The garrison border town of Elvas is the unknown gem of the Alentejo region.
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Aerial view of the city with the fortified walls clearly at sight
With people slowly leaving the comfort and security of their homes following the recent coronavirus house confinement, we decided to restart our business with a 2-day tour of the unknown gem of the Alentejo region: The military city of Elvas. As such, we decided to write a bit about this magical place so that you have everything you need to know about it!
Evidence of the human presence in the region is quite obvious, but it was during Moorish occupation in the 700s that the city thrived and started its transformation into one of the most admirable of the European strongholds. Even today, we can easily see the marks of Islamic presence throughout the city, especially in the remains of the Islamic walls built between the 8th and the 11th centuries, as well as in the narrow streets that envelop the castle area. It was wrested from the Moors by King Afonso I (Portugal’s first king) in 1166 but was temporarily recaptured before its final occupation by the Portuguese in 1226 during the reign of Sancho II (great-grandson of Afonso I).
By the 16th century it was already the 5th biggest city in the kingdom of Portugal with about 8.000 inhabitants, only surpassed by Porto, Santarém, Lisbon, and Évora. As such, and given its strategic location right next to Spain it’s no wonder why it saw battle multiple times throughout the years. It was through Elvas in 1580 and following the demise of the Portuguese royalty, that the Spanish army invaded Portugal, thus starting a 60-year period during which Portugal was in fact, part of the Spanish empire thus being ruled by the Spanish monarchs.
Elvas was the key to the kingdom, as such, with the 1580 fiasco of the loss of independence in mind, after the 1640 restoration of independence took place, the city went through a period of massive military construction that would last until the late 18th century. This 150-year period would mark profoundly the look of the city, with multiple walls, forts, bunkers, barracks, and other military buildings being constructed, therefore transforming the city into one of the largest bastioned cities in the world, much to the liking of the Vauban military architecture.
Perhaps the best example of this military DNA lies North of the city with the colossal Fort of Graça. King Joseph I of Portugal and the now-famous Marquis of Pombal, called on the German Marshal Lippe to reorganize the Portuguese army and draw up plans for the modernization of Portuguese strongholds. He did so and by 1792 the fort was complete. While it saw battle only sometimes, this is mostly due to its dissuasive effect since it was considered virtually impregnable!
After the Napoleonic invasions of 1807-1810, the city slowly began losing its military worth and transformed into an important agricultural and commercial center given its proximity to Spain. Plums and olives are probably the most well-known products of the region (see below) but of course there are many others, most notably wine of course.
City center with the cathedral in the back
What to visit
There’s plenty to see inside the city walls, and this should keep you busy for most of the day. We recommend that you start your tour near the castle at the top of the city, this way you don’t have to climb so much. Additionally, this allows you to follow the chronological order of the history of the city, thus starting with the medieval castle and pieces of evidence of Islamic presence, and heading towards more recent heritage.
For military heritage: The medieval castle, the fortified walls, multiple military buildings spread inside the city walls. Graça and Santa Luzia Forts (outside the city).
For religious heritage: City cathedral, Church of the Dominic Nuns (right next to the cathedral), saint Dominic’s church.
For civil heritage: Amoreira Aqueduct.
Inside the colossal 18th century Graça Fort
Day trip from Elvas
Given its proximity to Spain and location in the center of Portugal, Elvas makes a great base camp for other visits outside the city. Across the border lies the Spanish city of Badajoz with a similar history as Elvas. However, if you have the motivation to drive 1h, perhaps you should skip Badajoz and head straight to the city of Mérida, most famous for its well-preserved Roman heritage.
If you’re looking for an off-the-beaten-path tour complete with history, gastronomy, and nature, then we most surely recommend the quaint village of Castelo de Vide, and the surrounding area of Marvão, 1h North of Elvas. Another (and similar) alternative to Castelo de Vide, not far from Elvas but this time South of the city is Reguengos de Monsaraz. Besides the history and cultural walks, you will make the most of your visit here by checking out the nearby Alqueva reservoir for some aquatic experiences.
What to do
If you’re in shape or simply enjoy walking, a great way to get familiar with the city is to walk around the fortified walls. This should take you about 1h-2h to walk around 5km, depending on the pace and number of stops. There are plenty of attractions along the way and it will surely be a great way to digest some of the great but “heavy” Alentejo cuisine!
Apart from history walks, there’s plenty to experience in Elvas and around. Gastronomy for instance plays a great role here and is certainly something you should be aware of (See bellow restaurant recommendations). Plums, in particular the greengage type, is a famous delicacy and boasts the EU Protected Designation of Origin seal. You can learn a bit more about it by visiting the small but interesting museum-shop Sereno & Fonseca.
Wine tourism is certainly something you can’t miss in Alentejo and fortunately, the offering is huge in the region! Here are some of the most well-known businesses near Elvas: João Portugal Ramos, Adega de Borba, Adega das aldeias de Juromenha, and Adega Mayor.
If you happen to be visiting the Alqueva region, there are plenty of nature-related things you can do there. Besides water-related activities such as a boat tour, one pretty interesting thing you can do is start gazing. Yup, the sky is pretty clear there and with very little artificial lighting, thus making the Alqueva region a great place for astronomy enthusiasts and debutants alike.
Where to eat
Portugal’s cuisine is a reflection of the country’s amazing cultural diversity, displaying a strong variety of ingredients, cooking methods, portion size, desserts, wine, among many other things. The region of Alentejo is particularly well known for its heavy usage of cilantro, olive oil, pork, bread, garlic, tomato, among other ingredients. Be sure to get informed with the waiter before trying out one of the local dishes!
Restaurants outside Elvas: Adega do Adro in the village of Vila Fernando, Adega dos Ramalhos in Alandroal.
“Cozido de grão” is the hero dish at “Adega dos Ramalhos” in Alandroal
Where to sleep
Elvas has been a relatively unknown city for much of its modern life, both for Portuguese or foreign tourists. As such, there isn’t much diversity and quantity in accommodation offerings. Needless to say, however, there are still some amazing places around that will provide you with a great experience:
Boutique Hotels: Check out Travassos 11 for a great intimate experience. This small 11-room boutique hotel is located near the wall in an 18th-century manor full of well-preserved tiles. Breakfast is simple but with quality ingredients, and the owners are usually around to make you feel at home and help you with anything you need! Decoration plays a big part in the experience, the mixture of the modern and plain style of the sleeping rooms with the sumptuousness and taste of the common areas provides an interesting contrast.
Breakfast is served in Travassos11 boutique hotel
Chain Hotel: Vila Galé Collection Elvas is part of the well-known Vila Galé Portuguese hotel chain. It’s located in the city center inside the 18th-century convent of St. Paul, and while it is equipped with a spa, gym, bar, and all of what most 4-5 star hotels usually offer, the experience and relation with the staff won’t feel as intimate as with a smaller hotel.
Rural properties: For a more bucolic experience outside the city, you should definitely check out Hotel Rural Monte da Provença. This is a small 4-star charm hotel located within 7.5 km from the center of Elvas. The unit is inserted in a tranquil surrounding and features an outdoor pool, garden, wine cellar, and a bar. It may be a good choice if you have kids given the variety of activities available on site.
We hope this article was useful and that you visit Elvas soon! We don’t claim to be experts in the subject and most of our knowledge comes from infield experience guiding clients. That being said, we do believe the value of people like us that dedicate their time to improve the quality of the travel experience in our beautiful Portugal. As such, if by any chance you felt compelled to hire our services, don’t hesitate and contact us!
Authentic experiences for authentic travelers.
Written by: Francisco Carvalho Neto
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