Located 7.5 miles from the border between Portugal and Spain, the garrison town of Elvas in Portugal has been added to the list of UNESCO World Heritage sites. Built as a response to the Spanish stronghold of Badajoz, this hilltop town was one of Portugal’s mightiest frontier posts for many years.
The town was originally re-captured from the Moors in 1230, withstanding a multitude of attacks from Spain during the following 3 centuries. During the war of Independence between Portugal and Spain from 1640-1668 the town was defeated by the Spanish but was later relieved by the Portuguese. In more recent years the town was used by the Duke of Wellington as his headquarters in his siege of the Spanish town of Badajoz.
The town’s star-shaped walls which completely surrounded the town and provided protection from all angles of attack and forts are among the most complex and best preserved military fortifications which still survive in Europe. The magnificently preserved 17th century Fort de Santa Luzia to the north of the old town and the Amoreira Aqueduct are perhaps the two best preserved sites in Elvas. The towering Amoreira Aqueduct is 4.5 miles in length, over 100ft high in some places, took more than 100 years to complete and still carries water to the town.
Originally built in 1226, the Cathedral Nossa Senhora da Assuncao has been made bigger and had lots of alterations in its lifetime. The Church of Nossa Senhora dos Aflitos may have a very plain exterior but this Templar church has a magnificent interior lined with 17th century tiles that reach high into the cupola (dome). Nearby is a Manueline marble pillory with metal hooks which serves as a reminder of the punishment metered out in older times. Located in the bastion of Sao Joao da Corujeiro is the oldest British military cemetery in Europe. Here you will find regimental plaques which record the deaths of soldiers serving with British Regiments during the Battle of Albuhera in 1811 and the sieges of Badajoz.
To the north-east of Elvas is the town of Campo Major (bigger field). Here you will find the morbid Chapel Capelo dos Ossos that dates back to 1766. The entire face of the chapel is covered with human bones which serve as a reminder of the 1500 people killed when lightning struck the castle here where gunpowder was stored. Occupied by French troops during the French invasion, the town was soon relieved by Lord Beresford who led an Anglo-Portuguese attack on the French occupiers. Although the town has a sad history it is now a happy place where the townsfolk celebrate with a festival every year. During the festival the narrow streets are covered with a roof made from thousands of paper flowers under which the people enjoy parades and dancing. Every street of the town secretly decorates their street hoping to win a prize. This yearly event attracts people from all over, especially from Spain.
To the north of Campo Major, nearer the Spanish border, is the small fortified town of Ouguela. It is believed that during the Battle of Toro it was decided that the ownership of the castle here would be decided by a duel between the two opposing leaders. Sadly both leaders died from their wounds!
Other historic towns around Elvas which are worth visiting include Arronches and Monteforte to the north and the small village of Juromenha to the south. The once fortified garrison of Juromenha now lies in ruins but was once a very important fortification. It is said that a local Lord of the town was so embarrassed by his sister’s amorous conquests that he locked her in the main tower of the castle here until she went insane and eventually died.
Today Elvas is a quiet town with a restored central square lined with cafes, steep cobbled streets and mansions. The surrounding countryside is famous for producing delicious plums which are conserved in a honey mixture. Visitors to Elvas will find much to explore along with stunning architecture, informative museums, top-class restaurants and shops.