For those who know the magic of Portugal, it will come as no surprise that hidden in its southern most part lies Beja, an undiscovered jewel that once was the setting for the greatest love story ever told. There, a young twenty-six-year-old nun, the daughter of a rich nobleman met, fell in love and was abandoned by a French officer. Her passionate letters to him published in 1669 took Paris by storm and incited a crucial turn in world literature that inspired generations of artists including Braque, Modigliani and Elizabeth Barret Browning. Built on the highest hill in the Alentejo, Beja still holds the same appeal.
Up its cobbled streets, along its narrow ways one can visit the convent where Mariana Alcoforado lived and see vestiges of Beja’s past. Called Pax Julia by the Romans, Beja overseas the vast plains of the Alentejo. The old city walls still feature ancient Roman arches and signs of a Moorish occupation. The São Francisco Pousada is one of many breathtaking hotels found in the city. Built inside a former 13th century Franciscan Convent, it features magnificent Portuguese cuisine and combines modern day comfort without sacrificing any of its romantic setting. The convent of Conceição where Mariana lived now houses the regional museum where one can visit lavish interiors of 16th century rococo style and 17th and 18th century gilded woodwork. The town’s castle tower built on Roman ruins provides grand views of the area. Author Myriam Cyr’s “Letters of a Portuguese Nun” is the perfect book for a walk through the city, providing a rich historical context that brings the lovers and Portugal’s fabulous history to life. The L.A. Times got it right when they said, “The story is good enough to keep a girl home from the movies.” It will leave you wanting to book the next flight out to Portugal, Europe’s most romantic country.