The border between Spain and Portugal has never been an actual wall dividing the two countries. The locals’ call it La Raya, (the line), which is a very thin line that has been moving back and forth over the years. This line is horizontally crossed by a lot of paths that link both countries. Of course, not all of them are “official.” These smaller routes were traditionally used for trading goods illegally, especially coffee and tobacco. Today, they are great trekking routes.
One of the best places to explore these trails is the area of Marvão. The municipality has cleaned and signalized many of these old smugglers' paths. They are used currently for a more trivial cause: leisure activities! After all, the tracks are at the very core of the Natural Park of São Mamede. Thus, they are perfect for hiking. Surrounded by virgin landscapes, the trekker will walk alone, accompanied only by an occasional fox or rabbit. Up in the sky, there will probably be an eagle or a vulture, looking for their lunch.
These paths can be explored on foot, by bike or by horse. They are gorgeous: every now and then there is a little hill, offering a great view. In spring the surrounding fields are green, with red, white, yellow and blue flowers. A beautiful painting to witness! In summer, the grass looks yellow and puffy to the eye, which is very soothing for the mind.
Heading towards the border, you will sooner or later cross the Sever river. You can visit, nearby, the Celtic village of Crença. There is also a very ancient bridge at Ponte Velha (the old bridge), which was considered to be destroyed already in the XVIth century. It is a real challenge to find it! It lies underneath a very thick layer of vegetation. Even trees have grown up upon it!
Before the European Union, buying goods in other countries was very complicated. Until the 80s, Spanish people would go to Portugal to purchase local coffee or high-quality cotton products. But only a certain quantity of those was allowed, and it was never enough. Therefore, people would get “creative” when passing the border back home. With the bags of coffee, for example, they would stash the extra ones under the baby’s seat, where they knew the police would not look.
However, there was a time, some decades ago, when it was a matter of actual survival. Back then, both countries were in a dictatorship and in the lookout for outcoming products. In Portugal, the situation was not so dramatic since they still had their colonies to provide for them, but in Spain, it was truly desperate -the civil war had destroyed almost the whole country. Since it was not possible to bring legally any products, people on the border started smuggling them.
At Marvão, to avoid being spotted, the smugglers used the routes that go up and down the hill, amidst virgin landscapes- the ones that today are so beautiful! The paths are not far away from each other, and there are so many of them! This made the smugglers’ job more manageable. For instance, one of them would go first with a torch, empty-handed, on one of these routes. The rest would choose a different trail, without a light.
A man from this area used to smuggle shoes, but only the right or the left ones at a time. If his merchandise was taken away by the police, he could always recover it at the subsequent auction for no money -who else would pay for only one shoe of a pair?
But the most genius one- perhaps a legend because I haven’t been able to find out who performed it- is about a smuggler on a bike. He never used any of the tricky routes -only the official ones! He was detained time after time by the police at the customs. There, he was examined very thoroughly, especially his backpack. But every time he came out clean. And he would go to Spain a lot! When the EU finished the customs, the police officers asked him off the record whether he had been smuggling something. "Yes", said the man with a huge smile. "But what?", "Bikes!" he replied.
Nowadays you can walk from one country to the next, and only a tiny stone on the ground will let you know that you have entered a new country. Actually, if you are not alert, you will probably miss it! You can visit the website of the municipality of Marvão for more information on the trails. The most popular one is only 12 km, but as I said, there are many. If you are feeling active, you can even keep walking to the Spanish Valencia de Alcántara: they also have organized the same kind of routes. Just pick the one that suits you most and have fun!
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