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Paths and Places of Faith in the Alentejo

The beauty of the Alentejo has inspired many people over the millennia, and places of faith are a part of the landscape, the culture.

The Alentejo has many prehistoric sites that were tied to the stars and religious beliefs, such as the massive Anta do Zambujeiro (Zambujeiro Dolmen) — often called a "Neolithic Cathedral,” having been built between 4,000 and 3,000 BCE. It is made up of a single-chamber, articulated horizontal body with a rectangular corridor. 

This castle town São Pedro de Terena dates back to 1262 - but its religious value goes back to ancient times, as witnessed by the Santuário de Nossa Senhora da Boa Nova church. Yet, the much older fortified religious Sanctuary of Endovélico, also known as São Miguel da Mota, is a nearby archeological site to the pre-Roman deity Endovélico. It was probably built in the 1st century ACE, during the Roman period to replace an older sanctuary. In fact, human occupation of the site dates back to long before the Roman conquest.

The Capela da Boa Nova, also known as Santuário de Nossa Senhora da Boa Nova, is a very old Marian sanctuary that may have followed in the Christianization of pagan cults of the god Endovelico. Historical references to this sanctuary date back to the 13th century.

The former mosque of Mértola was built in the second half of the 12th century, with several elements being reused from previous Roman buildings. The mosque of Mértola is the last of its kind in Portugal, and like other Islamic temples on the peninsula, was transformed into a church after the Reconquest, but the remodeling works did not take place until 1532 — leaving much of the original building intact.

Legend has it that before the Battle of Ourique in 1139, Portugal’s founder D. Afonso Henriques dreamt of his victory. An old man told him to leave the armed camp alone at night. He saw a bright light in the wilderness, and then heard the voice of God, who told him not to be afraid — that not only would he win a great victory battle, but that he would found a great nation. The following day, D. Afonso Henriques led his men to victory over 5 Moorish princes, and was declared king by his soldiers. D. Afonso Henriques promised that his flag would have five shields in a cross, to thank God for the victory.

The battle is believed not to have happened in Ourique, but nearby at Castro Verde. Today, the Royal Basilica honors in both art and tile the Battle of Ourique. The massive scale of the 18th century church, designed by João Antunes, is notable. And the miracle and battle can be followed from tile to tile in the big panels.

The church of Nossa Senhora de Brotas finds its origins in a miracle in the town of Brotas in the first half of the 15th century. A shepherd, they say, saw this cow fall down a ravine. Desperate he prayed for help, and saw the image of Our Lady of Brotas - who offered to resurrect the dead cow for the poor man. A unique shrine was built at the end of the 15th century, which soon became a pilgrimage site. The church interior has rare 16th and 18th century azulejo panels. The first church built by the Portuguese in India was also dedicated to Nossa Senhora de Brotas.

The Sanctuary of Nossa Senhora da Conceição at Vila Viçosa played a vital role in the independence of Portugal. Set within the medieval walls of the town, the palace of the Bragança family was not far away. The original church was founded by the D. Nuno Álvares Pereira, after the crucial Portuguese victory at the Battle of Aljubarrota (1385) against the Castilians. The statue of Our Lady was offered by D. Nuno Álvares Pereira, who brought it from England.

More than 200 years later in 1646, D. João IV, the eighth Duke of Bragança, came to the church of Our Lady of the Conception on the eve of another battle for independence. He asked Our Lady of the Conception for help, and declared she would be the patron saint of Portugal. This was in thanks to the saint, who the king had prayed to in 1640 on the eve of the Portuguese War for Independence - saying that if he led his nation to victory, he would give the image his crown and make her Portugal’s patron saint. Every king of Portugal that followed paid her this honor and in 1982 Pope John Paul II visited the shrine during his first visit to Portugal.

Back to D. Nuno Álvares Pereira, also known as the Sainted Constable. He was a 14th-century Portuguese knight who played a vital role in the crisis of 1383-1385, where Portugal defended its independence from Castile. Considered one of Portugal’s greatest military minds, he led substantially smaller armies into victory in every battle he fought. D. Nuno Álvares Pereira was in charge of the defense of the frontier of the Alentejo, with his headquarters at Estremoz. He led his forces to a huge victory over a much larger Spanish force at the Battle of Atoleiros in 1384. Before the battle, he prayed at the tiny chapels of Glória Estremoz.  Saint Nuno Álvares Pereira was canonized in 2009. He is the patron of the Portuguese Infantry.

The name Santiago, or St. James, is common across the Alentejo. This is thanks to the Order of Santiago that was a big part of the reconquest of a large part of the lands south of the Tejo River, and left behind forts and castles. St. James, or Santiago, was one of the Twelve Apostles of Christ

Today, the Caminhos de Santiago crosses the unique landscapes on their way north to the great shrine of Santiago in Compostela. The trail is rich in traditions, and towns. Caminhos de Santiago that crosses Portugal from south to north has been followed by pilgrims for centuries. Taking them is a journey of discovery for people of all backgrounds, and a vast network is in place to support hikers.

The destination is the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela in Spain, said to be the tomb of the Apostle James. The cult of Santiago grew during the Middle Ages with pilgrimages from every corner of Europe.

Journeying on the Caminhos is to explore lands, towns as well as cuisine, peoples and customs. 

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