Beja, Portugal

From its medieval churches to the castle on the hill, the appeal of Beja, Portugal, cannot be denied. Seated high above the fertile plains of Baixa Alentejo and just 2 hours from Lisbon, Beja is surrounded by ancient towns and stunning vistas. Its romantic restaurants, cozy hotels and excellent wines combine to make today's Beja a desirable tourist attraction when visiting Portugal. Throughout its checkered history, however, this was not always the case.

Steeped in antiquity, the region dates back to the Bronze age, with Celtics its first known inhabitants. Due to its strategic military location and productive copper mines, Beja suffered numerous conquests and consequent changes of name. In the year 48 B.C., the self-promoting Julius Caesar christened it Pax Julia. Emperor Augustus, not to be outdone, felt that Pax Augusta was a better fit. The name changed once again under Visigoth rule, this time to Paca. Finally, during the sixth century, the Moors decided on the current name of Beja.Tower Torre de Menagem in Beja, Portugal

The oft-repeated battles for control left the city decimated and virtually depopulated. For centuries, embattled Beja struggled to rebuild. It finally managed to regain city status, only to be sacked again by Napoleon's troops in 1808.

Today, Romans and Visigoths no longer roam the city. Friendly residents replace the ancient warriors, and a stroll through Beja's venerable streets will reward you with delightful scenes of red-roofed buildings and magnificent medieval cathedrals. You might spot a craftsman selling pottery or a farmer leading his horse to pasture. Stunning views of the castle are visible for miles, and a trip to the top of its tower rewards the energetic with an excellent view of the city.

Behind the castle stands the whitewashed, pre-Romanesque Basilica of Santo Amaro, which houses the Visigoth exhibition of the Beja Regional Museum. Another fine museum, the Rainha D. Leonor, is located in the Franciscan convent of Our Lady of the Conception. This convent, a Gothic wonder dating back to 1459, was home to Mariana Alcoforado, the 17th century nun whose love letters to a French military officer inspired the book and movie "Letters of a Portuguese Nun." The convent itself is a national historic monument.

The additional attractions of St. Andrew's Chapel, St. Mary of the Market Church and the ruins of Pisoes make Beja more than worth the trip, but potential visitors should keep one thing in mind: Since its summer temperatures can exceed 100 degrees Fahrenheit, knowledgeable tourists consider May and June the best months to visit Beja.


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