Journey to Portugal 17: Beja: Queen of the Planicie Dourada

Lynne Booker January 2014 

A satisfying  morning´s halt (reports the AA Explorer Guide to Portugal). You can take in most of the sights in ... half a day, according to The Rough Guide to Portugal.  Neither was  Lonely Planet encouraging: At its worst, Baixo Alentejo´s principal town ... is dull and depressing, with drunks often lounging in the main pedestrianised street...  We had already visited Beja previously on two occasions and determined to try out the Pousada de São Francisco again, and we booked for 5 January nights.  The first room we were shown at the Pousada smelled of drains (so why did they allot it to us?), but the second was much better, and overlooked the gardens.  To cheer myself up I got out my copy of José Saramago´s Journey to Portugal and sought inspiration.  Ít is true that there are remains from Roman times, and others .... like the Visigoth ruins, but the layout of the town, the way things have been torn down or built up, the neglect and yet again sheer ignorance, make it seem at first sight no different from others with little or no history. Why does Saramago always see the worst in things? 

We decided in spite of all this evidence to investigate this city in much more detail.  The front cover of the tourist leaflet refers to Beja as princess but by page five the leaflet shows the city as queen of the Planície Dourada (Golden Plain).  Planície Dourada is a tourist region of the Baixo Alentejo consisting of 13 municipalities with Beja as its capital and ranging from Barrancos in the East, Alvito in the North, Ourique in the West  and Almodôvar in the South.  Beja District also includes the municipality of Odemira on the Atlantic coast.

Built on the highest point (277m) of the surrounding plains, prehistoric Beja was probably founded by the Celts, and following the subjugation of the district by the Romans, it became Pax Julia in the time of Julius Caesar.  Pax Julia soon became an important agricultural centre - and still is today, flourishing principally on the trade in wheat and olive oil. During the reign of the Emperor Augustus 27BCE-14CE, the thriving town became Pax Augusta and was a strategic hub for trade.  When the Visigoths overran the remnant of the Roman Empire in Spain, the town´s name changed to Paca and it became the see of  bishop Saint Aprígio (died 530 AD) who was its first Visigothic bishop.   During the Moorish occupation of Spain, Beja became a taifa (an independent muslim-ruled principality after the collapse of the Umayyad Caliphate of Córdoba in 1031.  Changing hands between Christians and Moors on several occasions,  D Sancho II retook it for the kingdom of Portugal for the last time in 1234. 

The city was of such importance in south central Portugal that it became a tradition after 1433 that the second (and later, third) son of the Portuguese monarch would assume the title of Duke of Beja.  The city again became a see in 1770, more than a thousand years after the fall of the Visigothic city.  In 1808 Napoleonic troops under General Junot sacked the city and massacred the inhabitants. 

Torre de MenagemThe first morning of our visit was cold, wet and windy and brought to mind the experience of an ex National Serviceman friend of ours who had experienced summer in Beja and reported that he had paraded in temperatures of 50º C and higher.   We found the conditions unpleasant and it was clearly too cold for any drunks to lounge in the main square.  Our first stop was the castle, built over Roman and Moorish defensive remains, and erected at the same time as the town walls in the 13th century under Dom Dinis. It consists of battlemented walls and four square corner towers with a central keep (torre de menagem) of granite and marble  This magnificent fifteenth century keep is 40m high and is reputed to be the highest in Iberia. Like the Torre de Belém for Lisbon, this Torre de Menagem is the most recognisable building in Beja. It has a horseshoe arch window which is characteristic of Moorish building. On the west side of the keep is a coat of arms from the period of D João I.  The keep has three floors open to the public, and the highest is reached via a 183 step spiral staircase.  The view from the top is well worth the climb.  The topmost floors are unfortunately not open to the public.

From the upper floors of the keep i tis possible to view the façade of Beja Cathedral, in the Largo do Lidador near the castle.  This attractive façade is classically Portuguese 17th century and its altars are from the same period. To the west of the castle is the Arco Romano near the Portas de Évora. The other surviving city gates are the Arco Romano near the Portas de Avis to the east of the castle and are the Portas de Mértola to the south.    Just inside the Portas de Évora gate is the Antigo Hospital da Misericórdia de Beja (Hospital de Nossa Senhora da Piedade).  This building is an important part of Beja´s heritage, and when its restoration is complete, it will be a magnificent addition to Beja´s tourist attractions.  The Hospital was founded in 1490 by D Manuel, Duque de Beja five years before he became king, and was one of the first buildings in Portugal to introduce the Manueline style into Gothic architecture.  Within the Hospital there is a small medical museum, cloisters, ogival arches and a small but magnificently decorated Baroque chapel.  Our enthusiastic guide told us that there were even more and older treasures behind the walls and excavation had just begun on what are thought to be 13th century constructions. 

I was beginning to see that it would take at least 5 days to get to grips with this city. 

Igreja de Santo AmaroJust beyond the castle, the Igreja de Santo Amaro is a Visigothic construction dating from the early 6th century, which makes it one of the oldest buildings in Portugal. The church houses a small museum of archaeological finds from the Visigothic period and its interior columns are carved with 7th century geometric motifs.   We had difficulty in entering this museum (the assistant was ill) and thought that we might miss the opportunity of seeing this little gem. José Saramago writes that he also had trouble finding the person with the key. We did not give up as easily as Saramago. Entering the famous Convento da Conceição/Museu Regional, we discovered that the admission price included the Igreja de Santo Amaro and has the same opening hours.  

When we finally managed to gain admission to the Visigothic museum, we ceased to wonder at the ill-health of the assistant. There she was, swathed in a blanket, huddled over a small heater and in one of the coldest buildings we have ever visited.

 Convento da ConceiçãoThe Convento da Conceição holds a special place in Portuguese literature, for it was once home to Mariana Alcoforado, alleged author of the famous Love Letters of a Portuguese Nun. The letters were apparently written to Count Chamilly, a French cavalry officer who had been her lover.  The letters appeared a French translation in 1699 but the originals have never been found.  Dutch, English, German and Portuguese editions soon appeared and the letters have became interntionally famous as a classic of romantic literature. They were in all probability written by the Comte de Guilleragues as a work of romantic fiction.


Scandal aside, the exterior of the Convento da Conceição, founded in 1459 by the Infante D Fernando, father of D Manuel I, displays a mixture of Gothic and Manueline styles and the inside is more lavish, especially the Rococo chapel resplendent with seventeenth and eighteenth century gilded woodwork.  

Walls of Cloister of Convento da Conceição


The walls of the cloister are tiled with fine azulejos but the most important part of the museum is the Chapter House, whose every surface is either painted in floral motifs or covered in exceptional Hispan0-Moorish style tiles.    The Convento and church buildings also house the Museu da Rainha Dona Leonor which contains Roman and Visigothic stonework; archaeological fragments dating back to the Bronze and Iron ages and a reconstruction of the cell window through which Mariana Alcoforado is reputed to have exchanged sweet nothings with her lover. 

Directly opposite the Convento is the Igreja Santa Maria, a small Gothic church some of whose Moorish foundations are still visible. 

The Praça da República (originally the site of the Roman forum) has a pelourinho and an elegant Manueline arcade.  Dominating the square is the 16th century Igreja de Misericórdia.  Its huge porch served originally as a meat market and the stonework is chiselled to give it a rustic look.  On the day of our visit in January, this front porch area was used for a small artesanato display.  I would have liked to buy something to support the community, but the Fortnum and Mason prices put me off.  For example, a bottle of medronho was priced at €27.  Exiting the Praça at the western end near the medieval wall, we found another treasure of Beja -  the Igreja de Nossa Senhora dos Prazeres/Museu Episcopal.  The church was constructed in 1672 and the Baroque decorations inside particularly of the painted ceilings are remarkable.  The Museum was set up to ensure that the episcopal works of art were kept together. 

As we wandered the graffiti lined streets, we came across the Núcleo Museológico da Rua do Sembrano. After donning plastic bootees, we were permitted walk over the glass floor covering the city´s excavated archaeological past.  Footings dating from pre-historic times to the present day visible through the glass floor demonstrated the importance of Beja from around 3000 BCE.  On that January day, we had the museum to ourselves and on a photograph displayed in the museum, we identified two of our friends from Lagoa.  They had visited the Bronze Age site at Outeiro do Circo to the north west of Beja, and their visit had been captured on a photograph for posterity.  

There are Manueline windows to be spotted in the old part of the city and a recent cultural addition to Beja on Rua do Touro is the museum of the sculptor Jorge Vieira.  He donated the building to the Câmara in 1994 and the museum houses an important collection of sculptures by the eponymous Jorge Vieira.  One of his bigger pieces graces the forecourt of the Pousada.  To the south east of the town, just outside the old centre is the Museu do Seminário de Beja.  This was founded in 2005.  It is open by appointment only and, sadly, we did not have the opportunity to visit.  

The Colégio dos Jesuítas on Rua Marquês de Pombal (now the GNR Headquarters in Beja) is worth a visit. Building was interrupted in 1759 when the Order of Jesuits was expelled from Portugal.  When work recommenced in 1777, the building was dedicated as the Paço Episcopal, which in time became an important intellectual centre in the south of the country. 

Portugal´s most celebrated aviators Gago Coutinho and Sacadura Cabral are honoured by well-kept gardens named after them to the east of the Pousada. Beja has spent €1,000,000 in the renovation of this and other public gardens in the city.  Gago Coutinho´s family originated in São Brás de Alportel, and he and Sacadura Cabral were the first to fly from Europe to South America.  Their main memorial is of course the bronze replica of an aeroplane near the Torre de Belém. These gardens reflect an imaginative approach to garden design:  there are aviaries and caged animals as well as examples of different kinds of rocks and a very well protected cloned Wollemi Pine from Australia.  The tree is one of the oldest and rarest trees in the world (there are only 3 other known examples in Europe). At the entrance to these gardens, is the imposing Estado Novo statue of O Lidador, Gonçalo Mendes da Maia, 1075 - 1170.  This redoubtable Portuguese warrior played a decisive part in the battle for Beja at the age of 91.  There is also a large azulejo panel illustrating his fight to the death with a Moorish adversary.  Alexandre Herculano quotes him thus: Accursed dog, know in Hell that the sword of Gonçalo Mendes is stronger than your armour. 

In view of his lack of appreciation of the city of Beja, we were surprised to find that the municipal library is named after José Saramago and has a bust of the eponymous author. In an effort to escape the difference between his curmugeonly views and the honour in which he is held, we sought one of the best tea houses in Portugal - Casa de Chá Maltesinhas.  The proprietors prepare their own infusions and have more than 45 varieties of tea and infusions on sale, as well as quantities of different pastries and cakes.

The guide at the Núcleo Museulógico had told us that there were more and more foreigners coming to live in the Alentejo and that the Câmara in Beja had expected the level of tourism in the Algarve to spread upwards into the Alentejo, particularly with the development of the civil airport in Beja which uses a part of the airforce base.   We went to look at this white elephant. There were the terminal buildings, car parks, control tower, runway, but no aircraft and no passengers.  The juxtaposition of the modern unused airport with the poor, undeveloped village of São Brissos is astonishing. 

We decided to explore further the countryside around Beja.  One of our stops was at Pisões, the site of a Roman villa, some way off the beaten track.  This important archaeological site is protected by a modern fence and gate.  It was of course not open, and if we had not succeeded in finding a keyholder, our journey would have been wasted.  The Roman villa occupies an area of 30 000 square metres and is in a remarkable state of preservation.  The wealth of the original owner may be deduced from the size of the house and in the great variety of mosaics and marbles, the size of the spa area and a huge reservoir together with a dam.  

Like Saramago, we also visited the village of Baleizão.  Ah Baleizão, Baleizão was his only comment.  It was in Baleizão on Monte do Olival that Catarina Eufémia was murdered in 1954.  She was an organiser of a protest against low wages, and on the demonstration, she was shot dead by an officer of the GNR. She subsequently became a national icon of the resistance against the Estado Novo regime, and her memorials are easily seen in the village. We knew that further up the track there was a Visigothic building and we ventured  on.  Heavy traffic and the installation of a major water main along the track made this a challenging journey.  Our map reading skills were rewarded when we eventually reached Quinta de São Pedro, which turned out to be a private house.  Undeterred we asked if we might look at the Visigothic chapel, now part of the farmhouse of Gomez Cabrera Lda, olive oil manufacturers.  We were grateful to the custodian of the farmhouse, who allowed us to view this beautifully restored and well kept chapel.  

Returning to Beja, we investigated the Pousada Convento São Francisco further.  The Convento was built in in the 13th century and is a mixture of Gothic and later Manueline styles.  The first written record of the convent dates back to 10 November 1268.  The old chapel is now hugely empty, and hosts art exhibitions and it would be a magnificent concert hall, and the cloisters are now enclosed and warm.   The dining room of the Pousada is appropriately in the old refectory of the Convent.  We have made it our custom never to dine in the Pousadas, but their breakfasts are superb.  We have often reflected that one way of ensuring continued public access to historic buildings is to find a modern use for them, and the Pousadas of Portugal perform this function admirably. 

This town has character and it possesses buildings which are worth the effort of visiting.   Our visit to Beja was well worth the five days which we spent there, and we have to disagree with the damning and unhelpful guidebook reports.  In particular, we must dissociate ourselves from the faultfinding and censure of the Nobel laureate José Saramago.