Exploring Centuries of Tradition in Portugal (Plus Recipes for Passover and Easter)

On a pre-pandemic tour of Portugal, travel writer Toby Salzman explores the imprints of the inquisition and the country's preservation of Jewish history. Pictured here is Castelo de Vide's Jewish quarter. Photo: Toby Saltzman

Important note for international travel: Zoomer does not advocate travelling now. Though we must all adhere to ongoing pandemic restrictions until we can travel safely again, for now, just dreaming of lovely places is a good way to go.

For all its charms, Portugal has a special allure for people from around the globe — including tens of thousands of Christians, Jews and agnostics — who come to trace their ancestry in historic pockets of the country spanning from the Atlantic and Mediterranean coasts inland. Along the way, as they imbibe Portugal’s lush scenery, wine and cuisine cultivated by centuries of tradition, they find history never tasted so good.

A brief history of the Iberian Peninsula gives context to the vast spread of the Portuguese diaspora. Medieval Portugal was a burgeoning force in maritime explorations and trade in 1492 when Spain’s Queen Isabella and King Ferdinand decreed the Spanish Inquisition. Some 100,000 Jews fled to Portugal. In the age of discovery and global imperialism, this delighted King John II, who valued the expertise of Jewish cartographers, physicians, scientists, mathematicians, merchants and financiers. When Portugal’s King Manuel I begged to marry King Ferdinand’s daughter, the Spanish monarch allowed it providing Portugal expel the Jews. In 1496, King Manuel ordered Jews to convert to New Christians or leave. Lucky Jews quickly escaped to Amsterdam, Germany, Italy, France, Constantinople, Morocco, Brazil and Peru.

Legends go that tensions exploded in Lisbon in 1506 — a year of drought and deadly epidemics — when some 4,000 converted Jews, believed to be heretics secretly practicing their religious rituals, were massacred in the square in front of Sao Domingos Church. Ending the madness, King Manuel gave New Christians a grace period of 30 years without persecution to stop Jewish practices or leave. Some joined the ships of explorers or traders, promising to help the Portuguese settle the new lands. The first migrants sailed to Recife, Brazil with navigator Pedro Alvares Cabral, the highly esteemed Jewish nobleman who claimed Brazil for Portugal. They ultimately gravitated to Curacao, Suriname, Aruba, St. Thomas, Barbados or Jamaica. During the American Revolution, some immigrated to North America.

By May 23, 1536 when Pope Paul II’s edict officially initiated Portugal’s Inquisition, all 200,000 Jews had converted and assimilated, or had left. All elements of their culture, including synagogues, signs and architectural details had vanished. Christian cathedrals, churches and monasteries flourished, scattering the country with remarkable architecture. In 1821, the Vatican officially abolished the Inquisition.

By the mid-1800s, descendants of Jews who had fled from Portugal or Spain began settling in Portugal’s Azores Islands and southern Algarve region. Gibraltar Jews arrived in Lisbon with British passports. In 1904, Lisbon Jews inaugurated Shaare Tikva, the first synagogue built since the Inquisition. Today, the inconspicuous synagogue with its lavish interior is a Portuguese National Monument.

Shaare Tikva Synagogue
The lavish interior of Shaare Tikva Synagogue, built in Lisbon in 1904. Photo: Toby Salzman

 

Portugal’s population increased between the two world wars with Central European Jews fleeing pogroms, economic hardships, and Nazis. Meantime, Prime Minister Antonio Salazar allied Portugal with the British and maintained neutrality. After Spain required all Jews leaving France to have visas to Portugal, in 1940, Portugal’s Consul General Aristide de Sousa Mendes, based in Bordeaux, ignored government orders and issued thousands of visas to Jews. In 1966 he was named “Righteous Among the Nations.” Jews arriving in Portugal were placed in gated areas, the concrete-set gate poles still visible in some villages.

Lisbon street
Lisbon’s Alfama Jewish area is a tight labyrinth of stone dwellings. After the Inquisition erased all evidence of Jews, this street name is the sole remaining physical sign of a Jewish civilization in Lisbon. Photo: Toby Saltzman

 

Today Portugal has one of Europe’s smallest Jewish communities, including about 1,000 in Lisbon and 300 in Porto. A cluster of about 35 to 40 crypto-Jews living in Belmonte all hail from original survivors of the Inquisition who converted outwardly yet maintained Jewish rituals.

While history is undeniable, Portugal has transcended the past with a joyous spirit, welcoming to Jews, indeed all people. In my travels, my heart was warmed to meet Ana Mendes Godinho, Portugal’s Secretary of State for Tourism. In vivacious conversation, she said: “Our history is completely bonded to Jewish history. Now is the moment to take down walls [of anti-Semitism built by the Inquisition]. Today we say ‘every Portuguese has a Jewish bone in their body.’” Godinho was referencing that all Portuguese in the country and diaspora may be descendants of Jews who converted to Christianity. Today many Portuguese feel quite the opposite of “anti-Semitic” and classify themselves as “philo-Semitic” for interest in their possible Jewish heritage.

Exploring Portugal

 

As important towns and villages with historic sanctuaries of Christianity and Judaism are widely scattered, Portugal Tourism created legacy guides called Paths of Faith, that can be accessed at www.visitportugal.com.

Here are my favourite spots.

 

Lisbon

 

Lisbon
Views from the ramparts of Castelo de Sao Jorge, the ancient Moors’ citadel, overlook the seven hills of Lisbon and the Tagus River. Photo: Toby Salzman

 

After an earthquake decimated Lisbon on Nov. 1, 1955, the Marques de Pombal rebuilt it on a geometric grid into the architecturally significant, neo-Classical city core it is today. For all Lisbon’s beauty – the majestic Avenida da Liberdade, Rossio Square (a.k.a. Praça de D. Pedro IV) and tiled Rua Augusta leading to the triumphal arch and harbour – it was worth the uphill climb and cable ride to Castelo de Sao Jorge. Its ramparts gave geographic perspective of Lisbon’s seven hills, the Tagus River harbour where Jews once scrambled on ships bound for freedom, the 12th century Lisbon Cathedral, and the massive Monastery of Jeronimos near the circa-1521 Belem Tower still standing as symbol of Portugal’s maritime prowess. Descending past the castle moat, steep paths sloped down to Alfama, the tiny pocket once inhabited by Jews. Today a labyrinth of alleys around Rua da Judiaria is clustered by small museums, tavernas and bars boasting soulful Fado singers. At the corner of Rossio Square, outside San Domingos Church, stands a poignant memorial to the past, a monument to the massacre of Jews in 1506.

Lisbon food
The baker at Fabrica da Nata shows Portugal’s distinctive egg custard cakes called Pasteis de Nata.

 

Lisbon brims with tasty temptations. On the streets, from roasted chestnuts and custard-filled Pasteis de Nata to crunch codfish cakes called Pastel de Bacalhau. In gourmet eateries, from fresh fish and seafood to meats and pastries.

Click here for more information on Jewish Legacy tours.

 

Alentejo

 

Leaving Lisbon on a southeast route to Alentejo, my guide Ruben Obadia explained that this vast region extending to the Algarve — renowned for wine, olive oil, agriculture, cork and its gastronomy — centuries ago served Jews as havens from the Inquisition. Obadia, whose Jewish ancestors fled to Morocco in the 1600s, then settled in the Algarve in 1910, recounted stories from locals of how New Christians camouflaged efforts to secretly pass traditions from mother to daughter. Friday nights they lit candles inside pottery jars pierced with tiny holes to hide the flames, Saturdays they hung carpets on balconies to fake working. Many changed first names to “Jesus” or surnames to names of fruits or flowers.

While navigating the 224-km route, often up steep, hairpin turns into the Serra de Sao Mamede mountain range en route to Castelo de Vide – strategically built by Romans into a high mountain slope, later developed by medieval-era Portuguese – Obadia explained: Castelo de Vide’s location, just 17 kilometres from Spain, attracted more than 5,000 Jews in 1492. It has Portugal’s greatest evidence of former Jews.

Castelo de Vide
An ancient fountain in the mountain-top town of Castelo de Vide is believed to have served to pump waters to a ritual bath for Jews, as it is strategically located near the synagogue. Due to restrictions in the historic towns, archeologists are unable to excavate the water tunnel. Photo: Toby Saltzman

 

From the Cathedral in Castelo de Vide’s Dom Pedro V Square, guide Patricia Martins led me past elegant homes embellished with Portugal’s quintessential azulejo tiles, through a maze of sloping alleys where Jews once lived. She pointed out signs of their existence: stone dwellings with two doors, the larger for merchants, the smaller leading to upstairs residences; door frames carved with a groove for mezuzah. Jewish legacies etched in the stones of time. A building believed to have been a synagogue – with an interior niche for an ark – is dedicated as the Jewish Museum. Ritual artifacts include a clay pot used to hide sabbath candles. A black wall with names of local Jews executed during the Inquisition lists, among them, Garcia d’Orta, notable doctor to Portugal’s monarchs. Born in Castelo de Vide in 1501, d’Orta was a true renaissance scientist who researched herbal medicines in Goa, India – then a Portuguese colony – where he died in 1569. Following a cobbled incline to an ancient fountain that was likely connected to a mikvah (ritual bath) — but that archeologists have yet to find — I imagined the crypto-Jews hiding their secret culture.

Back in the lovely square — once the site of autos da fé, or burnings at the stake — Castelo de Vide’s Mayor Antonia Pita graciously greeted me at the 18th century town hall, holding two volumes that detail the genealogy of the town’s crypto-Jews, and where their descendants settled around the globe. A veritable ambassador for Portugal’s Jewish heritage, he described new museums (since opened) that detail the plight of 300 local Jewish families who perished during the Inquisition. Just before the pandemic, Alentejo expected 30,000 visitors keen to explore their heritage while relishing the region’s food, wine, biking and hiking.

Old Portagem Bridge
In Marvao, the sublimely beautiful scene of the Old Portagem Bridge straddling the Sever River. This medieval stone bridge aroused heart-wrenching visions of thousands of Jews escaping Spain and streaming over rushing water, only to pay a tax to enter Portugal. Nearby is memorial plaque that marks 500 years since the Edict of Expulsion. Photo: Toby Salzman

 

Down the mountain, I arrived in Marvao and the sublimely beautiful scene of the Old Portagem Bridge straddling the Sever River. Jews fleeing the Spanish Inquisition crossed this medieval stone bridge and paid a tax to enter Portugal. A memorial plaque, dedicated in 1996, marks 500 years since the Edict of Expulsion. At the river’s edge, the owner of the small Sever Restaurant served up a traditional Portuguese feast with local wines.

Click here for information on The Flavour of Alentejo tour.

 

Elvas

 

Elvas
In Elvas, the Praca da Republica is a lively gathering place for locals and visitors alike. Near the signature church is 13th century evidence of two Jewish cemeteries.

 

Elvas — located just 12 km from the Spanish border – was a shortcut between Madrid and Lisbon for 10,000 Jews fleeing Spain in 1492. Archeologist Margarida Ribeiro, who previously researched evidence of Jews in Castelo de Vide and Evora explained that although there is 13th century evidence of two Jewish cemeteries, Elvas’ Jewish heritage is still to be validated because their homes were demolished to build a church in the Praca da Republica. Originally ruled by Romans, then Moors, today Elvas is a UNESCO World Heritage Site as the medieval era’s most fortified city, its Roman/Moorish castle dating to 1226.

Casa da Historia Judaica de Elvas
The Casa da Historia Judaica de Elvas, a former slaughter house which which will opening as a Jewish museum after renovations. Photo: Toby Saltzman

 

Leading me through a warren of tight alleys, Ribeiro pointed to walls etched with signs of a cross, denoting New Christians. A former animal slaughterhouse with an elaborately arched medieval interior (under renovation during my visit) was likely a synagogue. It was inaugurated as the Casa da Historia Judaica de Elvas, Jewish Museum.

Evora

 

On to Evora, important for Christians and Jews alike. Founded by Romans in the first century, this UNESCO World Heritage Site is a precious trove of history with ruins of a Roman temple, two fortified walls, a Moorish gateway, massive arches of a 16th century aqueduct, and centuries of significant architecture including arcaded streets, the Public Library and Cathedral of Nossa Senhora da Assuncao, Portugal’s largest cathedral, which also houses the Religious Art Museum. Most obscure, the St. Francis Church houses the Chapel of Bones, decorated from floor to ceiling with human bones.

Praca do Giraldo
Evora’s lively Praca do Giraldo is where the Inquisition court conducted autos da fé, or burning at the stake. Photo: Toby Salzman

 

Jews inhabited Evora since Roman times, thriving in the centre of learning and arts. By the late 1400s, Evora had one of Portugal’s largest Jewish communities, until the Praca do Giraldo — the beautiful main square — became site of autos da fé. The former Jewish quarter, still marked by steel posts, once housed two synagogues as well as a mikvah, school, hospital and treatment home for lepers. Literally thrilling was a visit to the Public Library where I had the rare privilege to see a 1496 first edition of Almanac Perpetuum and Nautical Guide written by Jewish astronomer Abraham Zacuto. Born in Salamanca, Spain in 1450, Zacuto fled to Lisbon where he served as astronomer for King Joao (John) II, creating most of the marine charts used by navigators such as Pedro Alvares Cabral and Vasco de Gama. He fled Portugal’s Inquisition for Constantinople, and likely died in Damascus or Jerusalem. On the fringe of Evora, the historic Convento Espinheiro, now converted to a lavish hotel, served a delicious sea bass for lunch.

 

Douro River Valley

 

Portugal’s scenic Douro River Valley provided the perfect way to explore the country’s lush agricultural legacy, prized for vineyards, vegetables and fruits. While staying at the luxurious Six Senses Douro Valley, I learned that, in 1464, a valet of King Alfonso V leased an ancient vineyard at the curve of the river to a Jew whose 19th century descendants built the building with a chapel that remains on the scenic property. After dining on a lavish spread of Portuguese specialties and wines with Cristiano Van Zeller, owner of historic Van Zeller wines and descendant of generations of vintners, I was treated to his precious 1860 Port. Thrilling to taste — tawny with a rich bouquet of caramel brandy — its heady essence still lingers in my mind.

Porto
The historic and beautifully preserved city of Porto rises from the Douro River. Photo: Toby Salzman

 

Following the Douro River to Porto, I arrived at The Yeatman Hotel, with views that overlook the historic port city where Christians and Jews lived in harmony for centuries as Portugal cultivated trade and commerce (particularly for wines) with Europe. In Porto, a culinary tour with Andre Apolinario of Taste Porto Food Tours combined history along the way with tastes of Porto’s finest specialties, from fish, seafood, meats, pastries to chocolates. At the famed Mercato Bolhao, I learned to how to turn canned sardines into a delicious meal. Back at The Yeatman, sommelier André Franco gave a memorable master class in tasting port.

I left Portugal thinking that tracing a nation’s cultural history never tasted so good.

Click here for more information on Portugal’s wine routes.

 

Celebrating Portugal From Home

 

Speaking of taste, celebrate Portugal from the comfort of your own home with a trifecta of Portuguese recipes, including a pair of dishes from Ricardo Costa, executive chef at the Michelin-starred Yeatman Hotel in Portugal.

Passion Fruit, Meringue and Lime Tart

 

Passion fruit tart
Recipe and Photo: Courtesy of The Yeatman Hotel

Sweet Pastry for Easter

Ingredients:

500g flour
250g icing sugar
125g butter
2g baking powder
2 eggs
Grated lime zest to taste

Preparation: 

Cream the sugar and butter in the mixer. Add the eggs. Add the flour and baking powder with the lime zest. Beat until the dough comes away from the mixer. Let it rest for 2 hours and shape the dough with a rolling pin

Passion Fruit Cream

135g sugar
175g butter
30g cornflour
150ml passion fruit juice
5 egg yolks

Preparation:

Put the sugar and the cornflour in a pan and mix well. Add the passion fruit juice and egg yolks and heat until thickened. Then, at room temperature, add the butter to the passion fruit cream

Meringue

200g sugar
100ml egg whites

Preparation:

Add the whites to the sugar. In a bain-marie, beat the whites until they double in volume and become firm.

Assembling the tart:

Line a tart pan with the pastry and prick lightly with a fork. Fill with the passion fruit cream. Pre-heat the oven and bake at 180 C for 15 minutes. After cooling to room temperature, cover with the meringue and toast with a blowtorch.

 

Sea Bream and ‘Bolhão Pato’ Sauce

 

Seabream with Bolhao Pato Sauce
Photo and Recipe: Courtesy of The Yeatman Hotel

 

Ingredients: 

2kg sea bream
600g cockles (or clams)
100g coriander
100g shallot
300g mashed potato
500ml dry sparkling wine
Bread
1 bay leaf
1 lemon
Salt to taste
Fleur de sel to taste
Extra virgin olive oil to taste
Black pepper to taste

Preparation:

Clean and prepare the sea bream. Divide into small slices and set aside to be cooked just before serving. Boil the sparkling wine with shallots, bay leaf and black pepper (no oil), and place each half quantity of cockles into the saucepan separately. Gradually, as the cockles begin to open, remove them from the pan. Do this procedure for both halves.

Remove the cockles from their shells and set aside. Filter the broth. Add the coriander to the cockle broth, allow to cook just a little without boiling, in order to preserve the chlorophyll — coriander’s verdant hue; liquidize the broth and sieve.

Cut the bread into small cubes, drizzle with olive oil, crush a garlic clove and roast in the oven at 100 C for approximately 20 mins. Pan fry the sea bream in olive oil just before serving.

Garnish with classic mashed potato and a little lemon rind, add the cockle broth and some fresh torn coriander. On serving, add the croutons and garlic.

 

Honey-glazed Za’atar Chicken With Dried Apricots and Prunes for Passover

 

Photo and Recipe: Toby Saltzman
Ingredients: 
Six chicken thighs or four whole chicken legs (serves four to six people)
12-14 dried apricots
12-14 dried prunes
3 tablespoons za’atar
1 1/2 tablespoons olive oil
1/2 cup dry red wine (or Portuguese Madeira)
Kosher salt to taste
1/2 cup honey
Preparation:
Preheat the oven to 350 F. Line a 9×13-inch Pyrex or casserole pan with dried apricots and prunes. Layer the chicken pieces on top. In a small bowl, mix the za’atar and olive oil to create a paste. (You may need more for a bigger batch of chicken.) Rub the chicken pieces with the paste. Pour the wine over and around the chicken. Sprinkle with salt to taste. Cover tightly with aluminum foil and bake for one hour.
Uncover the pan. Drizzle honey on the chicken. Return to oven uncovered, and continue to bake for 35-45 minutes, basting occasionally with pan juices.
To Serve:
Put the chicken on a platter and surround it with the fruit. Pour the juices into a cup to easily skim the fat, and pour the juice over the chicken.
For Passover, serve this with roasted potatoes, grilled asparagus and peppers, and candied carrots.

 

If You Go

 

Visit Portugal Tourism www.visitportugal.com for details of Portugal’s legacy Paths of Faiths as well as the famed pilgrimage Camino Trail, noted below.

Most cathedrals and monasteries are open to visitors.

To visit Shaare Tikva, send a copy of your passport in an advance e-mail to [email protected] or [email protected]

TAP Portugal offers a Toronto-to-Lisbon route with connections to Tel Aviv and major European cities, including a “free air stopover” in Lisbon up to 5 nights www.flytap.com

The Camino Trail: Popular with Christians, Portugal’s pilgrimage route of Caminhos de Santiago, or Ways of St. James, includes some marked trails suitable only for physically fit walkers and hikers, as they ramble in some parts along rugged coastlines or primitive trails. Among spectacular sites of the 260 km Central Route and 280 km Coastal Route: the ancient Cathedral of Coimbria, the Monastery of Alcobaca, the Basilica of Fatima, the Sé Cathedral in Porto and the Monastery of Santa Maria da Vitoria in Batalha, which has UNESCO status.

Know before you go: Be mindful that some of Portugal’s ancient cities and towns have steep, sloping, cobbled streets. Sturdy shoes are essential.

Important note for international travel: Zoomer does not advocate travelling now. Though we must all adhere to ongoing pandemic restrictions until we can travel safely again, for now, just dreaming of lovely places is a good way to go.