What is the difference between a castle and a fort? In Portugal the answer is simple: the cannon. You see good castles make for good neighbors. Portugal and neighboring Spain had an occasionally violent past. There are dozens of castles and ancient walls wrapping towns and villages across Portugal today as a result. In fact, the Centro de Portugal region has just announced a major new initiative to promote its considerable fortified past of castles and forts to visitors.
While the Portuguese were master castle builders, the need for walls changed dramatically in 1453. That year the Turks used a new invention, the cannon, to blast through the “ impregnable” walls of Constantinople. It was a game changer – and Portugal was at the start of a great venture. Soon, Portuguese ships would be exploring the coast of Africa, seeking a sea route to the East – and the valuable trade that would be worth a fortune.
As Portugal built supply and trading centers from North Africa to Brazil to China, a new building style arose that was designed to stop cannons and warships: the fort. These new buildings were very different than the castles of old ???– the walls were low, and backed by earth. The walls were sloped and hard to climb. The result was that cannon balls bounced off, and did not bring them down. The forts were often star shaped – so cannon and gunshot could cross fire to create deadly killing zones. In France, Vauban would make similar designs famous, but for Portugal, this innovative building concept would be the keystone of a vast commercial empire – and act as an impediment to any invading army. And they came from both Spain and France. So, you can see that these ancient forts not only supported the first seaborne commercial empire, but also kept Portugal secure and independent.
Today, great Portuguese forts may be found on four continents, some of the best examples are well preserved in Portugal today – and here are our favorites!
Set not far from the Spanish border in the Centro de Portugal’s mountainous east is a masterpiece of design. Built to defend Almeida, just 6 miles from the border during the War of Restoration, the fort looks like a star from above. Almeida’s fortress was completed in 1641 with a 12-pointed star shaped design. David Álvares, architect, designed the walls. The fortress perimeter still includes a moat and massive gates built off a narrow bridge. The walls are intact, well preserved and easy to explore and admire. Inside the walls, several hotels offer guests views of the walls and surrounding hills. Outdoor cafes fill plazas, and the town’s well-preserved center has shops and places to dine.
The Berlengas archipelago is a group of small islands 6 miles off the coast, west of Peniche where the São João Baptista fort still dominates the largest island of the Berlengas. Also built for the War of Restoration, work began in 1651 and lasted into 1666. That year a Spanish fleet attacked the new fort, and was repelled in a blistering fight. The fort was repaired and expanded by 1678. Today, the octagonal design is still in tact with its terraces, narrow enclosed corridors and gun positions. The fort has a restaurant with rooms to rent, and offers sea views and simple accommodations. The islands are great for hiking, exploring caves, fishing, or simply relaxing.
Elvas, with Badajoz in view, is an old saying about this Alentejo border city. Elvas once guarded the road to Lisbon and was heavily refortified between the 17th to the 19th centuries to offer the largest bulwarked dry ditch system in the world. Within Elvas’ massive walls, we still find barracks and other military buildings as well as churches and monasteries. The city had always been walled, but the War of Restoration brought new forts and walls planned by the Dutch Jesuit priest Cosmander – so Elvas has the best surviving example of the Dutch school of fortifications on earth. The site also offers the Amoreira aqueduct, built to withstand lengthy sieges.
Today, Elvas boasts some 12 forts. The walls’ dry moat defensive system is considered a masterpiece that World Heritage described as “an outstanding demonstration of Portugal’s desire for land and autonomy, and the universal aspirations of European nation States in the 16th-17th centuries.” Today the historic city has lots of places to stay, including the redone Hotel Santa Luzia. The main plazas offer shops and places to eat, as well a few miles of walls to climb and explore.
Valença do Minho (Norte)
Set above the Minho River in the Norte de Portugal, Valença protected Portugal’s northern most borders. The massive fortress still looms over the Minho River with Spain on the other side. The star shaped fortress is a masterpiece of 17th century Portuguese military architecture. Not only is the town walled, but forts also protect two small hills to form a star separated by a moat. Between the interconnected forts is the historic town with pretty squares, medieval lanes and lots of shops, restaurants and inns, including a Pousada. Valença is in bloom in the spring, and often nicely cool in the summer – and its sparkling wines are always enjoyable.
The main city in the Azores is well defended by the Forte de São Brás – still operated by Portugal’s army. But for a small fee, the fort and its armament museum are open to visitors. The fort was built in 1552 on a promontory to defend the coast. It is shaped like a star, with massive earth-filled walls dominating the sea, and with sweeping views of the city – but few venture beyond the ceremonial armed guard at its gates and explore the 500-year old passage and vaults of S. Brás. That is too bad, as this is the most important military building in the Azores and the best-preserved fortification on the island of São Miguel. Outside the stone walls shops, and cafes thrive, so it makes a great place to explore and enjoy.
In 1566, pirates attacked Funchal, and a powerful fort was planned to defend the city. By 1614, Fort Santiago rose at the edge of the city, with massive walls and bursting with cannons. In the 18th century even more walls were added, and the colonial looking fort, set right on the sea, was a military base up until the 1990s. It was then totally restored, and became the home of a new Contemporary Art Museum. This is an unexpected bonus to this scenic location, with its yellow and stone fortress still guiding the old part of the lovely city of Funchal. Perhaps all it takes is sitting on the fort’s walls and watching the sunset over the Atlantic to really appreciate its location.