The attractive hilltop town of ELVAS was once one of Portugal’s mightiest frontier posts, strategically positioned just 15km from Spanish Badajoz, to the east across the Rio Guadiana. Its star-shaped walls and outlying forts of Graça and Santa Luzia are among the best-preserved military fortifications in Europe, a factor that subsequently helped gain the town UNESCO World Heritage status. Its military significance long past, and down to a population of around 25,000, it looks largely to tourism these days – Spanish day-trippers pop over to climb the steep cobbled streets and sit in the restored central square, the Praça da República, ringed by cafés and dominated by the mighty but ultimately underwhelming Igreja de Nossa Senhora da Assunção.
The vibrant Monday market (held on alternate weeks) is another big attraction, held just outside town behind the aqueduct. Otherwise, the town’s main annual bash is its week-long Festa de São Mateus, starting on September 20 and including the largest procession in southern Portugal.
Today’s fortifications date largely from 1643–53, built during the Wars of Restoration with Spain (1641–68). Under the direction of a Dutch Jesuit, Padre Cosmander, an already impressive circuit of walls was supplemented by extensive moats and star-shaped ramparts. The result is considered to be the finest example of the Dutch school of fortifications anywhere in the world. In 1644, the garrison withstood a nine-day siege by Spanish troops, and in 1658, with its numbers reduced by an epidemic to a mere thousand, Elvas saw off a fifteen-thousand-strong Spanish army. During the Peninsular Wars in 1811, the fort provided the base from which Wellington successfully attacked Badajoz.