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Castelo Rodrigo: Caught between Portugal and Spain


I had no idea of the significance a tiny Portuguese village has in the history of this nation when I arrived on a tour bus with 35 other passengers. I was sailing on the Douro River with Viking River Cruises. This day the shore excursion included a visit to Castelo Rodrigo, a tiny medieval walled village. A visit here is an excellent lesson in Portuguese and Spanish history and the centuries of dispute over the land.


The village has the advantage of being perched on a hilltop 2,200 feet above sea level. To the east the village overlooks a plateau stretching to Spain and to the north the River Douro valley.  


The first traces of occupation of this area date back to the 13th century when the castle was built to protect the village. Built by King Alfonso IX of Leon after a campaign in which Christian troops seized the land of Riba-Coa from Muslim control. The King established a defensive line made by a set of fortifications throughout the Coa riverbanks.

The first fortress of Castelo Rodrigo was included in this defensive line and was concluded in 1209, the same year in which the King of Leon granted a charter to the town. This area was the stage of constant disputes between the King and Portugal. In 1296, King D. Dinis carried out the final conquest of the Coa River lands and ordered that the castle should be renovated. It was during this time that the great keep and the wall enclosure, which surrounds the town’s medieval streets, were built.


Less than a hundred years after its integration into the kingdom of Portugal, (during the dynastic crisis of 1383-1385) Princess Beatriz, the only daughter of King Fernando of Portugal, was married to John of Castile.

With her accession to the throne on the death of her father, Portugal was set to lose its independence in favor of John of Castile. The village sided with the princess, but Joao, the Master of Avis, defeated the Castilians at the Battle of Aljubarrota, in 1385, and as a result was crowned king of Portugal.


As a reprisal for the lords of Castelo Rodrigo having sided with Castile, King Joao, the new king, ordered that the shield and the coat of arms of Portugal should always be displayed upside down on the town's coat of arms.


In the 16th century, when Philip II of Spain annexed the Portuguese crown, Governor Cristovao de Mora became the defender of the cause of Castile and suffered from the revenge of the local population, who set fire to his enormous palace on December 10, 1640, as soon as they received the news of the Restoration of Portugal. The aftermath of this historic event is the ruins that can still be seen on the top of the hill next to the castle.


The Battle of Castelo Rodrigo was fought on July 7, 1664, between the Spanish and Portuguese as part of the Portuguese Restoration War. After a number of skirmishes, the Duke of Osuna attacked the castle of Castelo Rodrigo with 7,000 men and nine pieces of artillery. The castle was only defended by 150 Portuguese. The military commander of the province, Pedro Jacques de Magalhaes, rallied 3,000 men and moved to the rescue of Castelo Rodrigo.

140Today the village is quiet with only 180 inhabitants.  We entered through a gate and followed our guide past the burnt-out palace, castle ruins, Our Lady of Rocamador Church and its statue of Saint James the Moor-slayer. The church was built in the 12th century to serve as support to the pilgrims on their way to Santiago de Compostela.

149Quiet peaceful streets are lined with stone houses; beautiful flowers in bloom everywhere. Over the roofs I admired the vistas and understood why this location was originally chosen for a defensive castle.

Another chapter in Castelo Rodrigo’s history is the Jewish population who arrived before the Romans. When the Moors conquered the Iberian Peninsula and settled here the Jews saw the Arabs as similarly educated. The Moors were considerate of a person’s religion.


Then the Moors were expelled and Spain issued a decree in 1492 requiring Jews to wear yellow cloth to show their religion. The Spanish Inquisition began in 1496, two years before the discovery of the sea route to India by Vasco da Gama.

The town still keeps its medieval outlines, surrounded by imposing walls which remind us of the identity of its history, often divided between both sides of the border.


I strolled along the streets and alleys, explored the castle, and talked with a handful of local merchants selling Portugal’s famous cork products, olive oil and sugared almonds.

As we left the village I was in awe of its history and its survival. I was fortunate to have visited this spring day and to have learned of its rich history.



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