Some centuries ago, this rugged mountainous area of Portugal was the region where many Jewish communities chose to settle and continue their ancestral traditions and forms of worship.
This city had an officially designated Jewish quarter in the 15th century, although no remains of this are visible today. Still standing are the old 12th-century walls and the square Gothic keep framed by the cylindrical towers of the castle. One of the most interesting buildings in the city is the Domus Municipalis (12th century) ), which was the medieval town hall. In addition to the city’s several churches, with their rich Baroque wood carvings, a visit is also recommended to the Museu do Abade de Bacal, with its interesting collections of epigraphic and ethnographic exhibits and its magnificent examples of Portuguese decorative art.
The town has many manor houses with beautiful and decorative facades emblazoned with the coats of arms of their founding families. In the 16th century, Torre de Moncorvo was a thriving commercial town, largely thanks to the great efforts of its colony of New Christians. The Jewish community that had lived here before the order was given for their expulsion (1496) was certainly important, for in the 15th century, the rabbi of the Synagogue of Moncorvo was considered responsible for the welfare of all the Jews settled in the region. Amongst the town’s Christian religious architecture, there are two important examples remaining of its artistic heritage: the parish church (built in the Mannerist style) and the Capela da Misericordia with its Renaissance porch and its beautiful Portuguese Renaissance Pulpit, carved Out of one single block of granite Amongst the town’s civil architecture, the Visitor’s attention is drawn to a number of 16th-century windows around the town.
Situated in the easternmost region of the Douro Valley, the dominant feature of this town is an old 14th-century tower. Its construction was ordered by Dom Dinis (who reigned from 1279 to 1325). The nucleus of houses stretching out along narrow streets from the 16th-century parish church is one of the most valuable architectural features remaining from that period. It was home to an important community of New Christians, who, in the period of the Discoveries, were to set forth from here as traders to the four corners of the world.
The present-day urban center of Vila Nova de Foz Coa is medieval in its formation, although the surrounding area has a great profusion of rock carvings from the Palaeolithic age, remaining as clear evidence of a settlement that was already intense and permanent in prehistoric times and is today classified by UNESCO as World Heritage. It was in the town of Foz Coa that, from the 14th century onwards, a dynamic Jewish community was formed, composed mainly of craftsmen. In the following century, this community was to grow even with the expulsion of the Jews from Spain. They settled mainly in the quarter around the Castle, and today, amongst the region’s most popular local crafts, there is still a tradition of manufacturing articles from iron, brass, and other metals, a craft which is essentially of Jewish origin. The Praca do Municipio is the historical center of this town, where the most notable building is a 16th-century church, with an imposing Manueline doorway and a curious tower with three separate belfries, as well as the 16th-century pillory and the 19th-century Town Hall.
An old medieval town, Trancoso was a defensive military fortress, heavily fought over between the Moors and the first king of Portugal, Dom Afonso Henriques. From those times, the castle with its walled enclosure, the various gates leading into the town, and an interesting donjon Visiting Trancoso is like going back into the medieval past, evoking memories of the Jewish merchant that first settled here in the 12th century. The Jewish community grew even larger in the 14th and 15th centuries with the influx of Jews from Aragon and Castile. The facade of the Casa do Gate Negro (the former Rabbi’s house) is decorated with emblems that have been interpreted as representations of the Lion of Judah and the Gates of Jerusalem. The house itself used to belong to a wealthy member of this community, and it was probably also used as a synagogue. In the high street (Rua Dr Fernandes Vaz, popularly known as the Corredoura at the entrance to the town, were to be found in most of the houses where the Jews lived.
The city walls, the keep, the Torre dos Ferreiros (the Blacksmith’s Tower), and the old Jewish quarter are reminders of the period of great splendor enjoyed by the city of Guarda in the middle ages. Jews first began to settle here in the middle of the 13th century in the area next to the wall, close to the Porta d’el Rei and the high street (Corredoura). A large gate at the spot known as Quatro Quinas marked the limits of the quarter. Its inhabitants were mainly traders and craftsmen. The leather workers who had fled from Salamanca in Castile introduced their skills to the regional handicraft, which are still maintained to this day. Local folklore still fondly remembers a 14th-century Jew called Mendo or Menendes, the father of Ines Peres, by whom the Master of Avis, the future king Dom Joao I, had a bastard son. Legend has it that the father of Ines, distraught at his daughter’s illicit union, swore that he would never shave again, so he later became known as
Barbadao (Bushy Beard). Close to the main Jewish quarter, in the immediate vicinity of the present-day Rua Dom Sancho I, there still exists the famous Casa do Barbadao. In the city’s Gothic cathedral, there is a magnificent retable by the sculptor Jean de Rouen.
The groups of Jews who settled here were to see their numbers substantially increased in the 15th century by the streams of Jewish migrants fleeing from Castile. It was consequently in this town that the most important nucleus of Marranos was to be found in Portugal, having continued their lives almost completely undisturbed until the present day. In 1993, the community welcomed a rabbi and began the building of the "Bet Eliahu" Synagogue, which is now open for worship. The Jews’ houses were situated in the Bairro de Marrocos, outside the castle walls at the easternmost end of the town, where it is still possible to find houses with crosses engraved in the stone, close to the doors, a mark which identified the houses as being inhabited by New Christians. Belmonte is a town that is full of history and has managed to preserve its medieval atmosphere just as well as the Jews managed in secret to preserve their prayers, traditions, and customs. Amongst its more interesting sights are the 13th-century castle, the Romanesque-Gothic parish church, and the pantheon of the Cabral family, the local nobility to which Pedro Alvares Cabral, the discoverer of Brazil, belonged, who was born here in the 15th century. Further information can be obtained about the history of the Jewish community at the local tourist office.
A Roman city and an important center under the Visigoths (7th century). Lamego is the city where the first cortes (parliament) of Portugal were summoned by Dom Afonso Henriques. At the top of a tree-lined hill is the pilgrimage church of Nossa Senhora dos Remedios from which a monumental Baroque staircase of 686 steps leads down to the city below. The historical center of Lamego preserves much of its 16th-century medieval atmosphere, and it is also worth paying a visit to the 13th-century castle. The facade of the magnificent cathedral, which is medieval in origin, was rebuilt in the 16th century bringing together elements of Manueline architecture and motifs that were already part of the Renaissance. In 1436, the Jews who lived in Lamego could be proud of living in totally open Jewish quarters, enjoying permanent social contacts with the Christian population. The Jewish quarter of Pedra was located close to the Campo do Tavolado, and the Old Jewish quarter (Judiaria Velha) was close to the church of Santa Maria. The regional museum of Lamego has an important collection of Flemish tapestries from the 16th century
The river Douro, which has its source in Spain and flows into the Atlantic at the city of Porto, has been largely responsible for determining the region’s landscape. On the banks of the river grows a vine that is unique in the world and produces the famous Port Wine, which is stored and aged in the wine cellars of Vila Nova de Gaia. Today the river is easily navigated in organized cruises that make it possible to visit the estates where the wine is produced, as well as a vast region with an important cultural heritage and several memories that are evocative of its former Jewish communities. The local cuisine boasts a specialty that is attributed to the Marrano (Jewish) art of cookery alheiras, a type of sausage similar in shape to those that were part of Christian cuisine but which was stuffed with chicken and flour instead of pork meat and fat. In this way, the crypto-Jews escaped being identified by the Inquisition because of their different eating habits.
Places that are also worth a visit in this region are: Chaves, Miranda do Douro, Murca Regua Vila Flor, Vila Real, and Viseu, where until 1468, there was a Jewish quarter in the immediate vicinity of the Rua Direita. This latter city has a cathedral of Romanesque origin, as well as the impressive Grao Museum, dedicated fundamentally to exhibiting the painting of the 16th-century artist of the same name (Vasco Fernandes), but also contains an important collection of 19th and 20th-century Portuguese paintings. In the Municipal Archaeological Museum in Gouveia, there is a well-preserved Hebraic inscription. In Covilha, five of the ten extremities of the old wall marked the points of connection between tire Christian part of the city and the Jewish quarter, whose inhabitants devoted themselves to the woolen trade and the art of weaving, activities which are still important in the region today. In Castelo Branco, the home of Amato Lusitano (the Portuguese poet who achieved great fame as a doctor in 16th century Europe), the Jews inhabited the most important trading area in the city. It is interesting in this city to visit the Museum of Francisco Tavares Proenca Junior with its unique collection of ancient bedspreads embroidered with different colored silks. These are typical products of the region, which still maintains the tradition of this craft even today. It is also said that the crypto-Jews used to "send each other messages" through these bedspreads, making use of tire different themes that they introduced into their embroideries, such as the
Tree of Life or
Source: Journey to Jewish Portugal courtesy of the Portuguese National Tourist Office.
Belmonte synagogue photo by Joao Paulo.