Between Spain and Portugal, near Marvão, in the Alentejo, the visitor can find a particular place, Portagem. In there, the river Sever has been held with a dam. Thus, it has become a beautiful, natural swimming pool, where you can spend the day. You can bring your own food (there are many tables available) or eat at the restaurants next to it. Actually, if you are in the area, Portagem is the best place to have a meal at. The local, traditional gastronomy is simply delicious and very cheap! As for the swimming pool of Portagem, it gets very popular in summer. The entrance is free, and it is the perfect spot to escape from the Alentejan heat: lying in the grass, under the shade of very tall trees, next to very fresh water… isn't it the perfect plan!?
The view from Portagem is fantastic: you can see the citadel of Marvão, lying on the top of the hill, powerful, impregnable. Over the river, immediately after the pool, there is a bridge made with Roman stones and an old road coming from a nearby tower. Why are they here?
The answer is found at the very name of the place. Portagem means "toll" in Portuguese. In the XIVth century, the Portuguese king decided to build here a custom control. Therefore, he destroyed the other bridges and constructed a new one at the current Portagem (toll!). Next to it, he erected a tower, where the travelers had to do the payment to be able to cross the bridge.
It became essential in 1492 when the Catholic Kings decided to ban the Jewish people from Spain. Many moved to the closest country, Portugal. There were so many that some refugee camps had to be created to welcome them. Of course, they had to pay a great deal of money to get their access granted. Unfortunately for them, four years later, in 1496, the Portuguese king married the daughter of the Catholic Kings. One of the conditions of the marriage was that he too had to expel the Jewish. So, the king banned them from Portugal as well. Most of them left for northern Greece, especially Thessaloniki. There, the Ottoman sultan welcomed them with open arms. He could not believe that the Iberian kingdoms would be so naive to expel such valuable citizens!
The bridge was constructed like a giant LEGO, putting together stones coming from the nearby Roman city of Ammaia. They built it so quickly that some legends were born in the effort to explain it. The most traditional one says that a man had a bet with the devil. He said that he would be able to build a bridge over the Sever River within a week, but when the time passed, the bridge had one stone missing. The devil said that it was not good enough and the poor man had to give away his soul to him. Tradition states that this stone is still missing, but honestly, I have not been able to find the alleged hole.
Nowadays, the only reminder of the Jewish presence in Portagem is a plaque at the very tower, dedicated to their memory. The path that they followed has become a popular trek route. It goes next to the river, the direction of Spain. It is effortless to walk, and the surrounding landscapes are amazing. Chestnut, oak, and cork trees will give you shade along the way. The only sounds you will hear will be the water running, the singing of the birds and, perhaps, the footsteps of the banned Jewish, leaving on their exodus…
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