The most impressive of all the fortified border towns is ALMEIDA, within a mere cannon-shot of Spain. It’s a handsomely preserved eighteenth-century stronghold, laid out in the shape of a twelve-pointed star and well worth a visit – particularly during the twice-monthly feiras (on the eighth day and last Saturday), and the annual bash on 1 September. The village within is charming, while a three-kilometre walk around the walls – now overgrown with grass, and grazed by horses – shows you the true extent of the fortifications, though you can only really appreciate their shape by looking at the aerial-shot postcards sold in the gift shops. If your interest is piqued, two more frontier fortresses – Castelo Bom and Castelo Mendo, around 20km south of Almeida – are both also easily seen in a quick trip from town by car or en route to the A25, which they straddle.
Almeida played a key role in the Peninsular War. Besieged here in 1810 by the Napoleonic army, the garrison held out for seventeen days until, on July 26, a barrel of gunpowder ignited and began a devastating fire. That should have been it for the town, and the decimated survivors gave themselves up, but they were reprieved when the Duke of Wellington later arrived with full army in tow – the French army disappeared into the night and Almeida was saved.
The town defences
Almeida’s walls enclose a warren of cobbled lanes and whitewashed houses, punctuated by airy squares – inside the walled town, you’ll also find the village post office, a bank with ATM, a grocery shop and a few cafés. The main entrance is still through the original two consecutive defensive tunnel-gates of the Portas de São Francisco, complete with a wide, dry moat between inner and outer walls. Immediately inside the gates, to the left, are the long infantry barracks, while a right turn, past the gardens and along the walls, leads to the Casamatas (opposite the fire station), an underground storage area with a capacity for five thousand men and their supplies.
You’ll easily find your way up to what’s left of the castle, blown up in 1810, the foundations now exposed under a modern walkway. Behind here, in one of the star-points, is the picadeiro, the restored cavalry barracks and horse-training area, whose stables offer short riding lessons and horse-and-buggy rides around town.
Tiny Castelo Bom preserves walled fortifications above an ancient village just 7km west of the Spanish border at Vilar Formoso. The Duke of Wellington’s forces secured the whole area during 1812 and 1813 while advancing into Spain, with Wellington himself headquartered at a house in a nearby village – hence the brown tourist sign with the incongruous English place-name “Wellington”.
Four kilometres west of Castelo Bom, the preserved medieval village of Castelo Mendo is a gem. Two headless Celtic granite pigs guard the main gateway, through which cobbled streets twist up to a grassy knoll topped by a roofless church and the sketchy remains of the castle keep. It’s a glorious spot, sitting on the lip of a sheltered bowl of land, with views across the undulating countryside.