I first heard about Olivenza years ago but never thought I would end up getting the chance to visit this rather isolated border town. Little did I know however, that the time would eventually come, as years later I would find myself nearby whilst on a road trip.
I remember having read about how Olivenza was a small town in Portugal until it was conquered by the Spanish about 200 years ago and had remained under their control ever since; that the people here were Portuguese, as were their names, their architecture, their food and their language; and that the only thing Spanish here was the government they paid their taxes to and whose law they had to abide by. I found it shocking to think that this little piece of Portugal existed, under Spanish control, just along the Spain-Portugal border. So when I finally found myself within the region, I knew I would have to stop by and see for myself what it was like.
Olivenza is Portuguese to the eyes and Spanish to the ears. It looks like Portugal. The streets, the black and white cobblestones on the ground and the Manueline style of architecture that is found on both the insides and outsides of the town's churches. There are a lot of similarities between Portuguese and Spanish architecture but it's these little idiosyncrasies that set Portugal apart from its Spanish counterpart and in Olivenza, you find these 'Portuguese-isms' everywhere. What stood out for me in particular was the sight of blue and white tiles inside the Church of Santa Maria Magdalena, depicting epic scenes from Portuguese history.
In some ways I felt like I was in Portugal but not entirely. The giveaway was the sound; the Spanish language that is, which I heard spoken everywhere with an Extremeño accent and at the regular Spanish volume which is a lot higher than that of the quieter and more reserved Portuguese. I was a little disappointed not to hear the 'original' language spoken here although I was lucky enough to hear two elderly people greet each other in Portuguese. “Bom día” they said to each other as they passed in opposite directions through the town's main square.
Rule of Olivenza changed hands on numerous occasions, going back and forth between Muslim and Christian rulers, until 1297 when it became a Portuguese town and remained this way for over 500 years. That was until 1801 when the Spanish invaded, during the brief War of the Oranges. This was a short war which came to an end within a matter of weeks but for Olivenza, it changed everything. The town was captured by the Spanish and they never gave it back.
Although most of the local people seem to have become almost completely Spanish by now, many of the elderly people in town still speak Portuguese and recall memories of their grandparents speaking it as a first language. In 2010, in an effort to preserve the town's Portuguese past, the original Portuguese street names were returned to Olivenza and are now seen on every street. Portugal still claim the town as their own territory but the dispute is a 'friendly' one and relations between the two nations are better than ever. It looks therefore as if Olivenza will remain Spanish but without doubt, its Portuguese heritage will live on forever.
Like this story?
Get more! Subscribe to our monthly inspiration newsletter.