The most impressive of all Portugal’s fortified border settlements is surely 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 the effort of a visit – particularly during the twice-monthly feiras (on the eighth day and last Saturday), and the annual bash on September 1. The village within is charming, while a 3km 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.
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 remaining 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.