Trevor Claringbold points the way to a tour of Wellington’s Peninsula wars in Portugal against Napoleon.
Mention holidays in Portugal and most people will instantly conjure up images of the clean sandy beaches along the Algarve. But there is far more to this superbly diverse nation, much of which is surprisingly untouched by tourism.
From the two principal cities, Lisbon and Porto, heading inland will unveil an ever-changing landscape. Rolling green hills peppered with pretty medieval towns, thriving vineyards, and dramatic river valley’s, lead to the stark boulder-strewn Beiras Mountains, where Viriatus once made his last stand to defend what was then Lusitania from the Romans.
This region of central Portugal; Centro as its known locally, has seen many battles over the centuries. Focusing a visit around a campaign such as the Peninsular War provides an interesting way to experience some of the best sights.
The French Napoleonic army invaded Portugal no less than four times between 1807 and 1812. The first time it was initially unopposed, and led to the British Army under Arthur Wellesley (later to become the Duke of Wellington) being sent to join forces with the Portuguese under a centuries old alliance.
His first days were spent at the Quinta das Lagrimas, a delightful palace owned by a friend of his, in the historic university city of Coimbra. The Quinta – now a popular 4-star golf, gourmet, and spa hotel – is steeped in legend, with the fabled ‘Fountain of Tears’, from the 650 year old story of Pedro and Ines, in its impressive grounds. Although little of the original palace remains following a fire in 1879, there is a definite sense of history as you amble through the bright, airy rooms.
Coimbra itself makes an excellent base for touring the surrounding area. Sitting astride the serene Mondego River, the city was Portugal’s capital in the 12th and 13th centuries. The university established at that time sits proudly overlooking the narrow streets, and leafy waterfront promenades, like a wise old owl surveying its kingdom. The main shopping zone, around the pedestrianised Baxia, offers enticing alleyways and ancient steps which lead you up to the fascinating old town. The Arco Almedina, a tall arch cut into the medieval city wall, is like a time portal transporting you up the steep lanes and back to the historic area around the university.
Less than three weeks after arriving, Wellesley had marched his army south, and defeated the French in battles at Rolica and Vimeiro, ending the first French invasion.
The following year the French returned, attacking from the north, and taking the coastal city of Porto. Wellesley, now Commander-in-Chief of the British Army, and Marshall of the Portuguese Army, heads north from Coimbra, and defeats the French who retreat into Spain.
Following the same endlessly wooded route today, Porto at first seems a stark contrast the rest of the Centro region, with tower blocks, industry, and a generally run down appearance greeting the approaching traveller. But then Porto is a working city; a thriving commercial centre, and a regional road and rail hub. As you near the centre, it becomes a happy blend of new and old, with the wealthy business area a happy neighbour to the old town’s twisting narrow streets. Porto’s dramatic location straddling the River Douro makes it a photographers dream. High bridges, including the double tiered Ponte Dom Luis I, separate the lines of pretty café’s, bars, and restaurant’s, which line the banks. The area of Ribiera has been much restored, with World Heritage Site status, and a plethora of museums, churches, and historic avenues all vie for the tourist’s attention. The Anglo-Portuguese victory over the French is remembered by a towering column, with a lion standing over a French eagle, in the north east of the city.
The River Douro – or River of Gold – follows a spectacular course through the remote north for more than 150 miles. It is possible to cruise all the way to the Spanish border, passing small villages surrounded by the lines of terraced vineyards which produce Portugal’s famous port wine.
The fortified town of Almeida stands imposingly on a hilltop, close to one of the Douro’s tributaries, and within cannon range of the border with Spain. The defences, in the shape of a twelve-point star which completely surrounds the town, are still largely intact, and are without doubt one of the most impressive in the Iberian Peninsular. Inside the protection of these walls, little has changed since Wellington’s time, and even today the two narrow parallel gatehouses have to be negotiated to enter and leave the historic centre. Inside, the whitewashed barrack house, the Governors house, and the Main Guard Corps building all still stand indifferent to the passing of time. Below the ramparts lies a huge casemate capable of sheltering up to 5000 military and townspeople, together with their supplies. The substantial dormitories, had water supplies, waste chutes, and even hidden entrances.
It seems surprising, therefore, that the French chose such a strongpoint at which to launch their third invasion, in September 1810. They laid siege to the town for 17 days, before a freak accident with some leaking gunpowder caused a huge explosion in the defender’s ammunition store. It destroyed the castle, killed hundreds of men, and those that survived had little choice but to surrender to the French.
As you leave Almeida, the modern road bridge across the high rocky valley hides a smaller, more illustrious ancestor below it. The old bridge survived another bloody battle, where the deep river chasm was used as a further defensive line. A small plaque and a cross remember those who died in this beautifully wild and rugged gorge.
At the nearby sleepy village of Freineda, Wellington’s winter quarters can still be seen. Bordering one edge of the small sandy square, a modern statue of the General stands outside the slightly dilapidated two-storey building. Sit under the old tree next to the church, and it’s easy to imagine him standing on the rickety balcony, sending a messenger off to the front line with new orders.
This border area, with its hilltop villages, plunging valleys, and giant glacial boulders scattered across the landscape, sees few tourists. It’s wild and desolate, but with an enduring appeal and a feeling that time passes more slowly here.
After the loss of Almeida, Wellington ordered his army back towards the coast, evacuating the population, and burning all the fields as they went. The French cautiously advanced, nervous about the lack of food, or people to help steer them through the highest mountain region in Portugal. They were being lured into a trap.
The area to the north of Coimbra rises steeply as the foothills to the mountains begin, but unlike the border regions, these hills are densely forested, with lush green vegetation. At Bucaco, the Benedictine monks had established a retreat deep in the woods as far back the 6th century. Later generations, with support from the Pope, began to develop the forest with an amazing variety of species from around the world. Today, it’s estimated that more than 700 different types can be seen. The original monastery was replaced by the Palacio do Bucaco, a royal retreat completed around the end of the 19th century. It’s now a five-star hotel, but still retains its regal elegance and period charm. The formal gardens, like the forest, are open for the public to enjoy, and the original Carmelite chapel, although surrounded on three sides by the palace, can still be visited for a small fee.
The refined, relaxed atmosphere is a far cry from that which would have greeted Napoleon’s troops when they arrived here to find the steep hillsides defended by Wellington’s well prepared and protected men.
The French suffered huge losses – almost 5000 men – before retreating, regrouping, and then bypassing the hill and heading for Lisbon. On the ridge above the forest, where the majority of the fighting took place, a small, but impressively comprehensive, museum gives an overview of the battle. Continue up the winding narrow road, and the view from the memorial gives an idea as to the commanding position those who held this hill would have had.
Wellington by now had removed the majority of his army back to the Torres Vedras, on the defensive lines which surrounded Lisbon. The French, after sacking Coimbra, march on across the lowlands towards the waiting Anglo-Portuguese forces, still completely unaware of the existence of these huge fortifications. By the time the Napoleon’s commanders realised their predicament, it was too late. The Portuguese cut the lines of supply and communication, meaning the calls for reinforcements never got through. The ensuing battle was the turning point from which the French never recovered. A long retreat in disarray followed, with a few border skirmishes marking their final departure.
With the exception of a few ruined fortresses, there is not much to see at Torres Vedras to remind the visitor of it’s illustrious past, although the pleasant old town centre is worthy of a brief stop. Like the French, it’s probably better to turn around and head back towards Coimbra!