Southbound From Sintra
Is it morbid that I wanted to see a church constructed of human bones? I had never heard such a thing existed, and ever since I had, I was trying to work one into a trip itinerary.
My friend Angie and I were traveling the 4 hours from Sintra, Portugal down to Lagos. When I found out there was a bone church built in the 1600’s by Franciscan monks about halfway there, it immediately got added to the list of things we had to see.
Olive Trees and Rolling Hills
It was cool and cloudy in Sintra, as we drove southward, the sun began to shine and the highway rose and fell with the rolling hills. Rows of olive trees lined the hills and puffy white clouds floated in blue skies. It could not have been more pleasant.
“This isn’t another one of those places that you heard might be haunted and you don’t tell me till after we’ve gone because you knew I wouldn’t go if I knew it was…is it?” Angie turned and gave me the face as she drove.
“I don’t think so, but I’m not 100%…no guarantees.” I shrugged…returning the face.
The Streets of Evora
We pulled off the highway and as we entered the center of town, we began to feel like we were driving through a time machine going further and further back.
The streets transitioned from asphalt to cobblestone and the building lined roads began to narrow. The architecture was no longer modern.
Stop Number One –Igreja da Graca
Our first stop was Igreja da Graca, a UNESCO world heritage site. When we stepped inside the early 1500’s church, it was a little breathtaking, the enormity of the brick arches. The ceiling was supported by lines of careful placed brick.
Smaller arches lined the walls with small inlets. Inside each inlet was a highly decorated scene of saints and angels, colors and gold. We stood silently taking it all in.
The Second Igreja- Seo Fransisco
Further up the cobbled street, we came to the Igreja de Seo Fransisco. The main church area was huge and ornately decorated with stone, traditional azulejo tiles and carved wood. It was hard to figure out where to look first. The carvings, the colors, the high arched ceilings were like something I had never seen.
The church contained several smaller chapels, each one unique and filled with colors and intricate gold and wood carvings. Every time I thought I had seen everything, more details became evident.
Entering the Bone Chapel
We moved in reverence through the hushed space and came upon the Chapel of Bones or Capela dos Ossos . I suddenly felt a little apprehensive about entering the monk built chapel. I could see the bone lined walls inside. I cringed a bit seeing two full skeletons hanging near the front. I tried not to look.
Over the door was a carved script in Portuguese translating as, ‘Our bones here, for yours await.’
“Well that’s a little unsettling.” I thought, peering inside.
Angie lurked at the entrance, seemingly experiencing the same appreciation.
Curiosity won out and I stepped inside the small chapel.
It Feels Weird in Here
There were columns entirely covered in rows of skulls. Other wall sections contained long bones placed in a decorative pattern. Over the gold pulpit was a Renaissance style wall painting. On another wall was a center skull framed with long bones, facing outward like crowded bone sunbeams. The whole area was surrounded by an outline of skulls.
It almost felt like there was less air in this room or I may have been holding my breath for periods of time. It was kind of overwhelming and a little unnerving, seeing the hundreds of dismantled skeletons lining the walls.
There were several areas designated for femurs and other long bones and other areas covered in knuckles and joints. The bones are thought to have come from over 5000 soldiers who died in battle or plague victims.
The ceilings were covered in the angelic paintings and the traditional Portuguese blue tile lined the lower walls.
The powerful feeling of the room was getting to me and I moved towards the exit, just trying to remember to breathe. I glanced over to see Angie, eyes closed and following me close, breathing in a similar fashion.
We exited the chapel, looked at each other and silently moved outside.
A Breath of Fresh Air
Once in the bright sunlight, the heavy feeling in my body began to lift.
“Well that was intense,” Angie sighed. “But I’m glad we saw it.”
“I know right, it kind of felt like someone sucked all the air out of the room.” I took in a big breath of outside.
We grabbed a water and walked further up the stone street past outdoor cafes and little gift shops.
Cork Hat Anyone?
Portugal produces and supplies about half of the world’s cork, due to abundant cork oak grown in the area. The shops of Evora everything cork.
On display were purses, shoes, hats, postcards and a cork bicycle. I suddenly had a need to own more cork.
Roman Ruins – Right Here in Portugal
Further up the street, the columns of the Templo Romano Evora A.k.a. Diana Roman Temple (named for the ancient Roman goddess of the moon, the hunt, and chastity) became visible through the buildings.
The UNESCO world heritage site before us was originally constructed in the 1st century. It is located at the top of the hill in the Largo Conde de Vila Flor square. The 12 original pillars still stand among the ruins.
We stood staring at the ancient columns. I tried to imagine Evora as it was then, amazed to be witnessing a structure so old. The structure was gated off to preserve the remains. The stone steps were crumbled and puffy white clouds floated behind the tall pillars.
Oldest Church in Evora
Just off the square was the next stop on our list, The Cathedral of Evora is one of the oldest buildings in the area (1204) and is also a UNESCO world heritage site.
We paid the small fee and went into the Roman Catholic church through a huge arched hallway. We were routed around through long halls and towards a stairwell.
A Bonus Rooftop View
There were narrow, winding, one person wide steps leading onto the roof.
“Woah…you can see the whole city.” I spun around, snapping photos from every angle.
“This is amazing.” Angie peered around the turret.
We were face to face with the stone towers. It felt like being on top of a castle. After stopping to take in the view, we headed back down the twisty stairs.
Long Arched Halls and a Bishop
We continued around the large square. I peeked through arched open viewpoints of a middle courtyard and the ancient tower beyond.
An ornately carved bishop’s tomb was placed at the end of one of the great stone halls.
Inside the Cathedral of Evora
Near the area where we came in was the grand entrance to the main church. The ceiling was massive with columns leading down to the floor. A crystal chandelier hung down on a rope of large gold beads, like a pendant on a necklace. An intricately carved gold area of prayer featured Angels and leaf patterns.
A huge wood and metal pipe organ hung from the wall. Near the front of the church, a smaller chapel area sat off to either side.
One side was royal red floors and carved gold walls with an ornate alter and places to kneel.
The other side was smaller and held Renaissance style paintings.
The front altar of the church almost felt like a dome. Near the massive ceiling was a crucifix surrounded by angels. A royal red chair sat perched at the end of red carpets steps like a throne. It was impossible to take in all the details.
Happy We Stopped
Back outside, we wound our way through the cobbled streets in and out of shops and back to the car.
We headed down to coastal Lagos, happy we had taken the time to explore this ancient city.
What was your favorite halfway pit-stop on a road trip?…Leave a comment below…