do Jardim as it is situated next to the Jardim Bôtanico. According to a Princeton article this aqueduct dates back to the late 16th century but was built on the remains of an ancient Roman aqueduct. There are also other aqueducts near Coimbra called “Roman Aqueduct” on various websites and photos. They are not Roman.

Anyway, let’s get on with our journey. From Coimbra we continued north to Porto.

This series consists of these chapters.

(1) The Plan
(2) Lisbon and Sintra
(3) Évora, Óbidos, Alcobaça, Batalha and Coimbra
(4) Porto and the Douro Valley

Images from this leg of the trip. Click to expand and browse.

 

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