Douro- Day 5 on Viking Helgrim


An ecumenical cistern in the medieval fortress town of Castelo Rodrigo, just a few hundred yards from the Spanish border, has a message for the political squabblers in the US. Congress.

We had trudged up a hill in the hot sun to the center of the little town when our guide pointed the structure out. The cistern, a stone tank now in ruins, contained water used for religious ceremonies by all of the town residents. There were two entrances. One of them, wider, shaped in a typical Gothic arch style, was used by the Christians in the town. Next to it was a narrower Arabian-style arch door used by Moors. Both entrances led to the same place for every resident of the town, including the large Jewish population that had fled from Spain to Portugal during the Inquisition. The Jews, too, used this cistern on different days of the week depending on their particular religious traditions.

Would that the political partisans in Washington today, locked in gridlock over immigration, could solve their differences with so much tolerance and understanding!

image courtesy of Julie HatfieldA few minutes later our guide pointed out more evidence of ethnic and religious tolerance in this little stone town built centuries ago. He told us to check out the tablets above the painting of The Last Supper in the tiny church of Castelo Rodrigo, a typical Roman Catholic house of worship. Peering up at the tablets in the gloom of the windowless church, we could just make out the numbers on the wall. The tablet in the painting had the numbers of Christ’s disciples, and instead of being written in the normal Roman numerals used by Christians of the day, they were the Arabic numbers we use now.  “That’s an indication that this church welcomed Moors as well as Catholics,” the guide said. It was yet another message, loud and clear, from centuries ago. In the immortal words of Rodney King during the Los Angeles riots of 1992, it asks: “Can’t we all get along?”

Centuries ago, everyone DID get along, or at least the Moors, the Christians and the Jews did. They shared the cistern, they shared the church, and they shared their homes, all welcoming in the Jewish people who had migrated to Portugal from Spain, seeking safety.

image courtesy of Julie HatfieldThe Jewish immigrants from Spain were called “New Christians,” or “Crypto-Jews.” They were ordered to carve a cross in their doorways to prove they had converted to Christianity. When the religious police of the Inquisition checked to see if they were eating pork, which is forbidden in the Jewish religion, the resourceful Jews made white sausages out of birds and hung them in their homes to prove their Christian bona fides.

Castelo Rodrigo is a hilltop town surrounded by almond and olive trees, and when you arrive at the entrance to the town, shop owners are standing in the street offering visitors almonds covered with everything from spices to chocolate — and a delicious cool drink of white wine mixed with almond juice. The residents of Castelo Rodrigo are still welcoming strangers of any color, ethnic group, or religious persuasion in 2019.

Story courtesy of Julie Hatfiled. Photo courtesy of Timothy Leland.

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