In Elvas: hike to Forte da Graça - Vuelta a Iberia - CycleBlaze

October 24, 2019

In Elvas: hike to Forte da Graça

Last night we went to bed thinking we would take a ride to Vila Viçosa today.  This morning though, we reconsider and decide to take the day off the bikes and take a hike.  This decision was not influenced by the thought of hauling our bikes up and down to the agonizingly steep steps to our Elvas apartment, or of biking through the city’s cobblestone streets.

Elvas is a genuine attraction, a place that obviously deserves some slow-paced attention.  We want to have the time and enthusiasm to take a good look at its walls and aquaduct, and often after a bike ride we find ourselves pretty content to just sit around and relax until dinner.  Walking seems like the best mode for the day.  We’ll see the town, and then take a walk out into the country somewhere to round out the experience.

We don’t really have an idea of where else around here to walk to, so we pull up the map, stare at it for inspiration, and settle on Forte da Graça (more properly known as Nossa Senhora da Graça Fort, or Conde de Lippe Fort) as the day’s destination.  Standing on a low hill north of town, it looks like if nothing else it will provide some good views back at Elvas.

We plot out a loop that picks up a couple of the city’s highlights, then follows along the fortified walls to the aquaduct before heading north for the hill.  Roughly nine miles, and a respectable bit of climbing.  It should fill the day and earn us a decent dinner at the end of it.

Walking to our first target, the Church of the Dominicans, we see that the streets of Elvas are themselves a major attraction.  They have a uniform color scheme, whitewash lined with gold trim, that is very attractive.  Each street and alley you pass by looks like a minor work of art.

Elvas has passageways and arches everywhere you turn, it seems. This is Arco do Bispo.
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And, Elvas has cats! How long since we’ve seen a cat in this journal? Too long.
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Lyle McLeodTrip kitties are a good omen !
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The small Church of the Dominicans is quite plain from the outside, but our guidebook claims that the interior is very special; and so it is.  It’s an octagonal, domed structure supported by beautifully painted columns, its walls lined by fantastic azulejos (the colorful tin plated tilework that is so characteristic of Portugal).  It’s wonderful to stare at and admire its beauty; and at the end, you can climb up the tower to a small mirador and enjoy a wonderful panoramic view of the town and its surroundings, taking care not to tumble over the low railing.

Inside the Church of the Dominicans
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Inside the Church of the Dominicans
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Inside the Church of the Dominicans
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Looking down from the mirador
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The view toward the aquaduct, from the Church of the Dominicans.
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This 19th century arch is known as the Tempre Gate, in memory of a battle between the Knights Templar and the Moors in which the wall was breached here.
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This tower stands in front of the Dominican Church, which is behind us. Ahead is the Tempre Gate.
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For the next half hour or so we follow the walls, working our way counterclockwise toward the aquaduct.   They’re a remarkable construction, with layers separated by a dry moat.  You can walk along the top, within the city; or drop into the moat if you’re lucky enough to come upon one of the secret passages; and get back out again if you’re lucky enough to find another.

It’s pretty slow going, and we probably only walked an eighth of the circumference.  You really could make a half day’s project of walking the complete loop.

The edge of the upper walls.
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The view from outside the outer wall.
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Finally, we come to the famous aquaduct.  We of course biked beneath it yesterday on our way into town.  We didn’t really take the time for a proper look then in our haste to meet our host on schedule and get out of the cold.  Today though we can take time to appreciate its lines and grand scale.

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Finally, it’s time to leave town and walk up to Forte da Graça.  Just a mile north of town as the crow flies, it looks like a pretty simple walk - but isn’t.  You can’t walk straight toward it, because there is no breach in the walls in that direction - you have to go long out of the way and exit west by the aquaduct, or east through the Sao Vincente gates.  We’ll walk out through the first and come back through the latter later in the afternoon.

We mapped out a route that avoids walking on the road as much as possible, and plan to walk up a named trail that begins at the base of the hill.  When we get to the base of the trail though there’s no there there, at least that we can see; so we just stick to the road all the way to the top.  Not bad, but not the most appealing walk.

Forte da Graça, at the crown of that hill. You can see a trail diagonalling down the hill toward us, which we intended to walk. I can’t see that it actually reaches the road though.
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We passed this little farm coasting down toward town yesterday, and I was sorry to not stop for the cute black and white goats. Nice to get a second chance.
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Melons! We’ve been having one of these for breakfast at our apartment here.
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When we arrive, we’re pleasantly surprised. Forte da Graça is a much more rewarding destination than we’d really expected.  I was puzzled about why this little fort is even here.  It was built in the late 1700’s to protect Elvas from shelling from this hill, which stands higher than the city.  I’m no fortifications expert, but from the English literature provided it is described as a masterpiece of design, solving the problems of both providing robust fortifications to protect it from capture and housing a garrison of almost 1800 men in a very small space.

The fort had fallen into ruin, but has recently been completely restored and is now a museum piece.  Well worth the visit, but probably not by foot.  

The flags of Forte da Graça: Portugal, Elvas, the European Union, UNESCO
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The main gate, Forte da Graça
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The walls and some of the housing quarters.
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The view through the walls to Elvas - near enough to be within shelling range.
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The central redoubt and governor’s quarters.
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Looking along the walls toward the officer quarters.
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The chapel.
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The barracks. It’s hard to imagine 1,800 men were quartered in this small fort.
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Standing guard over Elvas
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Some of the officers quarters, which stand at each corner of the square. Much nicer than sleeping in the barracks tunnel.
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The view to the northwest
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After enjoying lunch in a bench outside the fort, enjoying the view over Elvas in the shade of some old almond trees, we started the walk back toward town.  We failed in finding the trail up the hill, but had no problem on the way down - the trail branches off from the paved road in an obvious spot, right where our GPS says it should be.

Our return route follows this trail as it spirals clockwise down the hill, ending at a dirt road that will eventually lead us back to town.  It’s a pleasant, stony trail, until it degrades a bit to a dirt path, and then to a barely discernible passage through the undergrowth.  Finally, it ends at a freshly plowed field, a few yards from the road.

Which stands just on the other side of a six foot fence, topped by a double strand of barbed wire.  Uh oh.  We’re in someone’s private property.

The fence looks unassailable by us, so we walk its perimeter looking for a weakness.  We come to the main gate, padlocked.  This gate isn’t topped with barbed wire, so I consider whether we can scale it.  I even scramble up with difficulty and straddle the top, and balance there as we consider whether I can get down the other side safely and if Rachael could come along after.  Finally we conclude that this is a recipe for disaster, and I gingerly climb back down.

Glumly we start retracing our steps, planning to climb back up to the fort and walk home the way we came.  It looks like a very long afternoon.

And then, a miracle occurs.  Rachael spots another, lesser gate with a weakness.  The fence is only loosely attached to the ground here, and if we lift the post and angle the fence out a bit we can just barely limbo beneath it.  Safe passage!!

Very nice. Just the sort of path we were hoping to find.
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What the?? I managed to angle up to the top along that diagonal bar, but dropping down the other side and bringing Rachael along afterwards was just too foolhardy.
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We’re free!! The fence pole just behind Rachael can be lifted from the dirt and pulled outwards just enough to provide a shallow clearance.
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Jen GrumbyWhew!! Much better than climbing over the tall gate.
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Scott AndersonTo Jen GrumbyDefinitely. I was relieved to get down safely. I keep forgetting how old I am.
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After that, the two mile walk back to town is pretty anticlimactic - a good time thing.  It’s much warmer today, and as we walk along the base of the hill we think over and over again of how happy we are to not be climbing back up to the fort again.  And, as we pass another farm with a large, angry German Shepard snapping at us from the other side of the fence, we reflect on how lucky we were that there was no dog present where we were trapped.

Coming back into town, we pass through a series of two gates, the Sao Vincente Gates.  They’re both the same - narrow, with elbow bends within the middle, cobblestones, no sidewalks, used by both cars and folks on foot.  When a car comes by, you plaster yourself to a wall and inhale.  And you know when a car is coming because you hear them rattling on the cobblestones, and they unfailingly honk at the entrance and at each bend in the tunnel to warn oncoming cars.  It must be awful to live near this spot, listening to cars intermittently honking all day long.

Over dinner, we have a cause to celebrate again.  After our narrow escape, our AFD streak holds - sixteen adversity free days, and counting!

A last look up at Forte da Graça
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At the inner Sao Vincente Gate
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