LifestyleUnveiling Beja: The undiscovered gem of Portugal from historical tales to musical heritage

Unveiling Beja: The undiscovered gem of Portugal from historical tales to musical heritage

Beja perfectly reflects the peace of Portuguese Alentejo.
Beja perfectly reflects the peace of Portuguese Alentejo.
Images source: © Adobe Stock | Studio f:22-Ricardo Rocha
11:44 AM EST, January 24, 2024

Coming into Alentejo, I wasn't quite sure what to expect. I knew from my research that it accounts for about a third of the size of mainland Portugal, yet only houses about seven percent of the country's population. Pictures I found showed expanses of flat plains dotted with olive groves and vineyards. Upon arrival, the calming aura of the region became immediate; a sentiment that was confirmed by a local guide.

Timelessness of Alentejo

- The fields of Alentejo stretch out to the horizon, fostering a life of harmony with nature. The citizens, known as Alentejanos, seem to live as though time has paused. There's no rush here, as the rhythm of the region is determined by the slow and powerful songs of cante alentejano (Editor's note: a Portuguese musical genre). This provides an enchanting escape from our ordinarily hectic, work-fueled schedules - says Małgorzata Kawiak, a licensed guide for Portugal, certified by the official Association of Portuguese Guides SNATTI, during an interview with WP Turystyka.

- Other Portuguese often jest that a typical Alentejano is a slow-paced farmer who, after a long day in the fields, rests in the shade of a cork oak. There are many Alentejano-themed jokes that play into this perceived nature of time, for instance: "What does an Alentejano call a snail in another language? - A restless creature" or "What does an Alentejano do at the end of a work day? - Takes his hands out of his pockets" - she adds.

Interestingly enough, the climate in this region is so favourable that even storks prefer to remain there during winter. Although Alentejo does nurture relaxation, it also offers numerous attractions. We take national road number 2 to one of the largest cities in the region - Beja, within which many secrets lie concealed.

Historical significance of Beja

Beja is about a two-hour drive from both Lisbon and Faro. Along with Évora, they're the biggest and most significant cities in Alentejo. According to local folklore, in ancient times, a fearsome snake terrorized the area by consuming its inhabitants one by one. To overcome this threat, the people poisoned a bull and fed it to the snake. After eating the poisoned piece, the snake met its demise. In homage to this triumph, the city's coat of arms prominently displays a bull's head.

Beja was even more significant in the past than it's today; its advantageous location near various mineral deposits contributed to its importance. However, its golden age was ushered by the Romans' presence on the peninsula.

- Until Christianity reconquered this region in the 12th century, Beja was the most crucial city in the southern territory that would later become Portugal. At the time, it held the status of a Roman colony, meaning its citizens had the same rights as those of Rome. During the Roman period, Évora was a small city that depended on present-day Mérida (now in Spain) and Beja - explains André Tomé, an archaeologist and a senior technician in the municipality of Beja who specialises in heritage and tourism, in an interview with WP Turystyka.

A torrid affair between a Portuguese nun and a French marquis

A notorious account of a nun's passionate affair with a marquis has further bolstered Beja's fame. The tale begins with Mariana Alcoforado, who, at just eleven years old, was placed into the Nossa Senhora da Conceição (Our Lady of the Immaculate Conception) convent at her parents' order in an attempt to protect her from an ongoing war (the battle for the restoration of the monarchy between 1640-1668).

- Her devotion towards God was tested when she set her eyes on Noël Bouton, Marquis de Chamilly, a French officer who was aiding Portugal in the war, from her convent window. This love was so passionate it caused a scandal leading to the Marquis' departure from the land. This caused Mariana to wait and pine for her lover, during which she penned him letters filled with yearning - explains Małgorzata Kawiak.

A cozy alley in the city of Beja
A cozy alley in the city of Beja© WP | Karolina Laskowska

Published in 1669, Mariana's "Portuguese Letters" were accepted as a literary classic. These letters shed light on the passionate and illicit affair, stunning the permissive French society of the time. However, there were speculations suggesting that the letters may have been edited prior to their publication. The authenticity and authorship of these missives still pique the curiosity of historians today.

Eventually, the lovelorn Mariana became the superior of the convent, where she died at the age of 83 in 1723. André Tomé adds, - In Beja's Regional Museum, situated in the old convent building, the bedroom window where Mariana allegedly awaited news of her lover can still be found.

Key tourist spots in Beja

Upon discovering the infamous window, we proceed to the medieval castle, the city's main monument. Inspecting the castle bricks, we notice unique marks on them. It's said that the laborers who worked by the piece left their distinct mark on each brick. The castle's towering 40-meter structure, accessible by steep stairs, offers a breathtaking panorama of Alentejo.

- This region was traditionally covered in fields of wheat and barley, resulting in the idyllic image of golden Alentejo, which was especially captivating in late spring and summer after harvest. It was mostly yellow, like glistening gold. Alentejo's beauty is due to its variety of landscape colors. Green dominates during winter. In spring, flowers of various hues transform the region into a festival of colors. Although things are gradually changing, for instance, we have more olive trees now, the beauty remains - our local guide shares while admiring the view from the castle.

From the castle, we stroll to the market, where life for the locals goes on at a steady pace. Elder gentlemen sit on park benches, chat and sometimes indulge in a game of chess. The Portuguese locals also enjoy gathering in cafes, where they sip coffee leisurely while savouring pastéis de nata, small custard tarts made of puff pastry.

The castle tower is impressive
The castle tower is impressive© WP | Karolina Laskowska

Our journey takes us past several churches and museums, which house relics and art exhibits, before we stop to buy local souvenirs. Painted porcelain swallows are quite popular. Locals usually hang them in front of their house entrances as it is believed to bring good luck. I settled for a teal version of the swallow. Although I don't have a specific place to hang it, it will sit on my desk, symbolically whisking me to the carefree moments spent in Beja. Surprisingly, no one wanted to buy the handmade figurine of a nun. It seems Mariana's lonely once again...

An unforgettable serenade

Our last stop in Beja was the former São Francisco monastery (now a Pousada). On our exit, we saw a choir of men in festive attire, performing the renowned cante alentejano.

- This is the unique song of this region: a monotonous chant, echoed alternately by a soloist and a responding choir. It's as slow as the pace of the region, as repeated as the annual crop cycles. It was likely conceived by the villagers to make laborious fieldwork more bearable - explains our guide.

Interestingly, the cante alentejano repertoires are passed down through the generations orally; no written texts or sheet music. In 2014, it was recognized by UNESCO as part of the Intangible World Heritage. The best-known song is "Grândola, vila morena," which was chosen by military officers as one of the signals to start the carnation revolution in 1974.

  • "Mariana's Nun Figurine"
  • The swallow is a popular souvenir, which is supposed to bring luck.
[1/2] "Mariana's Nun Figurine"Images source: © WP | Karolina Laskowska

- The songs touch upon various traditional topics like rural life, nature, love, motherhood, and religion, as well as elements of cultural and social change. Cante alentejano is a key facet of social life across all communities in the region, often performed during social gatherings in both public and private spaces - summarizes our guide from Portugal.

I leave with the echo of the choir's powerful voices still resonating in my ears and memories.

Related reading: An extraordinary place in Alentejo. A must-visit destination.

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