From Galegos to La Fontañera: walking on the smugglers’ path

I spent the week-end in northern Alentejo, in the natural park of Serra de São Mamede. And what started with a family hiking week-end, ended up in a research stroll!

On Saturday, we made our way to Castelo de Vide. The village hosts a museum in the old Synagogue, at the top of the old Jewish quarter (or the Judiaria), which was about to close for lunch time. We ran up the Judiaria to enter the museum. This was not the first time that I found myself in a museum dedicated to the Jewish communities that once lived at the Portuguese borders. In Bragança, a museum is dedicated to the Sephardic culture in the northern Tras-os-Montes region.

Why do I mention it? While reading the explanations in the museum, I found the same discourse: a border area, where Jews (among other minorities) would find shelter, once of trade and cultural exchange, then of smuggling during the Spanish and Portuguese dictatorial times, and today, open to the outside. The narratives make us think that these regions can regain their “glory” as dynamic and open border areas.

This obsession with the border followed me the following day. We shortly visited Marvão – but quickly ran away after being attacked by huge flocks of flies! The tourism office provided us with a series of walking paths in the region. One catches my attention: the coffee smugglers’ path. I convince the group to hike the trail.

We drive closer to the border, to the village of Galegos. There starts the hike. My phone provider already lost the Portuguese network and switches me to the Spanish service – this happens in Tras-os-Montes all the time too. After 45 minutes walking, we hit the “waiting area of the smugglers”. A small house stands here, and a short text indicates that coffee was smuggled here up to the 1960s.

As we continue walking, I see on my left a small village. Its name: La Fontañera. It sounds Spanish. A big sign indicates a rural accommodation called “Salto”. I immediately associate it with emigration (o Salto) and leave the group to head towards the village. I see two men sitting: Are we in Spain? I ask. And within some minutes, whoever is sitting around join me. I end up listening to stories of the village told by six Spanish speakers.

La Fontañera is indeed a Spanish village. Some decades ago, it counted fifteen shops, living from smuggling. There is not much agriculture in the area, apart from some cattles, and the cork industry. During the dictatorships, the civil wars, and other difficult times, the side in need would come buy to the others. The village was not an official check-point, so there were less risks that the goods would be confiscated. Even though guards of both sides were regularly checking out the area, they tell me.

With the opening of borders, the village lost its raison d’être. No more smuggling meant no more shops. People left, as far as Madrid and Barcelona, they recall. One of the people I speak with still lives here, and works in Castelo de Vide, in a quarry. The others are just visiting.

I ask about the hotel Salto. They say it is not connected to immigration, but to the fact that the owner had horses. After I insist, I understood that no one knows if the road was ever used to smuggle people out of the country. For them, the contrabanda was mainly of food.

The stories convince me that a border area is in fact meaningful when it is activated. Without a reason to trade at this specific point, people left and apart from the language switch, nothing indicates any more that this is a border.

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