Driving from Spain to Portugal road signs list Spanish locations and then Portugal
In Portugal, contrariwise
At times there’s a major Portuguese city over the border but the Spanish sign is terse giving the next Spanish village and, simply… Portugal
It all seems quite petty for two mature European states

In Faro, Portugal, nobody would speak Spanish, preferring English
In the toilets, please wash your hands written in Portuguese, French, German and English, but not Spanish

So I had to ask my Portuguese friends what’s going on between these two great nations
A chuckle… yes!
There are tensions but it’s nothing really


So what has this to do with Olivenza?
Well, Olivenza is territorially disputed by the two Iberian neighbours
I found it a bit disconcerting that in the age of European integration there are still border disputes
And it’s not just Olivenza: La Codosera, Alburquerque and even Badajoz are disputed

Out of interest I read the intriguingly titled Territorial Disputes and Resource Management: A Global Handbook, by Rongxing Guo
Listed between the Okpara River, separating Benin and Nigeria, and the Orange River in South Africais is Olivenza, with Ogadēn and the islets of Okinotorishima

Significant global conflicts are also represented in his book: the dispute over the Jordan River, Gaza Strip, Guantanamo Bay, the Straits of Hormuz, Jammu and Kashmir, the Persian Gulf and the West Bank, not to mention Gibraltar

Rongxing Guo mentions that as well as the town of Olivenza the disputed territory contains a further seven villages
Claimed by Portugal on the basis of its interpretation of the decisions promulgated at the Congress of Vienna in 1815

He further reasons that the Portuguese believe that, as Spain requests the United Kingdom to return Gibraltar, though this is not what the inhabitants want, Portugal is requesting that Spain return Olivenza, despite the wishes of its current inhabitants


I can understand anyone being possesive about Olivenza, it’s a pretty town, annealed by years of being fought over
Understandably the castle is impressive
Large, dramatic and with little detail to deflect it from its purpose of protecting the town
It towers over it

Everything about the castle is  brutal: size, scale, stonework and lack of detail
The keep is vast and looks over the church of Santa Maria del Castillo and the houses facing it; all have a delicacy and refinement
The contrast enhanced, not just by the well-tended young orange trees but, by the comparative brutality of their neighbour

Equally imposing are the steps up the castle walls, chiselled by sunlight they add to the vast abstractedness of the place

The stairs that rise to the top of the keep appear as an afterthought, as though cut from its stones at the first necessity; the keep a colossal monolithic sculpture
The infrequent balistraria offer tantalising glimpses of the town but in the end are disorientating; there’s no regularity to their placement, and you quickly forget what side of the keep your on
Passing an arrow slit  there’s an explosion of light, colour and detail, in contrast to the dark interior, uniformity of stone and endless steps

Despite the imposing castle the ward remains composed, using an ascetic palette of materials: undressed stone walls, black and white marble pavements, grey carved stone, whitewash and a cobalt sky rarely relieved by clouds

Here, Santa Maria del Castillo has a simple elegance but a reredos of breathtaking virtuosity
A golden fantasia of baroque and classical bravura
Unlike the quietness of the distinguished grey stonework
Stonework that nonetheless displays pleasant nuances of subtle colouration next to the whitewashed walls

The tower stands square but gracefully proportioned; sophisticated details that have overtones of the Italian Renaissance masters: Michelangelo Buonarotti, Andrea Palladio, Jacopo Sansovino, Giorgio Vasari or Raphael

Yet Santa Maria del Castillo is modest compared to the brilliance of Santa Maria Magdalena that stands some streets away, seen from the top of the castle keep, it’s almost a mirror image of Santa Maria del Castillo
It’s possible to confuse the two, they’re similar, but Santa Maria Magdalena is obviously the elder sibling

And without doubt, Santa Maria Magdalena is the most elegant, exquisite church in Iberia
Such hyperbole is a challenge to disprove this assumption
Whatever you think you will moved by its creative virtuosity; strangely urbane in this border town

xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx  Magdalena   ayuntamiento    street names   etc


At risk of fanning the flames of dissension amongst the Spanish who lay claim to Olivenza, it reminds me of Faro: especially the castle ward which has a typical Portuguese ambience

photography and text by Tim Harris


This entry was published on June 17, 2017 at 6:30 pm. It’s filed under Extremadura, Spain, Travel and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Follow any comments here with the RSS feed for this post.

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