“This whole area is littered with smugglers’ paths. “
Pepe extended a wide arm – a feat as we cycled up a hill at the time – and pointed to the extent of the rolling scrubland to our left. Dotted with cork oak trees and with the sparsely populated region of Extremadura immediately to the east, this part of Portugal was once the ideal country for smugglers fleeing the Guardia Civil, Spain’s formidable semi-paramilitary force that patrolled the border.
I thought I knew a thing or two about Iberian history, but a week in the small border village of La Fontañera really opened my eyes. Even our accommodations – named Salto de Caballo (the vault of the horse) – had played a dramatic role in the events. “Before, it was a casa de la duda [house of doubt] in no man’s land, ”said owner Tamara. “The front door was in Spain and the back door opened into Portugal, making it perfect for smuggling.”
Coffee, penicillin and leather boots were among the products often smuggled. However, basic necessities such as bread, cheese and garlic would also find their way, feeding the Spaniards impoverished by the civil war and the dictatorship that followed.
We had taken the train from London to Cáceres – spending a night in Madrid en route – and marveled at a landscape that became more and more desert as we approached our destination. Unfortunately, the campaign to relaunch the train service from Cáceres to Valencia de Alcántara (near La Fontañera) has not yet achieved its goal, and without a bus between the two on weekends, we were forced to hire a car for the last stop on our journey.
Built at the end of the 19th century, Salto de Caballo was once a rambling farm bar. It has since been tastefully transformed into two independent apartments, a small cafe and Tamara’s living quarters, which meant that she was usually available for advice or a conversation. Our two bedroom apartment was fully tiled and beamed on the ground floor, while a huge private bathroom upstairs overlooked the lovely garden. Every day we ate in the shade of the trees in the garden, with figs, lemons, limes and oranges, while exotic flowers sprouted from countless pots and various cats (and Tamara’s dog) lay in the shade. We had come at the beginning of October but the temperatures were still close to 30 ° C, so we made good use of the plunge pool in the garden.
As soon as we arrived, Tamara announced: “My friends Pepe and Rainer ride their bikes every Sunday. Would you like to join them? ”
While my mate politely declined, Tamara arranged for a local bicycle rental company to drop by early the next morning with a steed for me. And so began a little Portuguese adventure to discover dolmens and griffon vultures. We cycled on traffic-free side roads to Beira to admire the beautifully tiled Portuguese train station, unfortunately only used by rail bikes. In each village, we stopped at a bar to have a beer and chat with the locals. Porteñol – a Portuguese-Spanish mashup – is the lingua franca in these areas, but no one took offense when I spoke ordinary old Spanish – which is not always the case in Portugal.
At a bar, other drinkers gave me freshly picked morangueiro grapes that tasted like strawberries and were a popular ingredient in fiery water back in the days when households had their own stills. A fabulously tanned Portuguese gentleman told us: “During the smuggling era, La Fontañera had 10 bars and several shops. (There aren’t any now.) He also told us terrifying tales of the Guardia Civil capturing smugglers, taking them into the bush and executing them. Apparently, it was “easier than doing the papers that came with an arrest.”
We spent a day exploring Cáceres, 100 km east of La Fontañera. Founded by the Romans and rebuilt by the Moors, it is a beautiful city with vast halls and magnificent caramel-colored stone walls. At the Museo de Cáceres, we descended into the coolness of a sumptuous Moorish cistern. The Very Important Holidays were observed from a table outside a cafe called Chocolat’s, accompanied by a coffee and a tostada. And there was still time to stop at a trap door at the closed Convent of San Pablo to buy the heart-shaped cookies called palmeras de hojaldre.
Back in Portugal, an 11 km marked trail follows a century-old track between Marvāo and the equally venerable town of Castelo de Vide. The Portuguese side of the border is dominated by the Serra de São Mamede Natural Park, and we found ourselves strolling through groves of oak trees under the gaze of a circling Bonelli’s (and rather rare) eagle.
The feeling of timelessness was reinforced by the medieval paving that still covers sections of the path and by the ancient source of the village where we were looking to cool off. Finally, we walked through the small town gate of Castelo de Vide, following its narrow stone streets to a cafe for a beer in the shade before our bus took us back to Marvāo.
The rest of the week passed in a languid haze. We took a tour of the Valencia de Alcántara street market, picking up succulent padrón peppers to fry for dinner. We went to a festival in Marvão, watching belly dancers and walking the castle walls as the sunset bathed us in nectarine-colored light. We enjoyed a historical tour around the noble Castillo de Luna d’Alburquerque. And a man called Jeremias at the Aguas Partidas farm sold us bottles of olive oil, insisting on giving us several rounds of his house liquor before the deal was made.
When the border with Portugal opened in the 1990s, smuggling stopped, dealing a desperate blow to the local economy. But if it ever becomes a lucrative option again, don’t expect Salto de Caballo to play a leading role.
“The border has been moved a few meters to the west,” Tamara told us. “So these days the whole house is in Spain. “