Armchair Field Trip: Morbid Portugal

Ransom Riggs

Or, a lover's guide to meditating upon the transitory nature of material possessions in the undeniable presence of death.

Always game for the road less traveled, my wife and I decided to spend our recent honeymoon exploring one of Europe's most overlooked destinations: Portugal. We'd heard it was humblingly beautiful (it is), easy to get around (it's the size of New Jersey) and surprisingly inexpensive (true, if you subsist on bacalhau, its uber-salty national dish). Despite warnings from a pessimistic friend, who told us our plan to rent a car was tantamount to suicide ("they drive like car thieves!") and that we'd be unable to communicate because Portuguese, which "sounds like a drunken Frenchman trying to speak Spanish," is impossible to learn, we stubbornly insisted that it was the perfect spot for a romantic getaway. Which it is, save for one small detail: the Portuguese are obsessed with death.

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After five cities, fourteen statues of Mary crying blood and fifty-six reliquaries stuffed with the mummified limbs of minor saints, we thought we'd seen all that morbid Portugal had to offer. That is, until we discovered medieval Evora's infamous Chapel of Bones. When a fifteenth-century real-estate boom forced local monks to get creative with the tenants of space-hogging cemeteries, they pioneered a macabre kind of recycling: instead of stashing the bones in a pit and building a chapel over top (as ossuaries had done for thousands of years) they decided to build the chapel itself from the femurs, tibias and skulls of 5,000 former Evorans. For ghoulish good measure, they also tied the corpses of an alleged murderer and his son to the wall, where they still hang today (pictured above, with apologies).

But the Portuguese weren't put off in the slightest "“ in fact, bone chapels caught on, becoming trendy in Portugal and throughout Western Europe for nearly 400 years. But none are as chillingly elaborate as Evora's, which if you're not feeling sufficiently creeped-out upon leaving, features this inscription (here translated from Latin) above the exit: "Our bones here wait for yours."