IPBeja - USUS 2012
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The Alentejo Region

   The Beja Polytechnic Institute is located in the heart of one of the most beautiful and well-conserved regions of Portugal - Alentejo - the vast undulating plain which extends from the margins of the Tagus River up to south, to the Algarve.
   The human presence in these places has been documented since the Palaeolithic period. Its finest expression is found in the Gruta (cave) do Escoural, a tour of which should be preceded by a visit to the Centro de Interpretação (interpretation centre) located in the town of Escoural itself. The highest point of megalithic culture lies between the 4th and 3rd millennia BC, with hundreds of monuments from this period having been identified in the Region. Setting out into the countryside to discover the dolmens (passage graves), cromlechs (megalithic enclosures) and menhirs (standing stones) is one of the most gratifying of the experiences to be enjoyed in the Alentejo.

   The Roman period in the Alentejo began in the 2nd century BC and lasted until the fall of the Roman Empire in the 5th century. From these times, and from their influence on later periods, there remain many memories: mining and agricultural exploitation carried out on great estates crowned by luxurious and richly decorated houses (the Roman villas); ceramics industries, salt mines, fish-salting and ship-building; fortresses, temples, bridges, paved roads and pathways, sanctuaries, theatres, dams, aqueducts; municipalities as the basis for the structure of local administration. And there remains with us, obviously, Latin as the mother tongue of the Portuguese.

   The period of Arab occupation, begun in the 8th century, lasted in the south of Portugal for almost 500 years. From this long period of shared occupancy, we have inherited agricultural plants and techniques, systems for capturing and storing water, culinary customs, hundreds of different words, construction techniques, decorative tastes, artistic styles, urban environments. The archetypes of many of our castles from the Reconquest are Moorish in character and a number of Christian churches were built over earlier mosques. Mértola, the most Arabic town in Portugal, is a place where you can really understand this inheritance.
   The whole of the landscape of the Alentejo is dotted with castles, forts, watchtowers and fortified towns and villages, bearing witness that, with the Reconquest firmly established in the south, it was necessary to continue to defend the frontiers of the country to the east, responding to wars with Spain, to prevent attacks by sea from the west and, throughout the interior, to slow down any advances not contained by the frontier defences

   From the origins of Nationality to the 19th century, first with the help of the military, then through the not always pacific mission to civilise, evangelise, educate and, in the dark times of the Inquisition, to defend the orthodox Catholic faith, the Clergy, ordained and secular, have played an important part in Portuguese history.
   Between the 15th and the 18th centuries, Portugal enjoyed a period of great prosperity. Though the human costs of the epic that was the Discoveries had been many, it is a fact that they brought with them riches without precedent, the fruit of an active commerce in spices, gold and precious stones, whose principal source was India and Brazil. The Alentejo, which during this period was several times the residence of kings, participated in and benefited from this movement. Nobles’ houses, palaces, churches, convents and monasteries arose, works of consequence were constructed, such as the Água da Prata ("silver water”) aqueduct, in Évora, and the Aqueduto da Amoreira ("mulberry tree”), in Elvas. Beautiful fountains and pillories were built and those in existence were created anew and embellished. Portuguese and foreign artists were summoned, stone and wood were worked with great skill, painting, sculpture and the decorative arts flourished. In a word, everything was done so that the future would be marked by the greatest works, erected to the glory of man and of God.

   Évora is the inevitable reference point for anyone coming to the Alentejo inspired by the theme of Heritage. Classified by UNESCO as A World Heritage Site, Évora justly occupies an important place in any Cultural Tourism itinerary.

   We are going to make a leap into our present times by way of the revivalism of the 19th century, the architecture in iron that accompanied the arrival of the railway in the interior, the modernism of the early 20th century and the heavy architecture that characterised the period of the so-called Estado Novo (New State) of the time of the dictatorship of Salazar



    Beja is the capital of Baixo Alentejo and that is where the Polytechnic Institute of Beja is based. Even though it is a small town, with hardly 25,000 inhabitants, its history, just like that of the surrounding area, dates back to the Roman times, when the town became the regional capital. Under the administration of Julius Caesar, Pax Julia, as it was then known, had the relaxing atmosphere which has remained to this day and is difficult to find elsewhere.

    Walking through Beja historic centre is like travelling back in time, enjoying the peace and quiet you would imagine forever lost. Along the way, you can find yourselves, by stopping here and there, on a cooler corner, from where, looking up, you will spot the beauty of a porcelain statuette at the end of a balustrade. And suddenly you notice the Art Nouveau tiles of a façade, and the delicate details that embellish door and window frames. As you go on, along the narrow streets, you cannot miss the beautiful wrought-iron railings of the balconies, which give the houses a majestic touch. Higher up you will find out that the old castle walls keep some precious architectonic and artistic treasures. As our Nobel literature laureate José Saramago once said, “…you have to go and look for it, you have to go to the castle, to Santa Maria, to the Misericórdia, to the Museum. Through them you will learn that Pax Julia (Baju for the Moors, who didn’t know Latin, and finally Beja) has more than enough history”.

    As you reach the castle, to which every road and alley seems to lead, you will have to climb to the top of its magnificent tower. Since its Roman past, through the Muslim and Christian periods, it has been the guardian of the plains. High above the roofs, it overlooks the immense flatland, which extends far beyond the horizon and is the most important agricultural region of Portugal. A stunning view!

    From the tower we can also see the inside of the town – the bell tower of Conceição Convent, one of the first examples of the Manuelino-style architecture in Portugal (the place where Mariana Alcoforado is said to have written the famous “Portuguese Letters”, the nun’s passionate love letters to her French lover); the circular towers of the white Santa Maria church, once a mosque; the Old Hospital, contemporary of D. Manuel, the Portuguese king responsible for the Portuguese sea discoveries. Not far, framed by the renaissance loggia of the Misericórdia and by a frieze of Manuelino buildings, you can see República Square and its famous pillory.

    A world in time: the marble and granite work of the Roman town, the stones engraved with Christian and Visigoth symbols, in Santo Amaro church, somehow lost in time, the old quarters, with their single-storey houses with a Muslim touch; the Jewry; the old manor houses, a world that holds the most beautiful wood carving and tile work in the Iberian Peninsula. A hidden treasure ready to be unveiled.

    Much more could be said about Beja’s past. But Beja also offers the comforts of modernity. It is equipped with all the facilities of a modern town – new parks and leisure areas, where the population can enjoy their spare time, good sports and cultural equipments, as well as commercial areas, several restaurants and cafés, besides a lively nightlife, offering its inhabitants and visitors all the pleasures of modern life.

©2011 - Instituto Politécnico de Beja
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