We were seated comfortably on a bus; having had spent the morning in Lisbon, we were packed and ready for a short stint in Evora.
Evora is a fortunate place. It is blessed with a small multitude of attractions, but not so much as to inundate it constantly with tourists. When we arrived on a chilly winter’s day, we were two of the very few camera-toting folk around.
Ironically, the city is most famous for something that lies outside its perimeter – something 15km away, to be precise. Knowing this, we walked confidently into Evora’s tourism office and enquired about tours to Cromeleque dos Almendres.
A laugh (not from us, I can assure you) and a short conversation later, I can now amend the opening sentence of this piece.
Getting to the stone circle is easy, if:
A) It is summer (numerous tours/day trips run during this time)
B) You have your own car
Since we were vehicle-less in the middle of winter, our options were limited.
Almost resigned to the fact that we would not see this famous site at all, the receptionist at our hotel came up with a solution: a taxi.
Ludicrous, you say? Perhaps, but our receptionist had a friend in the business, and negotiated a fair price for us. A few phone calls, and our taxi arrived.
Driving out of Evora, we passed field after field of agricultural land. As we turned off the highway and onto dirt track, the landscape became populated with olive trees, thickly knotted with obscure numbers painted onto their trunks.
The circle really is out in the middle of nowhere.
This may be why the Cromeleque dos Almendres was only discovered in the 1960s. It is, of course, much older than that. Predating the most famous circle of its kind, Stonehenge, by a whole 2000 years, Portugal’s cromlech is also the largest of its kind on the Iberian Peninsula.
We arrived at a dusty parking area, from which the cromlech is located a few hundred metres down a wide path. At first glance, it’s difficult to see just how big this circle is. The reason for this stems from the fact that the circle is positioned on a slope, and visitors approach the circle from the crest.
A slightly different angle was obtained, and we saw the Cromeleque dos Almendres in its full glory.
Dating back to the 6th millennium BC, the cromlech consists of some 95 granite monoliths, or standing stones, and these are set out in two irregular ellipses.
The actual sizes of the stones differ too, with some forming only ledges close to the ground, while others towered over me.
|With me, for size comparison.|
In an age of scientific discovery and so many definites, I am oddly comforted when I get to visit places like this. Although there have been plenty of theories, we only have the vaguest ideas of the purpose of these standing stones. And we know even less about the people that placed them here.
What we do know is this: The people living in the Evora region in Neolithic times were, for all intents and purposes, farmers. This was the age in which agriculture really began, and it follows that these people would hold reverence for the land, and for the seasons that affected it.
Due to the cromlech’s positioning, where it mirrors astronomical events in the sky above, such as the spring equinox, it is thought that the site may have been used for religious purposes. Praying for a good harvest or some rain? This may have been the place to do so.
But none of this is a sure thing, and, in the competition between what we know and what we don’t, the scales completely tilt down towards the latter.
As I wandered between the stones, some of which bear ancient carvings, I tried to guess at what life would’ve been like at 5000 BC. I couldn’t. Some ghosts are more difficult to chase than others, and I only had terrible films on the subject to use as a reference.
One of the best aspects about the stones of Almendres is that these are completely accessible. You can walk among the stones, touch them and take as many photographs as you can manage. There’s no entry fee and there are no manicured lawns; this stone circle is very much a part of the local landscape – as opposed to being a cordoned-off no-zone for all.
A few kilometres down the track from the circle stands another stone. Reaching over 4.5 metres in height, it was initially thought that the two sites weren’t connected. Some map plotting later, and it was discovered that, should a line be drawn between the cromlech and this single stone, this would clearly point towards the sunrise during the winter solstice.
Our time at an end, we headed back into town after our morning visit. With a small new collection of travel memories, we felt none the wiser about these ancient stone formations.
In a way, I hope that we never will. The Cromeleque dos Almendres is one of the earth’s increasingly few pockets of mystery, and this is precisely what will keep pulling people back for more.
If you’re in Evora, do take the trip out to the stones. As we proved that day, the stones are easy to get to, but you might need to put your creativity to good use.