Twenty-seven years ago Tawny visited the city of Evora to see the Capela dos Ossos – or Chapel of Bones. It was built in the early 1600’s as “an invititation to reflect on the transitory nature of the human condition” underscored by the inscription above the door which (in Portugese) reads “We bones that are here, we are waiting for your’s.”
We left Tavira for a long and scenic drive north through Mertola, Beja, and eventually to Evora, arriving around 1pm. We parked outside the ancient walled town and walked inside, navigating our way through the many sites of Evora to the Church of Saint Francis where the Chapel of Bones within is contained. And it was closed. Hugely disappointed we thumbed through our guidebook to see if it mentioned the hours. It did! It was closed for lunch and would open again at 2:30. We had 90 minutes to kill.
Upon our friend Luís’s recommendation we found Café Alentajo near the main square where we could take in lunch while we awaited the chapel to reopen. We had a quick regional meal of black pork cheeks, steak with cream sauce, a local melted cheese, and the most amazing sautéed asparagus in the most flavorful olive oil.
After lunch we headed back to the chapel and found it to be open. But it wasn’t the same as Tawny had remembered. When she had been here before this was a sleepy little town and the she found the chapel to be empty. She had to pay a small fee to enter and something like an extra dollar to take pictures. Once in the chapel she found herself alone with skeletal remains of hundreds of souls and a few mummies hanging from the rafters. This time was a bit different. There had been a lot of restoration of the Church of Saint Francis and a new entryway to the Chapel. There was now a small museum nearby, new clean bathrooms, and you no longer needed to pay extra to take pictures of the bones – that fee was now included in the price of admission. Once in the chapel you found yourself surrounded by more skeletons still covered with fat and flesh shuffling with their families and contouring themselves over and around glass barriers with their iPhones and SLRs to try and snap a few morbid pictures of these unfortunate souls. And to our disappointment the mummies had been temporarily removed for restoration.
Even so, the experience is solemn and macabre.
To add to the atmosphere there are inscriptions (and conveniently for us also translations) for those waxing existential; like this cheerful sonnet:
- The scraggy skulls are my company. I have them night and day. In my memory; Many were honoured in the world by their talents, and other vain ornaments which served vanity. Maybe in Eternity the reason of their torments!
And this sonnet which will give you pause:
- Look, you hasty walker? Stop, don’t go further more; No business is more important than this one at your display
- Bear in mind how many were here. Think you’ll have a similar end! Then to reflect, this is reason enough as we all did think it over.
- Think, that you fortunately among all the world affairs you do think so little about death.
- Though if you raise your eyes here stop…as in such a business the sorter you go further, the more get ahead.
After we had picked these bones clean we returned to our car and continued our drive to Coimbra, another 2.5 hours onboards where we spent the night. Coimbra, known as a college town for the past 725 or so year, is a steep and decaying town that still has its charms. But those charms are for another blog entry on another day.
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