Beaches to Battlements

5 – 7 February 2018

The excellent Autocaravanas Tambo in Benicarlo fixed our satellite TV system first thing on a rainy Monday morning,  freeing us to finally start our long delayed journey westwards. We left the Mediterranean behind and amended our original intentions,  deciding  to visit some of the key sites of the Peninsula War along the Spain-Portugal border— we both had an interest in it and wanted to learn more.

Driving across Spain climbing upwards to the high plains we were suddenly into the snow and snow-ploughs patrolled the roads.  The snow lasted for over a hundred miles giving us time to adjust to the unfamiliar picture of olive trees and bare vines standing in neat rows against the white.

Passing below Madrid we continued across the vast plains, stopping overnight on a deserted Aire in a small village. After another rainy night we continued on, following the Rio Guadiana into Extremadura and enjoying the sudden profusion of birds – cranes flying overhead in pairs and gathering in large groups in wet fields, storks nesting on chimneys and church towers; small flocks of azure winged magpies crossing our path. The sun had come out and we were at our destination by lunchtime, the border town of Badajoz.

The Aire was surprisingly busy and very nicely located next to the river and the old bridge, the Puente de Palmas, with great views across to the fortress, the Alcazaba. We walked over the bridge to the old gateway into the town, the Puerte de Palmas, now bereft of the walls it once stood between. We walked up to the Alcazaba and with the help of Wikipedia and “The Peninsula War – A New History” we negotiated our way round the walls and battlements and lidentified the key locations of the bloody siege and storming of Badajoz in 1812.

Although there is a small museum in the Alcazaba it is dedicated to the peoples of the area across the millennia – Prehistoric, Romans, Visigoths, Moors, Spanish – rather than the many battles and sieges this border fort has experienced and we had to work out for ourselves where the main action occurred. It was a beautiful day and an educational one, and we thoroughly enjoyed our exploration.

Next day we crossed the Portuguese border and were soon at the hilltop town and UNESCO World Heritage site of Elvas, just 13 miles from Badajoz.  As we approached the town’s massive, fortifications and two satellite forts – Santa Luzia and Graça – were clearly visible from the road. We parked close to the very impressive Aqueduct of Amoreira, wrapped up warm against the cold wind and went to explore. Fort de Graça was temporarily closed but there was plenty to keep us occupied.

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Elvas was established by the Moors and the Arab fortress of the town was developed by subsequent rulers athen in the mid-17th century the largest bulwarked fortification in the country was built around the town and strengthened over the next hundred or so years to produce a complex fortification of moats, ditches, man-traps and star-shaped ramparts. It was so impressive that 1000 men saw off a siege by 15,000.  Of course the reason we were here was because during the Peninsula War it was the base from which Wellington besieged and finally took Badajoz.

We walked up the hill outside town to Fort de Santa Luzia. built to prevent enemies from occupying the hill and it was really interesting to walk round its walls and examine the geometric design and scale of the fortification. We explored it’s underground passageway which linked it to the town, visited the Governer’s house with excellent views all the way to Badajoz, and a small military museum with weaponry, military documents, honours and photographs.

Lunch in a popular local restaurant – a dish of really delicious octopus salad

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and an overdose of local pork dishes – fortified us (pardon the pun) for a visit to the Elvas Military Museum, based in the Casarão barracks, occupied right up to 2006 when the Portuguese Army was reorganised. The only visitors we were met by a military guard who directed unlocked the buildings for us, housing displays from cavalry and horse-drawn artillery related items to military medical history and from army communications to sheds with a fascinating array of military vehicles.

After saying ‘adios’ to our friendly escort, we headed back up across the town to the small British Peninsular War Cemetery. with some interesting memorials to the losses the garrison suffered at Badajoz and Albuera.

We paid a brief visit to the Castelo – not very interesting – and finished our walk round the walls of the fortification as light started to fall. The fortifications are truly impressive and it was difficult to imagine it ever falling in a siege.

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We spent the night beneath the aqueduct alongside a couple of other drifters (sorry, motor-homers).

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