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An Iberian Pilgrimage

May 18, 1986|STUART NIXON | Nixon, general manager of the Redwood Empire Assn., San Francisco, and a retired Army officer, has studied military history for 30 years.

A trio of museums introduces the era; the Museo Militar, Museo Navale and the Royal Coach exhibit, where sumptuous carriages convey the pomp and extravagance that was Portugal.

Civil War buffs spend their holidays tramping the battlefields of Gettysburg and Bull Run, their nights in Holiday Inns and Howard Johnson's.

I spent my three weeks pursuing the Duke of Wellington through Portugal and Spain, sleeping in palaces and paradors, entranced by fados and flamenco . Bull Run it wasn't.

Americans know almost nothing about the six-year Peninsular War that helped topple Napoleon. The first misconception is that the Iron Duke did the job in a single shoot-out at Waterloo. The full story covers the years 1808 to 1814 when the duke led a small British and Portuguese army against the French veterans, who often outnumbered him six to one.

The campaigns included 23 major battles and sieges. They began outside Lisbon, continued northeast into the Spanish plains and concluded across the Pyrenees in southern France. Bonaparte, who initially scoffed at the British "insolence," ended by lamenting, "It was the Spanish cancer that ruined me."

For the Peninsular pilgrim, many of the battlefields and fortresses retain the look of that stirring time almost two centuries ago; the countryside and cities are off the tourist routes.

We began our campaign in Lisbon, city of good hotels, great and small. A trio of museums serves to introduce the era; the Museo Militar, Museo Navale and the Royal Coach exhibit, where sumptuous carriages convey the pomp and extravagance that was Portugal.

In Lisbon we rented a car and drove north 20 miles to the cool mountain resort town of Sintra. It has a palace-hotel, Seteais, where travelers can linger in style.

Seteais is said to mean Seven Sighs, supposedly uttered by residents when the British signed a disgraceful treaty with the French in the building.

In 1808 Wellington had administered the first of his surprising defeats to the proud invaders, but his timid superiors, arriving late and lacking his confidence, allowed Bonaparte's army to sail home with their plunder.

The first battlefields are a few miles north: Vimiere and Rolica, not overly commemorated by monuments, and Torres Vedras, where Wellington's engineers based a line of forts in the steep hills and ravines that the French never dared assault.

Marshal Massena probed a while, then retreated into Spain with his starving troops. Ft. San Vicente is near the town and is easy to identify. At Sapateria, near Torres Vedras, locals show a pair of villas that allegedly sheltered the duke and his staff.

A short drive north of Coimbra is the Forest of Bussaco, another Peninsular battle site, where you can stay in a 19th-Century royal hunting lodge converted to luxury-hotel status. The forest, planted by monks, has cool paths for afternoon strolls and a monastery where, the sacristan insists, the duke spent the night after defeating Massena on the hill a few hundred yards east.

A small but excellent museum nearby explains the complicated Battle of Bussaco (September, 1810). Massena, whom Napoleon often called his finest commander, disdained the upstart British-Portuguese force that occupied the hill at the head of the steep ravines.

In tactics that anticipated Waterloo, the duke concealed his infantry behind the slope until the last moment, then sent them forward in thin lines to pour deadly musket fire into the climbing columns. You stand in the British command post and wonder how the French marshal could have been so arrogant, so heedless of his men's lives.

From Bussaco a side route leads northwest to Oporto, Portugal's second-largest city and the scene of a daring river crossing where Wellington surprised the French. Oporto is minimally interesting to me, except for the port wine "lodges," about 40 of them, that occupy the south bank of the River Douro.

Free tours and generous sips abound. But the roads of central Portugal are rough and narrow, so drivers may choose to head from Bussaco straight northeast to the Spanish border, where public thoroughfares improve notably.

We crossed at Fuentes de Onoro, a primitive village and the scene of a desperate house-to-house fight in May, 1811. The stone-walled streets changed hands again and again as the battle swayed to a bloody draw.

An hour's drive east takes one to the walled city of Ciudad Rodrigo, dominating the River Agueda. This was one of the two fortresses Wellington had to possess to insure entry to Spain.

In a two-day assault (January, 1812) the British-Portuguese forces stormed the town but at dreadful cost, including two of the best British generals. Ciudad Rodrigo became the base for future operations, and it was never lost.

The principal fort on the town wall is now an elegant inn, the Parador Nacional de Enrique II, with a most distinguished cuisine. In the courtyard, reclaimed brass cannonballs adorn the hitching posts and a rose garden blooms where soldiers died.

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