The most impressive of all the fortified border towns is ALMEIDA, 45km northeast of Guarda and within cannon-shot of Spain. It’s a beautifully preserved eighteenth-century stronghold in the form of a twelve-pointed star. A three-kilometre walk around the walls – now overgrown with grass, and grazed by horses – takes in all the peaks and troughs, though you can only really appreciate the shape by looking at the aerial-shot postcards sold around town. Almeida played a key role in the Peninsular War. The Luso-Britannic forces were besieged here in 1810 by the Napoleonic army, and they held out for seventeen days until, on July 26, a leaky barrel of gunpowder ignited and began a fire that killed hundreds. The survivors gave themselves up, but Wellington, on his victorious return from Torres Vedras, subsequently took the fortress with no bloodshed as the French army scuttled away during the night.
The main entrance is still through the original two consecutive gates of the Portas de São Francisco – long, shell-proof tunnels 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. The layout of interconnected rooms explains how Almeida withstood lengthy sieges, with water supply, rubbish chute, escape routes, munitions chamber and dormitory space.
The town walls enclose a warren of cobbled lanes and whitewashed houses, punctuated by airy squares. 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.