This pretty, historic Portuguese city is particularly festive in the run-up to Christmas, with roasted chestnuts, special cakes and Nativity scenes dotted around the streets, says Mary Lussiana
Why go now?
Évora, in the Alentejo region of Portugal, comes into its own at this time of year, basking under ravishingly blue skies and brilliant sunshine. Within its old medieval walls, crisp cool air, enticing colours and flavours fill the historic centre, which is listed as a Unesco world heritage site.
Chestnuts are roasted in the cobbled squares, while the leafy trees have turned a warm orange and excellent, unpretentious restaurants offer hearty dishes of local game, such as hare or wild boar, paired with rich regional red wines.
In the run-up to Christmas, Évora is particularly festive, with bakeries displaying their bejewelled bolo de rei cakes, and brightly painted, life-sized Alentejano presépio (Alentejo Nativity scenes) dotted around the city.
Easyjet (easyjet.com), Ryanair (ryanair.com), TAP Portugal (0845 601 0932;flytap.com) and British Airways (0844 493 0787; ba.com) fly to Lisbon. From there, Évora is an easy 90-minute drive along the A2/A6 motorways. Car hire is available (0800 368 3001; rentalcars.com). The tour operator Sunvil Discovery (020 8568 4499; sunvil.co.uk) also arranges trips to the area.
Where to stay
The gloriously restored 15th-century Convento do Espinheiro (00351 266 788 200;luxurycollection.com/evora) rises in white‑washed splendour on a hill just north of the main city walls (not on map). It has 92 luxurious rooms, a beautiful chapel and a restaurant in the old stone, vaulted wine cellar. Doubles from £125.
For location, you can’t beat the Pousada de Loios (1) (00351 266 730 070;pousadas.pt), which faces Évora’s magnificent Roman Temple. Another monastery dating from the 15th century, it has 36 monk’s cells converted into small but comfortable rooms, retaining a sense of place and history. Doubles from £101.
On a budget
M’Ar de Ar Muralhas (2) (00351 266 739 302; mardearhotels.com) has its pretty garden and pool framed by the old city walls. Its spacious, pleasant rooms are excellent value for money. Doubles from £64.
Go straight to the jewel in Évora’s crown, the granite and marble Roman Temple (3), in Largo Conde Vila Flor, which dates from the first century and is one of the best-preserved Roman Temples on the Iberian peninsula. Just off this square, newly opened Cartuxa (Rua Vasco Gama 15) is an outlet of the local winery, and the perfect introduction to the region’s gastronomy. Don’t miss the pork fillet with farinheira filling (€14/£12), which is heavy but heavenly.
Start in the main square, Praça de Giraldo (4), the centre of the Unesco world heritage site. Cafés and bakeries (Pastelaria) spill on to the square from the surrounding white-washed arcades and you can enjoy an excellent Portuguese coffee and a breakfast of queijadas, bite-sized cheesecakes (€2/ £1.50), before looking at the 16th-century Church of Saint Antão and the square’s central water fountain, also from the 16th century .
Coffee is seriously good in Portugal at any corner café, a hangover from the days when Brazil was one of its colonies. A bica is the equivalent to an espresso and a galão similar to a latte.
Leave the square at Rua da Republica and walk down to Largo de S. Francisco and the 15th-century San Francisco Church (5) (closed lunchtimes). Its huge structure incorporates Mudéjar elements and a Chapel of Bones (entry €2/ £1.50), where 5,000 skulls line the walls where monks contemplated the ephemeral nature of life, emphasised by the inscription over the door: “Us bones that are here, for yours we wait.”
Pause to regain your appetite, then head over to Divinus (divinus.pt). This excellent regional gourmet shop stocks black presunto, cured sheep’s cheese, honey topped with pine nuts and a good selection of wines. But for an interactive overview on wine, go to the Alentejo Wine Route office (6) (Praça Joaquim António de Aguar, 20-21; vinhosdoalentejo.pt; closed Sun), a 10-minute walk across town, which gives an excellent insight into the wines, as well as tastings.
Just round the corner, at 45a Rua Cândido dos Reis, is the cosy Tasquina do Oliveira (00351 266 744 841), where Évora’s traditional scrambled eggs with asparagus (€12) is worth the stop. Wash it down with a glass of Herdade Dacalada white wine and finish with the region’s own liqueur, poejo (pennyroyal).
Walk through the old Moorish quarter, along Rua da Mouraria and on to the University of the Holy Spirit (7). Founded by the Jesuits in 1559, its classrooms boast magnificent 18th-century tiles depicting the subject taught in each room.
Wander down the artisanal shopping street, Rua 5 de Outubro (8). Note the pretty painted wooden furniture adorned with flowers, typical of the region, and the elegant, colourful cribs at O Cesto (No 77). Find your Christmas presents at Gente da Minha Terra (No 39), which has original, local handicrafts with a modern twist, such as sardine-shaped ceramic incense burners.
Dine at the tiny Botequim de Mouraria (9) (Rua da Moraria 16a; no reservations; opens for lunch at 1pm and dinner at 7pm; closed Sat eve and Sunday), where the 10 seats go to the first through the door, who will be rewarded with tasty rustic fare (about €25/£20 per person).
Alternatively, book at Fialho (10) (Travessa dos Mascarenhas 16; 00351 266 703 079; restaurantefialho.com; closed Tuesdays), which has long been an institution here. Try their traditional pork with clams (€30/£25).
Walk home, admiring the floodlit, 16th-century Aqueduct of Silver Water, which runs along nearby Rua do Cano (11) and was mentioned in Os Lusiadas, the 16th-century Portuguese epic poem by Luís Vaz de Camões.
Breakfast on local hams and cheeses in the old cloisters of the Lóios Monastery, now the Pousada (see Where to Stay, above), then head to Évora’s 13th-century cathedral (12) (€2.50/£2.00; closed at lunchtime). The organ, added in the 16th century, is the oldest in Portugal. Find the 15th-century stone Virgin Mary, unusually both painted and pregnant, commonly known as Our Lady of the O, due to the round form of her belly.
Located in the old Episcopal palace, the Évora Museum (see 3, at Largo Conde de Vila Flor (00351 266 702 604; museudevora.pt; open Wed-Sun 10am-6pm; entry: €3/£2.50), covers the rich history of this city from Roman times to the Portuguese early modern period. One of its highlights is a 15th-century Flemish polyptych of the Virgin Mary’s life.
If you drive from Lisbon, you will pass Montemor-o-Novo, where L’And Vineyards (l-and.com) has just won the region’s first Michelin star.
Regular trains (journey time: 80 minutes; €12/ £10) run from Lisboa Entrecampos station.