The Border Town of Elvas

Famous for its sugar plums, Elvas is also a citadel whose Spain-facing fortifications match those of Badajoz across the border a few kilometres away.

Encased in a massive bastion in Portugal’s idyllic Alentejo region, the town remained in Moorish hands a hundred years longer than Lisbon and was still one of Europe’s most imposing fortresses long into the 17th century.

It served as an important operational base and hospital during the Peninsular War, particularly prior to the sieges of Badajoz in 1811 and 1812.

Three imposing gates lead into the town which, during its long and chequered history, has been besieged by Moors, Spaniards, Frenchmen and Englishmen.

Extensively fortified from the 17th to 19th centuries, Elvas represents the largest bulwarked dry-ditch system in the world and as such was classified as a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 2012.

Enclosed within star-shaped bastions, the town centre is characterised by narrow, cobblestone streets and contains barracks and other military buildings as well as churches and monasteries.

Although Elvas contains remains dating back to the 10th century AD, the main frame of its fortification began when Portugal regained independence in 1640.

Designed by Dutch Jesuit padre Cosmander, the bastion represents the best surviving example of the Dutch school of fortifications anywhere in the world and the site also contains the Amoreira aqueduct which was built to enable the stronghold to withstand lengthy sieges.

Romano-Moorish in origin, Elvas Castle was rebuilt by King Sancho III in 1226. Along with head-spinning wide-angle views far into neighbouring Spain, a walk around the top of the battlements affords a fine vista of the old town and provides a suitable vantage point from which to appreciate the ingenious design of the fortifications.

Where to go in the Alentejo

Looking strangely forbidding and fortress-like in Praça D. Sancho II, the town’s striking Sé Cathedral is decorated with gargoyles, turrets and a florid Manueline portal under a conically-shaped dome. Built by Francisco de Arruda (of Lisbon’s Tower of Belém fame), the interior features many exquisite 17th-century azulejo tiles, the finest of which are located in the sacristy.

Located close to the charming historic centre of Elvas, the 16th-century octagonal church of the Freiras de São Domingos is one of the prettiest buildings in southern Europe. Much of its immense appeal lies in the fine marble columns supporting the cupola and spectacular yellow and blue azulejo glazed tiles added in the 17th century.

Two surviving satellite forts, Forte de Graça and Forte de Santa Luzia (to the north and south-east of the town, respectively) indicate the strategic importance of Elvas over the centuries.

And with its 843 arches, the towering five-tiered Amoreira Aqueduct (begun in 1498 and completed in 1622) is a striking and very impressive monument on the town’s western outskirts.

Built on Roman foundations and strengthened by cylindrical buttresses, the aqueduct was paid for by the people of Elvas themselves and still nourishes them with fresh water to this day.

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