The dramatic story of the Lieutenant King of Almeida served as a pretext and context for the animation program “1810 and the Mysteries of the Fall of Almeida” Smell the gunpowder. Prime and load!
Hours of terror forever marked that fortified village, Portugal’s defensive bastion in Riba-Côa. Almeida, the star of the countryside.
On that day in August 26, 1810, the morning awoke to the sound of French artillery. Upon the village gates, an army of 14,000 French soldiers commanded by Marshal Ney tightened the siege on the garrison of Anglo-Portuguese troops led by Colonel William Cox.
The smell of gunpowder, the boom of artillery pieces, the clamor of troops weighed in the air like an omen of death.
Throughout that day, 6,177 grenades of artillery were fired, and almost nine tons of gunpowder was consumed. But, as always, Almeida, resisted. It was vital that it resisted.
The Duke of Wellington, the genius strategist who would defeat Napoleon in Waterloo and who would lend his name to a beef dish, had sent enough provisions and ammunition to the garrison to endure the first clash of the third French invasion, commanded by Massena. The plan was to slow down the advancing French troops to give time to conclude the Lines of Torres Vedras, essential to Lisbon’s defense.
Since the Reconstruction period, Almeida was a key piece in the defensive mesh of the border. The current structure of the monumental plaza-fort began to be erected in 1641 by the Governor of the Arms of the Province of Beira, Álvaro Abranches, and its construction was finished at the end of the 18th century with the Count of Lippe. It is a notable work of military architecture with a floor plan in an irregular star with six bulwarks interspersed by six curtains with ravelins in a nearly unassailable wall that extended 2,500 meters.
It was precisely at the point of these bulwarks that the British troops and Portuguese militia set out their artillery, fighting back the French attacks ferociously. Despite the numerical inferiority of the Anglo-Portuguese troops, the battle and the siege would last. In the bustle of war, the Lieutenant King, Colonel Francisco Bernardo da Costa e Almeida, with a notable military career and second commander of the Plaza, conducted the defensive operations and supervised the logistics. The gunpowder magazine with the ammunition and gunpowder was sheltered and protected from enemy attacks in the old castle of Almeida. It was from there that the ammunition and the barrels of gunpowder were taken to the battlefront in the bulwarks.
At 7 pm, when enemy fire had regained intensity, a French grenade exploded inside the fortress, unleashing a lethal fuse on a trail of gunpowder from a poorly sealed barrel. A trail that went directly to the gunpowder magazine where the barrels of gunpowder and nearly one million of infantry shells were kept.
The explosion was terrible and destructive. Close to 500 people were killed, both civilians and military, the stone blocks of the castle were projected more than a hundred meters from the French trenches, provoking numerous casualties.
On the inside of the plaza, the scene was devastating, destroyed houses, bodies sprawled across the streets, and many injured people. The Anglo-Portuguese artillery was reduced to 200 men and the situation of the quartered troops became unsustainable. At 9 am the next day, a delegate of Massena proposed the surrender of the troops under siege. William Cox, with injured pride, was unwilling to surrender and wanted to get even with the adversary, proposing unacceptable conditions for capitulation. The discouragement was generalized and the troops’ morale was extremely low. Some soldiers deserted, and others joined the French. In a desperate situation, the Lieutenant King Costa e Almeida convinced Cox to call on the War Council, where the surrender of the Anglo-Portuguese troops was agreed upon. This gesture of pragmatism would later be worth an accusation of betrayal for the Lieutenant King for “committing weakness and showing discouragement.”
After being imprisoned in the Castle of São Jorge in Lisbon, where he wrote a pungent letter claiming his innocence, the Lieutenant King Costa e Almeida would end up summarily tried by the English and shot mercilessly.
It was the precisely this hero, the Lieutenant King Colonel Francisco Bernardo da Costa e Almeida, the central character of the animation program “1810 and the Mysteries of the Fall of Almeida,” integrated in the cycle “12 in network – villages in celebration” promoted by the Historical Villages of Portugal, in partnership with the municipalities of the 12 historical villages, in this case with the authority of Almeida.
Throughout two days, this initiative took the population from that beautiful border village and hundreds of visitors to travel through time to the time of the French invasions and discover the numerous enchantments and stories that this stunning borderland has to tell us. Let’s go to them!
Prime and load!
The “Almeidão” and the origin of the Almeidas
A hill of walls on the plain, that’s how the walled star of the countryside proposes itself, distant, to the eyes of the traveler. In the afternoon of a spring but robust sun, the village seems to go back into the mist of history, like in a vision of D. Quixote. That’s how the double gates of São Francisco da Cruz seem to be; they seem to transport one through time. The Arabs called it Al-Mêda or Talmeyda (anything like a table or a plateau) and would have erected a small castle (8th-9th centuries) here, but it was during the period of the Christian Reconquista that Almeida gained strategic importance for being located near the Côa River and occupying a lookout spot on the border.
In Portugal, the Almeida family is of toponymical origin, which means that everyone from Almeida will have their roots here. The first was known as Almeidão, for his gallantry in fighting against the Moors. His name was Dom Payo Guterres Amado, and he was the one who took the Castle of Almeida of Riba-Côa, receiving the title of Sir of the Castle of Almeida from King Dom Sancho I. “Dom Paio Guterres Amado bequeathed the Castle to his descendents who will take the name Almeida as the family surname. The first member of the family to receive the Almeida surname was Pedro Paes de Almeida, son of Paio Guterres Amado.”
One of the original Almeida descendents had a tragic, sad story – the Lieutenant King Francisco Bernardo da Costa e Almeida.
The party schedule designed by the Municipal Council of Almeida begins precisely with his biography, which has been well-documented and called to a temporary exhibit inaugurated in one of the bunkers of the Almeida History and Military Museum. The bunkers are subterranean galleries that date back to the 18th century, constructed for military defense, composed of twenty rooms and halls that now gather an interesting collection of Portuguese military history from the times of the Lusitanians and Romans to the Middle Ages to the liberal Peninsular Wars to the First World War. A required visit for anyone passing through Almeida, to admire the sword that belonged to D. Nuno Álvares Pereira, with running wolves engraved in the blade, the Renaissance cannons, or the nationally manufactured blunderbusses from the 18th century.
After the inauguration of the exhibit dedicated to the Lieutenant King, a dinner to compensate our wronged hero marked the presence of his descendents, a way for the local authority to pay tribute to the memory of Colonel Francisco Bernardo da Costa e Almeida. With the diners decorated rigorously, recreating the environment of the period, there was a tasting of the flavors of the period, at least a few, such as the roasted lamb. But Almeida is also known for its recipes from the border or, for example, the famous bucho raiano, which is the reason for the annual festival in the neighboring village of Freineda.
For digestive purposes, it was a cocktail and story-telling reception, evoking Romanesque and historical episodes of the village of Almeida.
Afterwards, we retired to the barracks, which, in the case of Almeida, can be one of the welcoming, intramural local accommodations, such as the Casa do Ti Messias or the Revelim.
It’s a pity that there is still no hotel baron that has set their eyes and some millions in the magnificent building of the Fleet Barracks, ordered to be erected by the Count of Lippe in the 18th century. It is the old Infantry Barracks, which could be one of Portugal’s most extraordinary period hotels, if it maintains its sober, functional austerity of a barracks from the 18th century.
Flavors of Almeida
To start Saturday off well, nothing like cake with coffee. Even better if we are the ones to bake the cake. This was the purpose behind the workshop for regional sweets held in Picadeiro D´El Rey, conducted by the delightful duo Ana&Belén. Both work in the council, but as almost everyone else around, they enthusiastically lend themselves to multiple activities and knowledge. The challenge now is to make a good basket of economic biscuits of Almeida to take to the community picnic as soon as possible.
It’s time to get your hands dirty under orders from our instructors. “It’s a very old recipe. I learned it from my grandmother. It’s a dry cake made with simple and economic ingredients, sugar, eggs, oil, milk, flour, and spirits, accessible to those with lesser means. Along with the esquecido, the bola parda and the bola doce, these are the most typical cakes here,” explains Ana, who, after being born and living in France, returned to her parents’ country ten years ago. “I really like living here. It’s another tranquility, and it’s a small community where everyone knows each other.” The smell of spirits and cakes in the oven is a powerful mixture for a sensitive, morning smell; the economic biscuits are ready to go into the oven. Belém is Spanish, but her husband is from Junça, a parish close to Almeida. Transborder marriages and relationships are common around here. Belém explains that one of the cakes is known as the “falta rapazes.” It’s a sweet cake made by the butlers of the Party of Senhor da Barca, in the chapel half a league away from the walls. “Back in the day, this party was held for the youths who were heading off to battle, but with the lack of youths, they started including girls as butlers of the party, which is always held on the seventh week after Easter,” explains Belém.
With the biscuits baking in the oven, time to visit the beautiful building of Picadeiro D`El Rey, the old Artillery Train building that has been reconverted into a center of equestrian activities, and to visit the stables where Zara, the gorgeous white mare, and four other stunning horses are. Picadeiro D´El Rey promotes vaulting classes, rides on horseback or by chariot, but there are still other reasons of interest for curious people who like to dabble in everything. In the garage, a small museum of automobiles and old engines where a classic Harley Davidson with two Fordsons and a yellow Renault 4 L sit next to each other. The MBT Center is also installed here to provide support to the new bike-riding adventurers who want to discover this plateau region of Riba-Côa.
Before lunch, there is time to walk along the extensive hexagonal wall and rummage through its bulwarks and ravelins from where we can scan the plateau’s horizon that extends to the end of our gaze.
There are no enemy troops in sight, we can eat lunch well-rested and attack a big, fat boar stew, a point of local animation, outside of the walls, but with a privileged view over the Double Gates of São Francisco da Cruz and the rotunda with a poem by Sophia Mello Breyner engraved in the granite. “The initial day whole and clean (…) and free, we inhabit the substance of time.”
Here in Almeida, the substance of time lives a different era, one of history and everyday life, that runs serenely like a spring breeze along the terrace of a restaurant on a full stomach. Gastronomy is a reason for pride in the land and region, featuring the various sausages and some typical dishes of this border region that can be tasted here in Almeida. If you prefer, take a stroll or go on horseback on the road to the village of Malpartida, where the restaurant “O Caçador” is located, where they serve, among other delicacies, the best doce de requeijão of the Condado de Portucale, a creation by Betty, the delicate hands of the unmissable restaurant, along with her friendly husband, Victor, who does the honors of the house.
Episodes of War and Peace
One can face a war simulation game better on a full stomach, explained to a group of schoolchildren by three “generals” experienced in war board games. This simulation game in which little lead soldiers are used for a board game with the topography of a battleground is played with dice and has complex rules. Perhaps, besides the History teacher, the little ones should be accompanied by a Mathematics teacher. The objective is to attack enemy positions, moving the pieces – artillery, cavalry, infantry. It requires strategic thinking and luck with the dice. Curiously, the original rules of the game were inspired by a book by a known pacifist, the writer H.G. Wells. The work is called Little Wars and was published in 1913 and adapted to Funny Little Wars, and from there began an authentic “movement” towards war simulation games that were really popular, especially in Great Britain and the United States, and it is also used by a large part of the great military academies of the world, such as West Point.
Currently, there are small groups of enthusiasts, old school “gamers” who try to perpetuate and circulate the game’s beauty.
War and the military art are encoded in the genetic code of Almeida, in its architecture, and in its history. That’s why the members of the Historical Reconstitution Group of the Municipality of Almeida (GRHMA) rigorously enact the events of the period of the Peninsular Wars. The men (and some women) are impeccably dressed as French or British soldiers, the ladies with their taffeta dresses, hand-held fans, and 19th century manners. A line marches through the streets in a military march, followed by a chariot of ladies. They march to the community picnic location and the stage of an 18th century dance workshop. The local population and a euphoric group of Spanish excursionists spread out across the lawn, sharing bread, cheese, good sausages, wine, and lemonade. From time to time, a musket is fired, demonstrating the firearms of the period. Even more strident and scarier are the shots fired from the cannon, which even shake the earth and lower the volume of the conversation of the Spanish excursionists. There is nothing to fear. The men of this artillery battle know what they’re doing, and the ammunition is only smoke and noise. When the command is heard – “prime and load” – people automatically cover their ears.
But let’s forget the wars and discuss the dances and music.
Mirjam Dekker is a dancer and instructor who specialized in traditional dances of the world, especially from the Netherlands and the Balkans. She has lived for many years in Barcelos and has taken traditional dance workshops throughout the country and abroad. For this party in Almeida, she prepared a set of 18th century dances that she teaches the officers, the rigorously dressed ladies, and all the people who want to join. The group of Spanish excursionists does not waste time to join the dance. “There are documents and engravings that allow recreating the 18th century dances and their choreographies. They were community dances where the pairs would circulate throughout the dance, narrowing the ties of belonging to the group. For this, I chose some of the easiest choreographies so that everyone can learn and execute them without too much training,” explains Mirjam.
After some natural stumbling and trampling, the group of improvised dancers start getting the steps right and circulating until the ends of the improvised stage on the lawn. “Another turn, and we step on manure,” said one of the ladies jokingly in the circle.
Two mules eat in the shade of a tree. They seem to be laughing between their teeth. I suspect they were the ones to set up the traps throughout the land in order to hinder the “progress” of the troops and the typical dances.
The afternoon falls into dusk slowly and the picnic baskets close.
The noble houses and the street of the cabbage plants at the door
Consult the party schedule to see what’s next in this rich cultural program, I read “Orfeão de Condeixa concert in memory of the Lieutenant King.” It’s time for Saturday Mass and the beautiful Nossa Senhora do Loreto Church is full. The polyphony of voices of the Orfeão de Condeixa, one of the oldest in the country, goes through an eclectic set from black spiritual music to compositions by Fernando Lopes Graça to an inspiring rendition of “Amazing Grace”.
It was in grace that I enjoyed the end of the afternoon to walk around aimlessly through the village’s streets and plazas. A land where time passes by slowly, but where there is a rich story to tell in each façade, each threshold. The combination of architectural styles does not compromise its unity. From 16th century houses, the few that survived the gunpowder magazine explosion, to noble solariums inspired by neoclassicism to old military buildings or to the Founding Wheel House, an institution created in the 19th century to take in abandoned children who were placed in a wicket that circulated within the house.
Leitões Palace (17th century), the Baroque building of the Brigadeiro Vicente House (18th century), and the Vedores Gerais House or the João Dantas da Cunha House deserve a visit and admiration.
The municipal council and the court are also excellently represented in two buildings that admire and respect themselves mutually, in front of each other. The separation of political and judicial powers. The council building was the old Main Guard Corps. “A building projected by Anastácio de Sousa e Miranda under the supervision of Miguel Luís Jacob. Construction began in 1791 in the location of the porches of the market. It constitutes, with the Fleet Barracks, as one of the subsistent examples of original military architecture constructed in Almeida and also one of the most emblematic in the War Plaza, given the monumentality and quality of the Neoclassic architectural features, with its expressive triple arched entryway,” as reads the plaque by the door.
It is also by circulating the streets and walls of Almeida that one discovers the appeal that creates a unique atmosphere and profound calm, perhaps strange for a land sculpted by war. For those who like to discover pretty doors or finely cut windows, Almeida is a constant box of surprises. Here, there is esteem, pride, and vanity in the land. Many balconies and windows are decorated or have rose framings, and the clean, serene streets rarely leave signs of ruin or abandonment, so common in other regions in the countryside.
In one of the streets, instead of flowers in the flowerbeds near the door, there are tall cabbage plants that seem to have spontaneously sprouted from the sidewalks stones.
The ginja and the man who survived a lightning ray
But a territory is also its people. And the people of Almeida do not fortify friendliness or put up walls before the visitor. You just have to enter through the door of an old tavern (founded in 1883) to discover that.
Inside, the capacity is for ten really eager people. Today there are half, four men clustered around the table with snacks and the “penalty,” that the ginja is good, but it’s more for tourists, according to the person responsible for the establishment behind the counter. “My mother began serving here when she was seven years old. She would place a wood box on the floor in order to reach the counter. She invented the recipe for ginja, but now she cannot continue at the tavern because she’s at a home. That’s why I am the one who keeps the house open.” More than just a cubicle tavern, this is a local institution. Mr. Vigário, leaning on the counter and sipping on this red wine, says that he has been a customer for more than 70 years. “I’m now 88 years old, but every time I pass by, I stop to drink a glass and for a chat.”
Despite the age, he is still very sturdy and has a sharp memory. “Listen, friend, I will tell you a part. When I was a boy, I would go with my uncle to take the cows to pasture, and a lightning bolt from above fell on us. My hair was all scorched, I lost my senses, and I had to run around the village and look for help. My uncle, who was a big man, passed away after seven days.”
Whoever survives a ray is forged for a hard life, as was the life of Mr. Vigário. Around these borderlands, it is common to hear stories of bravado of old smugglers, but it’s hard to find an old fiscal guard, as is the case of Mr. Vigário. “After the army, I enter the guard, and I had to go on foot or by horseback and guard the border. At the time, we knew everyone, guards and smugglers. We were all from the same villages, and it was a game of cat and mice. I never caught anyone who needed to smuggle for food, as was the case of many people. I only cared about the big hunt, such as tobacco. And I caught a lot of those talkers.” Mr. Vigário’s eyes smile in complicity. I drink a ginja, which is very good as a matter of fact, and Mr. Vigário says good-bye with a last, well-marked penalty. “In this one, the goalkeeper made a move,” he says in a joking tone.
A garage museum with Almeida in the soul
Mr. Júlio, an old military officer in Timor, worker of the waters and in the municipal council, hardcore Sporting Clube de Portugal fan, and monumental collector, also has good stories to tell. But a collector of what? Well, basically a collector of everything. “Since I worked in the council, I would run to all the villages and gather the stuff that no one wanted, from old locks to agricultural tools, such as scissors, ceramics, locks, dishes, mugs, knives, typewriters, canes, key holders, books.” The collection is impressive for its diversity and quantity. It’s all exhibited in Mr. Júlio’s garage, where he opens the doors in the afternoons to read the paper and show the collection with detailed explanations about each object to the visitors. It’s a garage museum, but go on inside. It is worth Mr. Júlio’s friendliness and some curiosities in his collection that includes pieces from the time of the gunpowder magazine explosion. “Almeida was detroyed, and that’s why it was easy to find traces from that disgrace back in the day.” Mr. Júlio proudly exhibits a lead sphere in the palm of his hand, a cannon ball that must have been used in those days that Almeida was under siege.
It was precisely these hours after the gunpowder magazine explosion that were recreated in a theatrical play historically reconstituting the events, designed by Américo Rodrigues’s new theatre company, “Teatro do Calafrio,” from Guarda.
The night session brought many people to pass through the locations where these dramatic episodes had unraveled over 200 years ago and ended up taking the Lieutenant King Francisco Bernardo da Costa e Almeida to the dungeons of the castle of São Jorge and to his execution.
To close the program of cultural animation, a play with marionettes where the Lieutenant King allied with a Machiavellian witch can finally take revenge on Beresford.
The docile spring night falls upon these proud walls, with the moon illuminating our steps, and all the steps on these streets seem to echo old stories of drama, passion, and battle. Along the wall, looking across the plains, I can almost swear that I hear the commanding voice of Junot’s nephew far off. “Soul until Almeida, soul until Almeida.”
The expression, as legend has it, is because of yet another episode in the Peninsular Wars. When Junot’s nephew was hurt in battle, on a long walk to the hospital from the Almeida campaign, he was losing his breath, deriving force from the command that tried to encourage him with the same expression that over two centuries later, the Portuguese national soccer player Fernando Santos used to moralize his “troops” and the country before the final Euro 2016 game, where we curiously defeated the French.
These days, with the highway bringing it closer, no soul is needed to arrive at Almeida. But whoever visits Almeida fills their soul.