Since arriving in Portugal, something I’ve been somewhat missing is a deeper sense of history. So far, I’ve mostly focused on trying to gain some understanding of the 48-year dictatorship of Salazar, which ended well within living memory in 1974, with the Carnation Revolution – so called because carnation flowers were inserted into the ends of guns as a sign of peace, and because there were very few casualties by revolutionary standards. Through watching films like Capitães de Abril (2000) and visiting the excellent Museum Aljube Resistência e Liberdade, a former prison in Lisbon now serving to showcase the torture that happened there, I’ve filled in some of the gaps in my own knowledge of this small country: it was never officially involved in World War II, for instance, and it entered the fray only once the Allies were granted permission to use the Azores archipelago as a strategic military base from which they could defeat German U-boats.
But what about before the dictatorship, which after all can feel like the defining “historical event” – with a clear before and after – here? I’ve been yearning for a deeper connection with the landscape, for eras beyond the recognisable contours of the 20th century. Feeling my lack of knowledge about the Iberian Peninsula more generally, I recently picked up and have been enjoying The Basque History of the World by Mark Kurlansky (2000). I don’t know much about the Basque people other than their historically superior skills in sailing, fishing, and whaling, but have learned that their territory encompasses such cities as Bilbao, San Sebastian and Pamplona (originally named after Pompey, who preceded Julius Caesar). I have also been watching the HBO series Rome (2005-2007), which has ignited my interest in those years when the Roman Republic gave way to the Roman Empire and has seen me seeking out maps to see just how far the Romans spread themselves.
And so, as so often happens in my life, a critical momentum builds through the accumulation of seemingly disparate yet somehow associated parts, culminating in an experience that binds them all together. This time, that experience was my visit to the charming town of Elvas in eastern Portugal.
Sitting on a hill just a few kilometres from the border with Spain, I was greeted in Elvas by glorious crisp winter sunshine and a dome of blue sky seeming to extend endlessly because of the high vantage point (about 300m above sea level, I believe). Elvas is also known as “Queen of the Border”, with a rich military history due to its strategic geographical position, and a population today of around 20,000. After a day here, I’m not surprised that Elvas became a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2012.
Impressive historical monuments abound in Elvas, which remained a fortified citadel of some importance until well into the 17th century. I began by walking to the highest point, to get a sense of what it would have been like to be alert to the dangers of invading armies in centuries past, when Elvas needed to defend itself. At the 12th century Elvas Castle, in both age and physical resemblance I was reminded of the spectacular Cathar castles in the south of France, near the Pyrenees, which perch atop the high hills like sentinels.
While these castles are found in various states of disarray, Elvas Castle is very well preserved, and has also had the privilege of recently undergoing a renovation. While the grounds are small, for just one euro you can walk the entirety of its walls, explore its inner turrets, and take a seat at the sunny outdoor café.
The eastern view looks out over the border to the Spanish town of Badajoz, and north towards the 18th-century Forte de Nossa Senhora da Graça, an imposing pentagonal fort with panoramic views. The castle has been variously occupied by Moors (during the 8th to the 12th centuries), French, Spanish, and English. (I’m planning to read this rereleased biography of Muhammad next, after Tariq Ali piqued my interest in Muslim presence in the Iberian Peninsula, something I’ve never learned about in any of my formal education.)
Possibly the most immediately striking thing in Elvas is the aqueduct, the building of which began in 1537 and was completed in 1622. The town was running low on water, and this huge construction – built on Roman foundations – was designed to ease the struggle by funnelling freshwater from springs some 7km away. Sadly you can’t walk on it, but it’s an amazing sight that you can’t miss just as you enter the town.
Roman influence is also observable in Elvas by a high stone arch, announcing entrance to the most elevated parts of the town up near the castle:
In addition to all of these, the streets of Elvas old town are completely charming, with little wooden doors, narrow cobbled streets and cats everywhere. There’s also a neat military garden full of lush orange trees, several small museums, and even a Cemitério dos Ingleses (British Cemetery) where the graves of two British soldiers from the Peninsula War are found. I hadn’t heard of this war before living in Portugal, but I recently learned – both in Elvas and in Sintra, near Lisbon – that the British helped the Portuguese and Spanish to expel Napoleonic forces after they first occupied Portugal in 1807. In fact, Portugal and Britain have one of the oldest – possibly the oldest – bilateral alliances in the world.
The Peninsula War is also very important for its role in the creation of modern-day Brazil. In 1807, when Napoleonic forces were almost in Lisbon, the entire Portuguese royal family and some 15,000 adherents upped sticks and escaped to Brazil, building up what we today know as Rio de Janeiro and eventually declaring Brazil’s independence from their home country in 1822.
As the sun dipped lower in the winter skies and my day in Elvas came to an end, I walked up to yet another impressive fort just outside the town, the beautifully preserved 17th century Forte de Santa Luzia. From here, you can get probably the best view of Elvas from outside its walls. You can even see the aqueduct trundling in from the west.
The whole town is so beautifully preserved, it’s an absolute joy to explore. Big open skies, a general sense of expansiveness in the town’s open squares, and a welcoming attitude from the locals made this one of the nicest places I’ve been in Portugal so far. With its openly acknowledged Roman, Moorish, and Spanish influences, plus its strategic position close to Spain, Elvas has been that place which has given me the deeper historical context – pre-Salazar, pre-20th century – that I was searching for.