Wednesday, 23 September 2009


Vimerio is a small village about 40 miles north west of Lisbon. On 21 August 1806 Wellesley fought his second battle of the Peninsular War. He had landed at few miles further north and was marching on Lisbon. He took position on the hills either side of the village to cover the landing of British reinforcements at the nearby mouth of the Maceria river.

Vimiero is an easy and interesting battlefield to visit, as all the features are identifiable and the land undeveloped. The village, though still small, is much larger than at the time of the battle.

From Torres Vedras to take the N8-2 north west and in about 10 miles you reach the small village of Vimiero. In the centre of the village is a sign to “The Monument”, and this stands on the top of Vimerio Hill, on the south edge of the village. This very impressive monument is an excellent place to view the battlefield and view both the British positions and the area of the six French attacks.

Wellesley expected the French to advance against him from the south, and he therefore took up positions on the Western Ridge facing south, with Vimerio Hill providing his left flank But the French moved east and threatened to turn his left flank, so he changed the his whole deployment moving the bulk of his army to the Eastern ridge, turning Vimerio Hill into his right flank. Only one brigade remained on the Western Ridge.

Vimerio Hill dominates the approach to the village and four of the six French attacks were against this point. The remaining two were against the Eastern Ridge. All were to fail.

We were fortunate to have a lovely day for our visit, warm and sunny. Beside the monument was a seating area which provided an ideal spot to shelter from the bright sun and read Jac Wellers description of the battle.

Behind Jan is the area of the first four attacks. You can see that she is wearing very sensible shoes, because we had a lot of walking to do.

We walked down from the monument and inspected the area of the first three French attacks. Walking down the slight slope and around the base of the hill it was easy to imagine the determined French columns pushing back the British riflemen and light infantry until they reached the long red lines at the top of the hill. We had the whole area to ourselves, and could stop, sit and read from “Wellington in the Peninsular” before walking on towards the village.

Although the village has grown considerably since the battle, it still retains the character of a small Portuguese rural village. The fourth French attack consisted of a brigade of grenadiers who advanced along the side of the brook which runs through the village, which is where this photo was taken.

The church, being the strongest building in the village, was the centre fierce hand to hand fighting. The grenadier column pushed into the village, which was held by the 2/43rd and the two were soon fighting in the narrow, stone walled streets . The French were pushed back out of the village, bringing to an end the first phase of the battle.

After a snack in the village we turned our attention to the Eastern Ridge. This is a much more confused area, and much too large to explore on foot. We did however drive around, but found it difficult to pin point the exact location of the fifth and sixth French attacks.

By mid afternoon we had enough of walking in the hot sun. Its great fun walking battlefields, but you have to conserve your energy on hot days like this one. We decided to visit the bay where the British reinforcements landed. We followed the Maceira river through the gorge to the bay, where we sat, ate our lunch, and read some more Jac Weller. The beach was crowded with locals, who probably had no knowledge of the importance of this small beach on 21 August 1808.

Tuesday, 15 September 2009

The Lines of Torres Vedras

Torres Vedras and Sao Vicente 1810

We started our first day with a very hearty breakfast in our hotel right in the centre of Torres Vedras. The whole holiday was planned around walking on battlefields, and we didn’t want to have to find somewhere for lunch. So after breakfast we had a quick walk around the town and bought some fresh rolls, a chunk of cheese, a few apples and a couple of cans of pepsi. This would be the format for each day, a good breakfast to start and a picnic lunch at a suitable spot on the battlefield with Wellington in the Peninsula by Jac Weller for inspiration.

No problem parking - we were the only visitors

But first we had to check the plan and make sure we had everything ready. For each planned stop I had prepared a folder, containing a road map, detailed directions and photocopies relating to the visit. The directions consisted of a photocopy of the relevant pages from Julian Paget’s book “Wellington’s Peninsular War – Battles and Battlefields”. Each sections consisted of about four A4 pages with a brief description of the battle or area, a simple sketch , a suggestions of places to stop and how to get there.

For detailed information about each battle we were relying on Jac Weller’s “Wellington in the Peninsula 1808 – 1814”. This was the companion to his “Wellington at Waterloo” which had proved so useful for that visit. It has a chapter on each battle, a plan of the battle and usually a couple of photographs.

One of the photos we used to orientate ourselves

We had planned that each visit would follow the same routine. We would find the general area with the road map, then find each spot recommended in Paget’s book. We would find somewhere suitable to sit, and read the chapter from Weller’s book. I find his style easy to read and easy to understand. His descriptions of battles are very detailed and he quotes quite a lot from histories and diaries. So it is an ideal book to write on site. He also took photographs of most locations, and our aim was to find the same spot with the same view. Finally I had photocopies from various books relating to the particular battle we would visit.

The Lines of Torres Vedras

The Lines of Torres were built entirely by Portuguese labour but supervised by 18 British engineer staff. Every possible obstacle was constructed, using natural features where possible. Rivers were dammed, ravines blocked and the hills crowned by forts. They were not a continuous line like Hadrian’s Wall, but a series of mutually supporting redoubts, 152 in all. Each redoubt would have a garrison of 200-300 mean and 3 to 6 guns. They were connected by a semaphone system which could pass a message from Wellington’s HQ to any part of the lines within an hour.

The Fort of Sao Vicente dominates the surrounding countryside

Our first visit was to the strongpoint of Sao Vicente, which lies just to the north of Torres Vedras on the west side of the main road to Lisbon. This was one of the strongest positions of the Lines and has been reconstructed to give a very real idea of what it must have looked like in 1810

Sentry patrol path and garrison strong point

The fort was completely empty when we arrived and we were free to wander wherever we wanted. Not only the walls, but also the accommodation, storage and administration buildings, have all been reconditioned. It was so quiet and in such good condition that you could easily imagine that you were a Portuguese militiaman on sentry duty on the walls.

The forts dominate the surrounding hills

The fortress dominates the whole area, and you could see the outline of more forts on the hills stretching to left and right. Even with the sketch map it was easy to orientate yourself, and explore the area the French would have to pass to approach the fort.

administration and accommodations buildings

We spent a couple of hours walking around the walls both inside and outside, and exploring the many buildings. We sat on the wall with the photographs reproduced here and tried to identify each one. We read extracts about what garrison duty was like here, and what a surprise Marshal Massena had when he discovered them. He was completely unaware of the whole system of defences until he saw approached them and saw them himself.

Jan makes friends with a "local"

As we were about to leave Jan discovered this little kitten. It was a “wild cat”, but actually anything but wild. Jan is a real soft touch for casts, and particularly kittens, and this tiny cat was fed half of my picnic lunch!

Tuesday, 8 September 2009

The Best Laid Plans

Napolenic Wars memorial in Torres Vedras

Having found Julian Paget’s book “Wellington’s Peninsular War – Battles and Battlefields” in the Salisbury library I could get down to some serious planning. We both wanted to return to some of the sites we had visited with Holts, in particular Cuidad Rodrigo, Fuentes de Orono and Salamanca. We also wanted to visit Portuguese battlefields such as Torres Vedras, Vimerio, Rolicia and Busaco. Reading through Paget’s book I was confident that I could find all of these sites without too much trouble.

We came now to the part which I thought would be quite easy. Finding and booking hotels. This was 1994 remember, and it was not just a matter of “googling on the web”, or at least for me it was not. I went to my local travel agents to see what they could offer. I was very disappointed to discover that they really only had package tours available. Lots and lots of package tours, but none going where I wanted to go. At that time Holts was the only company that did battlefield tours to Spain and Portugal. We eventually found one agent who offered a “tailor made” holiday with a company called “Discover Spain”. In an ideal world we would have booked a Bed and Breakfast right on the battlefield, but this was not possible. They only booked Paradores (in Spain) and Posada (in Portugal). These are state run luxury hotels, and are available through some travel agents. The castle at Cuidad Rodrigo where we had spent a night with Holts was a Paradore. Unfortunately they are not in every town, and certainly not on every battlefield. However in most towns they could offer us 4 star hotels. We would have to work out a list of locations, and they would then see what they could book for us.

We decided that our tour would last 9 days. We would fly to Lisbon and hire a car. The travel agents booked us 9 nights accommodation:

Hotel in Torres Vedras
Hotel in Obidos
Hotel in Figueria
Hotel in Busaco (Paradore was fully booked)
Paradore in Cuidad Rodrigo
Hotel in Salamanca (Paradore was fully booked)
Paradore in Almeida (2 nights)
Hotel in Oporto

Based on this accommodation we would visit the following battlefields:

Day 1 – fly to Lisbon, drive to Torres Vedras (37 miles)
Day 2 – Explore the lines of Torres Vedras, visit Vimerio drive to Obidos (25 miles)
Day 3 – Visit Rolicia, drive to Mondego Bay (80 miles)
Day 4 – Drive to Busaco, explore battlefield (20 miles)
Day 5 – Drive to Cuidad Rodrigo, explore Fuentes de Orono (150 miles)
Day 6 – Drive to Salamanca, explore battlefield (75 miles)
Day 7 – Drive to Almeida, explore Fort Conception (95 miles)
Day 8 – Explore Combat on the Coa, drive to Oporto (160 miles)
Day 9 – Explore crossing of the river Douro, fly back from Oporto

The distances were carefully considered. Where there were a number of sites close by, for example Torres Vedras, Vimerio and Rolica we would plan a short days drive. If a long drive was involved we would only visit one site either before or after the drive.

At 0830 on 9 September 1994 we left Salisbury for Gatwick for our first fly-drive tour of Wellingtons battlefields. We were very excited, and not a little nervous, about how it would all go. Planning is one thing, doing quite another.

It was 6.30pm as we left Lisbon airport, right in the middle of the rush hour. Jan was driving and I had the map reading. Lisbon is like most big cities, very confusing. I only had a road atlas to follow, so we just had to find the right road. Torres Vedras in on a minor road called the N8, and is north west of Lisbon. Well north of Torres Vedras it reaches the town of Lerida.

Within minutes of leaving the airport we were on a four lane freeway. At the first junction I saw a sign for Lerida, and we took the road with relief. However within minutes I realized we were on the A1, a motorway which leads to Lerida, but on after a long loop north west. We would have to find a road to take us towards the coast and pick up the N8.

We left the A1 at the next junction and headed west, looking for a petrol station to ask for directions. Needless to say we could not find one. We did find a tiny village, which was not on my map. No petrol station, but a group of young lads on motor cycles looking very aggressive. I approached them a little apprehensively, especially as I don’t speak a word of Portuguese. I showed them the booking slip for the hotel, and one of them signaled for me to follow him. He took me a few miles to the next road junction and pointed out the right road. Just goes to show you should never judge people by appearances, he could not have been more helpful

Within half an hour we arrived in Torres Vedras. After our experiences in Lisbon I was a little worried how difficult it might be to find the hotel. I need not have worried. We drove into the town centre and saw the hotel right in front of us.

It was just gone 9pm. The receptionist spoke excellent English, and recommended a local restraurant in the main square to eat. No one in the restraurant spoke English, so I am not too sure what we ordered, but we would get used to that. After dinner we took a walk around the town centre. There is not a lot to see in Torres Vedras, but we did find the monument to the Napoleonic Wars. Again not too difficult to find, it was in the same square as our hotel!

I was not really too worried about our map reading disaster in Lisbon. For the next four days all of our driving would be along the N8, which is a nice little A road close to the coast.

We had found our first hotel and we were all set for our first visit – Fort Vicente one of the forts of the Lines of Torres Vedras.

Tuesday, 1 September 2009

Portugal and Spain - Going It Alone

Jan and I had so enjoyed our 1991 Holts Tour of Portugal and Spain that we were very keen to go again. First we explored the possibility of going on another tour with Holts. At that time they did two complimentary tours, one mostly Portugal and the other mostly Spain.

In 1991 we had joined the second week, which started at Lisbon but was mostly Spain. We were put off the Portugal tour because one chap who had done both said there was too much cultural activity, or as he put it “A monastery too far”

I knew what he meant, because on more than one occasion I had been disappointed that we left a battlefield to visit a city or a non military museum. You may recall that Jan and I had left the tour to spend more time on the battlefield at Salamanca rather than a “free afternoon” in the city itself. Or when we opted to stay at Talavara with the Military Attache from Madrid rather than spend the afternoon at Toledo. Holts are a very successful tour company, and I am sure that they know what their clients want more than I do. On the other hand I would prefer to spend more time “getting my boots dirty”.

We had no illusions about how difficult it would be to undertake a battlefield tour in Portugal and Spain. Neither of us spoke a word of either language. Neither of us had visited either country before, except with Holts. I was well aware from past experience how difficult it could be to explore a battlefield unless I could get hold of a good map and some directions about how to find each location.

The first decision was which battlefields to visit. I spent a lot of time poring over the map and trying to work out which battlefields to visit, in which order and for how long. I also wrote to anyone I thought might be able to help, including Don Featherstone who had written a book about visiting these battlefields. His reply was very informative and helped me to avoid some pitfalls. I also wrote to Julia Page, who had been one of the guides on the Holts Tour. She was also very helpful, in particular she advised me not to take on too much in one day – very good advice indeed.

Apart from a good road map I also bought a copy of Jac Wellers “Wellington in the Peninsular 1808-1814”. Jac’s “Wellington at Waterloo” had been a great help when we spent a week there in 1971, and I was confident that the Peninsular one would be just as good. I was not disappointed.

The book has a chapter on each of Wellington’s battles. There is also a simple line drawing of each battle. More important there are lots of black and white photographs. So I was confident that if I could find the place where he stood to take each photo it would be easy to orientate myself. I can not stress how important that is when visiting unmarked battlefields.

The only drawback to the book is that there are no directions on how to get to each battlefield. It would be easy enough to find the general location, but exactly where to park and how to find the right spot to view the battlefield was critical. Without that information I was not prepared to undertake a tour on our own.

I first saw Julian Paget’s book “Wellington’s Peninsular War – Battles and Battlefields” in my local library in Salisbury. As soon as I saw it I knew it was just what we wanted. Like Weller’s book, it also contained a chapter on each of Wellington’s battles, and a line drawing of each. No photographs, and the description of the battle was much less detailed, about 6 pages to each. But it had a short description “Where to Go” and also “What to See” on each battle.

For example the Battle of Rolica contained the following:

“The best place to start is the beautiful Moorish walled town of Obidos on the N8 between Coimbra and Torres Vedras. The Rolica battlefield is some 3 miles further south along the N8, about a mile west of the main road, and is signposted.. It is possible to drive still further south along the N8 and turn right to the village of Serranos, from where you can visit the second French position”.

With both books I felt I had all the information I needed, not only to find each battlefield but also to read background information when we were there. It only remained to decide how and where to go.

I will deal with that in the next blog.