São Cucufate is a rather massive excavation of a Roman farm villa or estate near the Roman wine town of Vila de Frades in Portugal’s Alentejo region, in the district of Beja. Not only will the visitor learn about the farm life in Portugal 2000 years ago, it will be evident that part of the estate was reused as a monastery during the medieval period; the frescoes are still visible on the walls, as you can see in the picture below, and the name of the Roman ruins derives from the name of the monastery. Reuse of a structure is the best way to preserve it.
In the Alentejo, there is still a relationship between ancient farm estates like São Cucufate and modern ones. You’ll often see the ruins side by side with the modern structures.
São Cucufate residents had great views of the rolling hills of the Alentejo from the terrace, and there is even evidence of a swimming pool and Roman baths on site. Perhaps the ancient folks didn’t have it so miserable after all…
Here you see the baths from the upper story of the main structure. The farm tended to be built “up” rather than out.
The convent was established around the 9th century on the grounds and ruins of the Roman villa, and lasted until the late 12th century. By the 17th century buildings were abandoned by the monastic community; just one hermit monk remained. There is an altar and frescoes to tell of the monastery’s existence.
The ruins are closed on Mondays and larger holidays.
Learning the rest of the story: Núcleo Museológico de São Cucufate
The archaeological museum that carries the artifacts from the excavation is found in the town of Vila de Frades, where you can taste the wine produced the way the Romans made it in amphoras, Vinho de Talha. The entire name of the museum is Núcleo Museológico de São Cucufate em Vidigueira. Vidigueira is the town Vasco da Gama was made count of by King D. Manuel I on his return from his first trip to India by sea. The vineyards around the town are famous for high-quality wines, which you can read about on the excellent Vidigueira Winelands Website.
Where to Stay
The short drive to the larger town of Beja will allow you to stay in a historic Pousada, Pousada de Sao Francisco, also known as Pousada Convento de Beja.
The Pousada de Sao Francisco includes a restaurant offering the best of the local cuisine, a small chapel, a pool and bar with wine and cheese tasting, and an opportunity to sleep in a historic place you might otherwise have to pay an entrance fee to see.
The vaulted ceilings of the convent refeitório grace the modern Pousada restaurant, a long dining hall anchored by a table of sweet deserts located in the center. The menu is an extensive reflection of the local Alentejo cuisine, and offers both small and large dishes—food for just about any appetite. The restaurant was equally skilled at putting out the peasant soups of the region as it was with the more expensive items like rack of lamb. Everything we tasted was freshly prepared and delicious.
Beja, while capital of the Beja province of the Alentejo, is a relatively small town, the central core was interesting to walk through, and a visit to the castle mandatory.
Compare prices on the Pousada Convento de Beja.