Portugal # 5: A Beira

The Beira                    November 2011

            The Beira is a mountainous region along the Portuguese border with Spain. If you sliced Portugal horizontally into four parts, the Beira would be the second quarter from the top. The terrain, granite with a few outcroppings of slate, forms long high ridges and deep intervening valleys. Pine forests, olive trees, and Quercus quercus: cork oaks. Wherever there is a particularly unassailable protuberance near the top of one of the ridges, on it squats a town: Guarda, Almeida, Covilhã, Fundão, Freixo de Espada-à-Cinta. Castelo da Vide. Market towns growing rich on the 16th-century wool trade, with some smuggling to and from Spain on the side. Aside from pasturage, agriculture here is minimal, and still old fashioned.We saw no tractors, and there are still plenty of norias (mule or ox-powered irrigation wells) dotting the fields.


Towns in the Beira swelled in the 1490s when the Jews were expelled from Spain. In the 1540s, when the Portuguese Inquisition ginned up, they were scenes of intense tragic activity. In the 1580s, when Portugal merged with Spain (= Spain gobbled up Portugal) and exit visa requirements were relaxed, teenagers fled these towns to the commercial centers of Western Europe and the New World. Almost ALL of the crypto-Jewish Mexican silver miners I have been studying were born in these villages. In fact, almost ALL of the people in the 1580s and ‘90s who were accused by the Mexican Inquisition of practicing Judaism came from here.


Last weekend, umder threatening skies, we drove through the southern chunk of the Beira on our way to Salamanca in Spain to visit Conrad and Margarita Kent, old college buddies of mine (more of that, perhaps, later). We got a late start from Lisbon (our cabbie got lost on the way to the rental car address), so we didn’t have a lot of time to spend. We opted to invest a couple of hours in one of the towns on our way to Spain, and spend 2-3 days visiting the others on the return trip. We picked Castelo da Vide because it is one of the few towns in Portugal to have identified and rehabilitated its former synagogue, which has been turned into a museum. We drove into the town (that’s UP into the town) at 1:00, just as the museum-synagogue closed for a one and a half hour lunch break. So Linda and I picked one of the hole-in-the wall restaurants (easy choice: the only one open) and joined the half-dozen regular customers for lunch. For such an unpretentious and popularly priced little place, the menu was astonishing. Linda had a casserole of duck and rice, with a salad. I ordered a stew of wild boar. Each was delicious. Each by itself would have fed a family of four. We will undoubtedly go back the next time we’re in the neighborhood.


            At 2:30 we headed up the hill through the judiaria, the Portuguese name for the street(s) on which the pre-expulsion Jewish population tended to cluster or, in many cases, were required to live by law. Narrow, steep, cobbled, lined with whitewashed stone houses, many with the architectural touches that indicate their medieval or 16th-century origin, today the judiarias are distinguished from the neighboring streets only by tradition. And in most parts of Iberia, by their location, which is almost always in one of two areas. Some sit right below the castle that inevitably crowns the hill where it is clear that they are under the protection of the local noble lord, and where they will serve as a buffer for his lordship should the rabble turn violent. Others are at the butt end of town, the lowest spot in terms of altitude, the place that gets the clean water last. Next to the tannery, the slaughterhouse, the brothels. The area that put the “low” into lowlife. Castelo da Vide’s judiaria snuggled up to the castle. Parts of the street have been restored, but parts—as the sign says—are still in ruin, even though the neighborhood won third prize in 2001 for its flower boxes.


            From one turn of the street we got a lovely view back to the town clinging to the hillside. The fields below:  dark green olive trees and family-size patches of grapes, the different varieties now distinguished by their autumn colors. Looking back, we saw an old woman working her way up the hill, using her cane for support. In Castelo da Vide, and the other towns we drove through, women of a certain age still dress in black. And men of a certain age still wear a sport jacket, often over a sweater vest, topped by the sort of hat that golfers wore thirty years ago.


            The synagogue was a surprise. Larger than its neighbors, it sits on the corner of a steep incline and another street running horizontal across the hillside. From the flat-street side, it looked like a single story house, albeit wide enough to have two front doors, on one of which had been carved a small niche, presumably for a mezuzah (the case containing a small roll of prayer with which Jews mark their houses – see Deuteronomy 6:9). But from the incline it was obvious that the building reached down for three levels. An explanatory note in the museum informed that at some time after the forced conversion of the Jews the old synagogue had been combined with the house next door and converted to a private residence, even though it had continued to serve as a gathering place for Castelo da Vide’s crypto-Jewish convert community. It could all be so, but would have been more convincing to skeptics like yours truly if somewhere a confirming document or two had been cited. What was even less convincing was that a large niche in one wall was the place in which Jewish holy books, or maybe even a Torah, had been revered. Nowadays the niche holds a small donated Torah scroll in a glass case, next to which has been placed a modern Hanukah menorah (Hanukah was a holiday that seems to have been celebrated only rarely among Iberia’s crypto-Jewish community). I don’t know, it all looked like a fireplace to me.


            On the other hand, we found fascinating, and convincing, the pottery fragments, pieces of tile, buttons and pins, that archaeologists had extracted from the fill when they restored the house. And – supprisingly – into the lowest floor level several deep grain storage pits had been dug (we’ve seen similar ones, dating from late Paleolithic times right up through the Muslim period).

            From Castelo da Vide we sprinted to Salamanca, arriving just in time to have our Friday night dinner with Conrad and Margarita at an elegant Salamanca restaurant. Sunday morning we said our goodbyes and headed back to the Beira. It was clear when we left Salamanca; dark when we approached the border, hard rain and blasting wind when we entered the Beira. We holed up for the night in Guarda; it was raining too hard for Linda to go out to dinner. Monday morning as we dressed, and the wind buffeted our hotel and the rain sheeted against the windows, the TV showed pictures of flooded roads and houses, cars demolished by egg (chicken)-sized hailstones, and weather maps predicting continuance or worse. We drove, carefully, back to Lisbon.

 So much more did we want to see, that we have decided to cut short our Lisbon stay, and in a couple of days will head north again to the Beira to take a closer and hopefully drier look Covilhã, Fundão, Freixo de Espada-à-Cinta, Trancoso and Almeida, the home towns of our Taxco, Pachuca, Real del Monte, and Tlalpujahua mining friends.