Frontier fortress of Portugal
Once again returning to beautiful Portugal, and for the many more trips to come hopefully in the near future. The plan for this weekend was something more off the beaten path than the usual big cities. Instead, two smaller towns yet full of history: Elvas, the easternmost city near the Guadiana River which is the natural border between Portugal and Spain, a city sometimes referred as “the fortress of Portugal” due to the large amount of fortresses and bastions; and the city of Evora, famous for being home to some of the finest and most complete Roman monuments in the country. Ans considering that less than 10 kilometres ahead of Elvas, already across in Spain is the city of Badajoz, we left the possibility, if time permitting, to come and visit, which… of course it did happened.
Reaching both cities was not an easy and direct task. Unfortunately the nearest airport is Lisbon, 230 kilometres west from Elvas, that’s a long drive to consider. However, this is all along the motorway that continues after Portugal towards Madrid. This translates is less than 2 hours from west to east which is acceptable. Evora is nearer to Lisbon, at around 180 km. The same you can do by driving, you can take the train as both cities lie along the major rail link between Lisbon and Madrid, so don’t worry if you do not drive, you can still perfectly do both cities in a weekend.
Because of the large amount of immaculate fortifications in the italienne trace (star fort) style, most of which still complete, the city was declared a World Heritage Site by the UNESCO under the listing of: Garrison Border Town of Elvas and its Fortifications. Such extensive fortifications were built from the 17th to the 19th centuries becoming the largest bulwarked dry ditch system in the world. There is of course much more than this, as the impressive 15th century 6 kilometres long aqueduct, its Gothic cathedral and the many remains and influences from the Moors in the city’s urban fabric.
Visiting Elvas is matter of just few hours. An entire day will definitely be too long, and this are great news! You have the option to start making your journey to Evora (our next in line city), or even crossing over to Badajoz in Spain, just 10 kilometres farther beyond from Elvas. That is another beautiful small city, but it all depends on how much time you have, especially if you are depending on public transportation if not your own rental car or someone who take you around. It was very tempting for us, being that near Badajoz which believe me, it is a difficult place to get in such a short time as a weekend is since there are no airports nearby other than Lisbon or Madrid and then the extra hours on a train or a bus; but we did not hesitate this time, we had the time for this even if it was only for a couple of hours before dusk.
When thinking about where to go for food and what to order, that’s the easiest task everywhere you go in Portugal. It is generally a great value for money, and in smaller cities as Elvas rate to find tourist traps or over the moon prices. The national dish is cod, and any other type of fish; so are the great grilled meats and octopus with crashed grilled potatoes, that’s another one of their cuisine specialities. The national pastry by excellence is the pasteis de nata, which are an egg tart pastry that originated in Lisbon’s neighbourhood of Belem, hence why you might find them named as pasteis de Belem. If you’ve ever been to a former Portuguese colony then you already know them, they are everywhere across the former empire.
For more information about Elvas check Wikipedia site. Portugal’s currency is the Euro (EUR). Please note that any price reference is true as from when this guide was created, therefore check prices in advance as with the time they change.
What to see and do in Elvas
- Amoreira Aqueduct Note this is not dating from the Roman times, but built in the 15th century following the same Roman techniques and appearance. It has several kilometres, a masterpiece of civil engineering work that you will see when approaching Elvas from the west almost as you leave the motorway exit towards the city centre, heading directly to the westernmost bastions of the city.
- Surrounding city walls and bastions Elvas historic area is completely within its walls, with many bastions all in the star-shaped form. At the northwest corner you can find the Castle, integrated in the defensive system.
- Historic city centre Extremely compact and easy to navigate through. Almost every old building survives intact today and the best way to enjoy the visit in on foot along its narrow streets and squares. Among its main sights, don’t miss:
-Praça da Republica The main square in the heart of the city, at the confluence of all the streets that lead to north, east, south and west. The Nossa Senhora da Assunção Church sits on the northern side.
-Dominican Church Literally behind the Nossa Senhora da Assunção, it has a marvellous nave completely decorated in painted tiles.
-Moorish Gate In the little square where the Dominican Church is. It grants access to the square at the other side.
-Dominican Monastery Towards the east of the city, near the bastions.
- Outer Defences A second ring of bastions and forts encircles the city’s main defences, however these were not linked by walls, but were acting on their own. All of them are part of the UNESCO World Heritage Site listing. Among the best ones are:
-Santa Luzia Fort Located at the south of the city, guarding the main link between both capital cities of Portugal and Spain; Lisbon and Madrid.
-Eastern Crown Right by the easternmost bastion within the city, this is an extra enlargement farther behind adding an extra layer of bastions.
-Nossa Senhora da Graça Fort Located north 2 kilometres from the historic centre, sits on a higher elevation on the Monte da Graça. A square main body with the characteristic star-points bastions all over its perimeter.
The nearest major airport to Elvas is all the way 230 kilometres west in Lisbon. Either if you fly to Lisbon as your entry point, or come from other cities within Portugal, then chances you will need to pass through Lisbon before continuing east are almost guaranteed. This is the main motorway from Lisbon to Madrid, and so the railway line linking both, and in between, Elvas right before the Spanish border. Coming from the other side in Spain, requires the same but with longer journey times due to the distances. First you will need to fly to Madrid and take a bur or train from there. The Spanish border town is Badajoz. The Guadiana River is the natural country border.
Coming by long distance buses from elsewhere in Portugal can be much faster than by train, as there is not need to get into Lisbon first and change for the east-west corridor. Then the fastest and most comfortable option is without doubt renting a car. From Lisbon is less than 2 hours, but bear in mind the countless tolls in the motorway, yet don’t worry too much because when renting a car, it costs just only 2.5 Euros per day to use any motorway as long as you want. In the other hand, if a private car this will be a much more expensive business.
Once in Elvas, the city size is really small and totally compact. Basically, if you see the city on a map you realise it lies entirely inside the star-shaped fortress. Walking distances are very small, and the streets are majority pedestrian and too narrow to allow even cars. However, around the outskirts there are more fortresses and bastions that the city is famous for. It can be a longer walk and quite a big time consuming. With a rental car it is matter of minutes to get around, otherwise, plan ahead only in visiting the most important ones instead of them all.
Although a small city, there is a great choice of hotels of any kind from the small family run to the large world-wide chains and spa. Also because this is not such a touristy city coupled with our visit still during the low season at the end of March, the offers around were great!. A good and reasonable point to start your search is by checking some of our preferred affiliate hotel search engine such as Hotels.com, Booking.com, Expedia, Otel.com, Agoda, Opodo, LateRooms or Ebookers.
We did not stay overnight in Elvas, but in Setubal, 50km from Lisbon. The reason was our late landing at night so we did not wanted to continue in getting more tired by driving all the way, and instead stayed at the Bocage Hotel right in the centre of Setubal, in Rua De São Cristóvão 14. A small property, well maintained and kept, medium size rooms with comfortable beds and quiet at night and very friendly and helpful staff. Breakfast was in the other hand quite poor, and coffee very watery. This hotel is ideal for anyone staying for a day or a weekend.
At last, if you are considering in making Lisbon your base and get to Elvas for a day trip, here you have a very complete guide for Lisbon with some of the hotels we’ve been in our past visits.