Portugal # 11: Old Towns & Friends

Portugal # 11 Old Towns and Friends                                                                                           December 10, 2011                

            We’re back in Kingston, and I’m actually beginning to write the book for which I’ve been gathering data during the last umpteen years, trying to figure out what to do with the Portuguese material. I went to Portugal for the express purpose of ferreting out information about the origins of a group of silver miners who got into trouble with the Inquisition in Mexico in the 1580s and 1590s. The five key figures and the thirty or so minor players who appear in the written records of their trials were all born in Portugal, most of them in one or another of a half dozen towns aligned along the country’s mountainous eastern border with Spain. I’ve already noted in Blog 3 the constellation of factors—generic surnames, fragile paper, relentlessly obtuse handwriting, idiosyncratic abbreviations, and key documents incarcerated pending restoration and parole—that made my three weeks in the Torre de Tombo archives so frustrating. I learned a lot of fascinating stuff that may prove useful in some future project, of course, but is of negligible use in the current one.

            Nothing for it but to pull up stakes and go touring. We sketched out an itinerary that included most of the miners’ birth towns and—we being who we are—

the odd Roman road

                                                                                                                                                       an architectural gem,

                a mountain aerie,                                                              

   and a Roman / Celtic hill town.

Oh, and Fátima,   what with our other portfolio being pilgrimage. 


An easy loop, we thought, leaving us ample time to spend Thanksgiving with Nancy Frey, a former student of ours who now lives with her husband José and their three children in a village in Galicia. Reality, as it does, impinged. The roads in northeastern Portugal, curvy on the 1=1M national map and squiggly on the 1-300K regional map, in the driving turned out to be way beyond corkscrew, way beyond tilt-a-whirl. More like Medusa on a bad hair day. Two days into the loop we phoned our regrets to Nancy with a plaintive “We can’t get there from here.”


            But the scenery, if frequently white-knuckle, took our breath away. High ridges massed with tumbled boulders: rounded, jagged, diked with quartz veins and sparkling with mica. Rounded hillsides furred with broom, heather, and wild rosemary, their lower slopes dropping off to gorges where, between wisps of fog, we could sometimes make out the silvery glimmer of the Tejo or Douro Rivers. Stone shepherd huts, their humped roofs long since gone to sod. Stone walls in the Galician style: boulders or triangular steles at three-meter intervals filled in-between with courses of fieldstone. Remnants of stone windmills on the spines of ridges, and on the lower slopes circular stone dovecotes in various stages of disrepair. In the narrows of the lateral creeks we sometimes saw ruins of mills, a few with their millraces still white with racing water. 


In the morning, fog hid the rivers. By ten o’clock it hovered at mid-slope, slicing the landscape into two entirely separate worlds, each unable to perceive the other. When the road dipped into the fog layer, instantly we were creeping through cotton, unable to make out anything further than five meters in front of the car, but acutely aware of what we could not see: the chasm on one side of us, the near vertical wall on the other. But the fog was only momentary, and soon we emerged into the planet of the river gorge with terraced hillsides, ranks of grey-green olive trees, and once in a while, where the slope flattened to a small alluvial plain three or four meters wide fringing the river, poplar trees, their few remaining yellow leaves the only spot of color in that world. Then after a few serpentine twists the road would climb again, up through the terraces, into the wall of fog, and then just as suddenly out into a world of sun-drenched upper hillsides, bare most of them, or bouldered, but occasionally plaited with vineyards, eye-catching red or gold where they still held their leaves, gnarly and dead-looking where the leaves had already dropped. Sheep left by themselves to graze behind fences, or tended by a shepherd on the open stretches, his umbrella in hand, his blanket roll over his shoulders, his dog at his side. A bark, a wave, and on we went.


It was easy to imagine that this landscape has not changed very much since the Fonsecas and Almeidas, the Enriquez, Váez, and Rodríguez boys had said goodbye to their friends, shouldered a sack with their few belongings, and set out on their great adventure to Sevilla and then to Mexico. But I know that it has changed in many ways. In the 1550s the grapes and olives would all have been parceled into small family plots; today’s endless geometric rows are a product of large-scale commercial agriculture. Where today we see a few sheep, we would then have seen many, many more, for the Beira and Tras-os-Montes were one of Europe’s strongest producers of wool in those days. We would have seen a few mulberry bushes too, for in the late 16th century the silk industry was just beginning to build in the region; not a trace of them today. And, of course, the ruined windmills and water mills, the shepherds’ huts and gaping roofless barns and houses that dot this landscape today would have been alive with people, tending to their animals, scooping the ground grain into sacks, hanging out their laundry, and wiping away a tear as a favored son turned to wave goodbye before disappearing forever into the distance.

A few of the cities have preserved the core of the town that the Mexican miners would have grown up in. Often these are tagged “Centro Histórico”, a program that shields them from change and, at the same time, can be conveniently packaged to encourage tourism: pamphlet, map, historical markers, arrows pointing to recommended itineraries.


Freixo de Espada-à-Cinta (literally, Sword-in-your-belt) may have been our favorite town. It’s not on the way to anywhere; to get there, you have to want to go there. The landscape around it hollers “Remoteness,” and the echo replies “Poverty.” The Douro gorge that forms the border here with Spain is only five precipitous kilometers to the east, but unless you were a very determined smuggler, or an invading army

(or David and Linda, you wouldn't want to come that way.

And let’s say you did: once you had struggled up the long rocky hill from the river gorge, you would still have to contend with Freixo’s castle, the tower of which still rises from promontory at the top of the clustering town. Where the castle itself once stood, is now the town cemetery. 

But back in the day (the day being King Manuel I’s time, early 16th century), Freixo place was booming. Smuggling (of course), but mainly wool. Real fortunes, and many of the houses in the centro histórico show it. Walls of massive stone ashlars, door and window frames decorated in the florid Manueline style that bears the name of the king. In fact, proclaims its tourist brochure, there are more Manueline windows in Freixo than any other 

village in Portugal. The ornate church, which sits just below the castle tower, is about three times as grand as you would expect in a village this size. Freixo once held a substantial Jewish population (substantial = 30 families? 50?). The judiaria, the street on which the village’s Jews would have lived, is not marked, but precedents suggest that it most likely wound around the base of the castle.


What we brought home from this tour, as you can see, is impressions, not data. We found no concrete fact about any individual miner, but now we have some understanding of the environment in which they spent their childhood.

Covilhã, home to several of the Rodrigues, Núñez, and Tavares boys who ended up in Mexico, is now a large sprawling textile town draped along a steep flank of the Serra da Estrella mountains that are the backbone of the Beira region.

Fundão, home to no fewer than 21 members of Mexico’s crypto-Jewish community of the 1580s, preserves next to nothing of its ancient flavor. But it has a hell of a nice hotel, the Alambique de Oro, that looks like something out of the Arabian Nights, has two swimming pools and a gym, and whose restaurant serves delicious goat, but charges as if it were a mid-range pension.

Guimarães, hometown to Mexican Rodrigues, Váez, and Gómez, is a substantial city that was once the capital of the country. Palaces, museums, churches, a castle. The whole city is currently under construction to spruce it up to be the “Cultural Capital of Europe” in 2012, whatever that means.

Viseu, home city to six Mexican Fonsecas and a couple of Fernandez, and for several others from small towns along

  the border, a temporary way-station on their way to Sevilla and the Indies.


On the way back to Lisbon we stopped for a few hours at the old Roman garrison town of Ildanha a Velha, a village, wiped out by the plague twice (14th century and 18th), that now houses a few dozen villagers inside of the Roman ramparts. In its day (Roman) is was a stronghold. The Visigoths built a small cathedral there. Now it’s mostly olive farmers, and we caught the tail end of one family’s harvest right in front of the Roman gate into the city. Papa, with ladder and long pole, climbed into the tree and tapped the branches with just the amount of force to drop them onto the canvas tarp he had spread under the tree. Mama and daughters gathered the fallen fruit up, pulled off the larger twigs and leaves, and then filtered the rest through a sizer to separate the large and small olives for scooping into separate bags. For olive oil and for marketing whole for eating? We didn’t want to interrupt to ask them.

So, all in all we learned, we took notes, we took pictures, and I’ll try to figure out a way to work it all in somehow. Or not. We had a wonderful time wandering around up there, and that’s our real bottom line.

That’s how we ended the trip, with our heads in the distant past, the recent past, and the present. We dropped off our car in Lisbon, flew to Madrid, spent two days with our friend (and former pilgrim-student) Ana Sims, and lunched with another, Diane Beeson, who stayed on in Spain after the 1974 pilgrimage and whom we hadn’t seen in 37 years! Both of them lively, engaged, enthusiastic. Not rich, but happy. Us too.


David and Linda