In the Alentejo, you travel naturally with and to History. The abundance and the quality of the Heritage which it expresses become easy for you to discover but, if you are visiting the Region for the first time, you could be spoiled for choice. If this is the case, don’t hesitate: opt for our suggestions and you will discover that the magic of the Alentejo is to be found, with endless pleasure, everywhere.
Between the 15th and the 18th centuries, Portugal enjoyed a period of great prosperity. Though the human costs of the epic that was the Discoveries had been many, it is a fact that they brought with them riches without precedent, the fruit of an active commerce in spices, gold and precious stones, whose principal source was India and Brazil. The Alentejo, which during this period was several times the residence of kings, participated in and benefited from this movement. Nobles’ houses, palaces, churches, convents and monasteries arose, works of consequence were constructed, such as the Água da Prata ("silver water”) aqueduct, in Évora, and the Aqueduto da Amoreira ("mulberry tree”), in Elvas. Beautiful fountains and pillories were built and those in existence were created anew and embellished. Portuguese and foreign artists were summoned, stone and wood were worked with great skill, painting, sculpture and the decorative arts flourished. In a word, everything was done so that the future would be marked by the greatest works, erected to the glory of man and of God.The styles succeed each other – Gothic, Renaissance, Mannerist, Baroque, Neoclassical – as in other European countries.
But in Portugal there occurred an original style that is called Manueline. Although the name comes directly from King Manuel (1495-1521), a fortunate monarch in whose reign India was reached and Brazil was discovered, this style preceded him and continued after his death. It has its roots in the late Gothic and, in the Alentejo, has also tasted something of the Mudejar style, giving rise to the curious examples called Manueline-Mudejar. In its final phase, it existed alongside Renaissance and Mannerist styles.
Since the essence of all this heritage was constructed in the cities and towns that will make up part of any travel in the Region, the most practical way of appreciating it is to follow the urban tourism itineraries that are available from the Tourist Offices. They have enough detail. They combine religious and military heritage with civil architecture, erudite or formal and vernacular, a perspective that provides for stimulating excursions on foot along the oldest and most agreeable streets in the Historical Centres.(<> The Alentejo is Rural Quality)
Those with little time could choose to make a small excursion into history through a single monument: many of them include elements from all these periods and have their origin during the Middle Ages. This is the case with, among others, Évora Cathedral (13th to 18th century), Igreja de S. Francisco in Estremoz (13th to 18th century), Igreja de Santa Maria in Beja (15th to 18th century), or Igreja de Santa Maria do Castelo in Alcácer do Sal (13th to 18th century). Museum-lovers should not miss the Museu Municipal de Portalegre, the Museu Municipal do Crato, the Museu Regional de Évora, the Núcleos Museológicos do Paço Ducal (ducal palace) de Vila Viçosa and the Museu Regional de Beja.
Thinking in terms of the absolutely essential and running the risk of being greatly unjust, given the sheer abundance of what is there, we would suggest you visit the finest examples of the Manueline, the Gothic and the Baroque.
Few kilometres away, in Viana do Alentejo, it is well worthwhile completing this excursion with a visit to the Castle and the Igreja Matriz If the Manueline attracts you, as well as the emblematic works that are found in the historical centres of the main cities and towns of the Region, make sure you visit the former Sé (Cathedral) de Elvas and, in the Paço Ducal de Vila Viçosa, the rooms of the armoury.
But there are many other places where you can discover the various expressions of this period, from its civil and religious architecture to its sculpture and painting.
In the field of architecture, we would highlight the Igreja da Misericórdia in Beja. It has a curious history. It was designed by the architect Diogo de Torralva as a kind of civil loggia to serve as a slaughterhouse but, because of the beauty of the building, it was given over to the Santa Casa (a charity) early in the 16th century and in the second half of the century was converted into a church. You can contemplate the open part of this building at any time of the day or night, in Praça da República.
Also from this period, which was greatly marked by the construction of igrejas-salão ("nave” or "hall” churches, with the aisles and chancel the same height as the nave), some already Mannerist in style, it is worth taking a look at the Igreja do Bom Jesus, in Valverde (near Évora), and the chapel of Onze Mil Virgens (eleven thousand virgins) in the Igreja de Santo António in Alcácer do Sal. They do not have opening hours for the public to visit them but, in the Alentejo, a strong desire to visit an interior usually performs a thousand miracles.
If you are interested in painting and sculpture, you must allow yourself to appreciate two unavoidable examples in Portalegre: the finest collection of Mannerist painting in the Region, to be found in the Sé (cathedral); and in the Mosteiro (monastery) de S. Bernardo, the group of sculptures on the tomb of the founding bishop, D. Jorge de Melo, attributed to Nicolau de Chanterenne. Two other singular groups by the same artist are striking, clearly seen on the façades of the Igreja da Graça, in Évora, and in the Igreja Matriz, in Arronches.
We suggest you begin your discovery of this period in Portalegre, recognised as the Baroque capital of North Alentejo. More than simply looking at interiors, try to sense the ambience through the Roteiro das Casas Brasonadas (itinerary for visiting houses with coats of arms), available from the Tourist Office. Together with either the Roteiro da Cidade (itinerary for visiting the city) or the Roteiro das Fontes (itinerary for visiting the fountains), it is a very interesting way of getting to know Portuguese heritage (www.cm-portalegre.pt). If you would like to see an interior, choose the Palácio Achioli, where today the Escola Superior de Education is situated: climb the granite staircase, accompanied by beautiful panels of 18th century tiles, and ask to see the Salão Nobre.
Continuing your visit to this Region, you can enjoy various palaces, houses of the nobility, churches and fountains, which are mentioned in the itinerary-guides for some of the towns which you will certainly want to visit for other reasons, too: Crato, Alter do Chão, Monforte, Fronteira or Avis. In Alter do Chão, don’t miss the Palácio do Álamo, where the Tourist Office and some of the services of the Câmara Municipal (municipal authority) are located.
When you arrive in Central Alentejo, you are truly spoiled for choice. If you have only a little time, you should see: in Estremoz, the former Armaria (armoury) de D. João V, the present Pousada da Rainha Santa Isabel; in Borba, the Passos Processionais (wayside altars representing stations of the cross, used for processions), sculpted in marble; and in Redondo, the extraordinary array of panels of tiles in the Convento de S. Paulo. In Évora, you must visit: the Capela-Mor (Chancel) of the Cathedral, designed by Ludovice, the architect of the celebrated Convent of Mafra; the Capela do Calvário of the church of S. Francisco, perhaps the most astonishing work of carving in the Alentejo; and the churches of S. João Evangelista (also known as the Lóios church), Misericórdia (a charity church) and Mercês, the last converted into the museum-nucleus for sacred art of the Regional Museum.
To end this little itinerary in a burst of beauty, travel a few tens of kilometres further to be presented, in Beja, with the surprising pearl of the Baroque, the Igreja dos Prazeres. Definitely not to be missed.