If history had taken a different turn it may have been Spain, and not Portugal, celebrating the announcement of Europe’s latest cultural hotspot. The Portuguese garrison town of Elvas – attacked by waves of Spanish soldiers, most notably in 1644 and 1658 – is the latest rural gem to achieve UNESCO World Heritage Status.
Add Elvas to your must-see list during a tour the Iberian Peninsula or during a city break in Madrid or Lisbon. Calling in on Elvas as you traverse the main highway (IP7) from Lisbon towards Madrid should satisfy history buffs and casual sightseers in equal measure.
On arrival, make a beeline for the Praça da República and plant yourself at the heart of the pavement café action. Later take the chance to pick the brains of staff in the adjacent tourist information centre and visit the pretty church of Nossa Senhora da Assunção.
Elvas is no ordinary garrison town. It’s perhaps the greatest and most heavily fortified frontier town in Europe. Original Moorish features have also survived the test of time, blending in with the elegant archways, balconies and iron windows dotted along winding alleys. Today, the town’s population of around 25,000 are the guardians of the famed Fort de Santa Luzia, and also the jaw-droppingly towering Amoreira aqueduct.
Forte de Santa Lúzia is the star attraction – quite literally. The imposing 17th Century fort to the north of town forms a seven-pointed star, which was engineered to protect the old town from every conceivable angle of attack.
Striding high across the horizon is the Amoreira aqueduct supported by 843 arches, some of which reach 30 metres. Begun in 1498, construction lasted more than 124 years. Once complete it carried water for 7 kilometres to a marble fountain at the heart of the town, which helped sustain both the army and civilians during lengthy sieges. The aqueduct dwarves the market traders who clamour for business every Monday from their stalls below the arches.
Bravery and horror played out during the later Peninsular War are also visible at The English Cemetery, located to the left from the castle on S. João da Corujeiro. Buried here are British soldiers who fell during the War with France and the siege Badajoz in 1812.
Olives and plums thrive in Elvas’s fertile lowland surroundings. Elvas ‘sugar plums’ are a centuries-old Christmas treat still prepared to this day. The Elvas plums are picked in July before being cooked and coated in sugar syrup for around six week. They are sun-dried and individually wrapped to confection perfection, ready for visitors to stock up on. Staying with the festive theme, Elvas is also famous for its brandy.
This spotlight on Elvas strengthens Portugal’s claim to be one of the most culturally-rich and diverse destinations in Europe, with other UNESCO sites including Tower of Belém in Lisbon (see picture above); Historic Centre of Oporto and the Alto Douro Wine Region. The inclusion of Elvas brings Portugal’s tally to a whopping 13 sites.
Elvas by public transport:
Coaches operated by Rede-Expressos www.rede-expressos.pt leave Lisbon (Sete Rios) for Elvas daily, with exceptions on public holidays (check website). Advance reservations are recommended.
Local buses from Badajoz (Spain) to Elvas take 20 minutes, departing daily.
Posted : Wednesday, August 22nd, 2012 at 10:00
Kelly Pipes is a writer and editor who has worked in travel and travel publishing for the last ten years, and has enjoyed every single minute of it. Alongside other projects she shares off-beat travel news and authentic travel experiences on her own blog, Sandwagon.