Jewish Heritage in Spain and Portugal

Trancoso (W, SP)

Caso do gato preto, TrancosoThe walled town of Trancoso still retains much of its medieval atmosphere.  

Entering the town is an impressive experience because of its imposing walls, dating from the 13th century, which open to form the old gate known as the Porta d’El Rei. Inside, we are struck by other remnants of its medieval past: the pillory, the castle and the Igreja de São Pedro.

Jews first settled here in the 12th century, and their community grew even larger in the 14th and 15th centuries with the influx of Jews from Aragon and Castile. One of Trancoso’s best-known Jews was the mysterious Bandarra (1500-45), a shoemaker and poet, who prophesied the future of Portugal and was a source of inspiration for many writers. Among these is the 20th-century poet Fernando Pessoa, himself (in his own words) “a mixture of noblemen and Jews”.

Trancoso’s Jewish quarter is remarkably well-preserved.  The houses inhabited by the Jews who settled here in the 15th century can be identified by their two doors, one of which is wider and was used for trading purposes, while the narrower one was used as an entrance to the living quarters.

The façade of the Casa do Gato Preto, the former synagogue and rabbi’s residence, is decorated with emblems that have been interpreted as representations of the Lion of Judah and the Gates of Jerusalem. The Jewish quarter also hosts the recently-opened Isaac Cardoso Center for Interpretation of Jewish Culture.

In Trancoso the locals still tell stories of modern-day Crypto-Jews practicing their own “unusual customs”.  A creepy curiosity: in Trancoso they make a “typical” liqueur called Sangue de Judeu (“Jewish Blood”).