Belmonte’s Stakes in ‘Converso’ Heritage


More than 500 years after Portugal expelled or forced its Jews to convert, Museu Judaico, its most important Jewish museum, opened. And not in the two biggest cities of Lisbon or Porto, but in Belmonte , a small town of less than 4,000 in the mountains near Spain.

The long-distinguished history of Portugal's Jews in culture, literature, science and commerce; a memorial to the Spanish Inquisition; and touch-screens to research family names — all are in this museum, which opened in 2005. It did so for a very special reason: Portugal's biggest community of "hidden Jews," whose ancestors preserved their traditions in secret for centuries in their homes, while nominally Catholic, lives in this town of whitewashed houses with orange-tile roofs, and granite houses with a strong medieval flavor.

Bet Eliahu, a new synagogue that opened for this community of about 300 in 1997, could pass for a typical Portuguese building, except for the Hebrew inscription.

Since Belmonte's Jews were discovered by Samuel Schwarz, a Polish Jewish mining engineer, they've been visited by Jewish committees and tour groups from all over the world.

Books have been written about them — first by Schwarz, later by others in Hebrew, Yiddish and Portuguese; even one by the wife of the town's mayor, Dr. Maria Antonieta Garcia — and a 1990 film was made, "The Last Marranos," which aired on TV in France.

After Belmonte's conversos yearned to connect with their heritage and other Jewish communities, they got their first rabbi from Israel in the 1990s, funded by the Jewish Agency and a French philanthropist. They converted to mainstream Judaism in that decade, a new synagogue was built with a gift from the same French donor, Shlomo Azulay, and the Museu Judaico drew some 16,000 visitors less than two years after it opened.

It's a heady history in a town long known for discovery of another sort.

Belmonte, a three-hour drive northeast of Lisbon (or two-hour drive from Porto) is the birthplace of Pedro Alvares Cabral, who discovered Brazil in 1500, and is buried near the 13th-century castle here; the town was a Cabral family fiefdom for generations.

Open to Discovery 
Fittingly, Belmonte also has a Museum of the Discoveries, whose interactive exhibits describe the history of Portuguese explorers like Cabral and Vasco da Gama, who opened up the world to European trade, and spurred tiny Portugal's far-flung colonies in India, China, Africa and South America.

A perfect place to ponder all this history is in the Pousada Convento de Belmonte, a luxury hotel in a centuries-old former convent, a half-mile from town — one of Portugal's pousadas (, boutique lodgings in old, historic buildings, often former castles, palaces or monasteries.

They vary greatly — from the magnificent Pousada Rainha Santa Isabel in a 13th-century castle in Estremoz, crammed with marble, museum-quality antiques and tapestries, and grand staircases; to the charming, cozy Pousada de Santa Maria in Marvao, a cliff-top town completely encircled by 13th-century walls, founded by a Moor in the ninth century, four miles from the Spanish border.

Views, Cuisine, Castles 
In Belmonte, my pousada had massive stone walls, vaulted ceilings, a bar/lounge in the former chapel and sweeping mountain views of mainland Portugal's highest mountain range — the Serra da Estrela mountains, soaring more than 6,000 feet — from huge picture windows.

Pousadas like to showcase regional cuisine; with my meal, I taste a kosher red wine, Terras da Belmonte, made by a winery co-operative, Adega da Covilha, in a nearby town, the birthplace of explorer Pero da Covilha, who trekked to India by land to scout a possible sea route for da Gama's 1498 voyage.

In this rugged, castle-choked landscape, echoes of a centuries-old Jewish community — increased by thousands after Jews were expelled by Spain in 1492, four years before Portugal's order of expulsion — persist. Tiny crosses engraved in stone are next to doors, signifying the homes of forced converts, or "New Christians."

In Marvao, a monument by a stone bridge notes that Spanish Jewish escapees had to pay a toll, placed by Lisbon's Jewish community in 1996. A Lion of Judah relief stares out from the facade of a Jewish merchant's house in Trancoso.

My visit to Portugal ended in Lisbon, where I found one more Belmonte connection. The oldest part of the Palacio Belmonte, an extraordinary hotel where I was staying, was built by the Cabral family, starting in 1449, atop Moorish and Roman walls, with additions in later centuries.

Snug against the Castle of St. George atop a steep hill, within lipstick-red doors, this hotel in Lisbon's oldest palace boasts 59 wall panels adorned with 30,000-plus azjulejos — painted ceramic tiles, a traditional Portuguese craft. The Gusmao suite, housed on four levels in an octagonal tower, with its own large private terrace, is simply unforgettable — a place to reflect on past travels and plot future ones.

Two tours of Jewish Portugal are operated by Artisans of, a New York-based firm whose luxury nine-day tour extends from Lisbon, Sintra, Obidos and Evora to Belmonte, including a stay at Pousada Convento de Belmonte; and Episode Travel, whose six-day tour includes a wine-tasting at Adega da Covilha.

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