There’s a real history lesson here. In the 13th century, Belmonte was a rural community, dependant of livestock and agriculture. It came to prominence in the 15th century when King Alfonso V, gave the land to Captain-General Fernão Cabral, the whose third son, Pedro Álvares Cabral, went on to become Belmonte’s most famous native when he discovered Brazil after a journey of 43 days.
There is considerable Jewish history here, too. Four years after Spain published the Edict of Expulsion of the Jews in 1492, the king of Portugal, Manuel I, issued a law ordering all Portuguese Jews to convert to Christianity or leave the country. The ‘marranos’ – those who chose to remain – formed a community that survived in secrecy for centuries, hiding all the external signs of their faith. They married among themselves, lit Sabbath candles on a Friday night where they could not be seen, and observed festivals like Passover and Yom Kippur, albeit on slightly different days to the Jewish calendar date, so as not to draw any attention to themselves. Those who supposedly ‘converted’, the Conversos, or Crypto Jews, adopted different surnames, many taken from the names of trees, animals and geographic features.
In 1917, a Galician mining engineer, Samuel Schwartz, discovered a stone dating to 1297 that proved the existence of a synagogue in Belmonte, but it was not until 1989 that the Jewish community of Belmonte was officially recognised. Today, the Synagogue Beit Eliahu (House of Elijah) is active and the Jewish community of Belmonte is considered to be truly Portuguese, its members descendants of the Crypto Jews.
Crowned by a medieval castle, Belmonte stands out for the beauty of its landscapes and monuments, for the richness of its history and resources, for its fabulous strategic position, which has made it dominate, since time immemorial, territories and communication routes.
History, heritage and traditions are disseminated in the six museum spaces in Belmonte: Belmonte Castle Museum, Church of Santiago/Panteão dos Cabrais (Paths of Faith Interpretation Centre), Jewish Museum, Zêzere Ecomuseum, Museu do Olive Oil and Discoveries Museum. In the municipality, the Torre de Centum Cellas, the Roman Villa of Quinta da Fórnea and the Casa da Torre are also noteworthy.
WHAT TO SEE IN BELMONTE
Belmonte Castle Museum
The ancient streets of Belmonte lead to the top of a hill where the granite mass of the old castle rises. It dates back to the 13th century when King Afonso III authorised Bishop D. Egas Fafe to build a Tower there. In 1446, King Afonso V gave the castle to Fernão Cabral to build his home. In the late 17th century, a violent fire destroyed the west wing of the palace, after which it was abandoned and the family moved to what is now the Discoveries Museum.
The castle was declared a National Monument in 1927 and is used for tourism and cultural functions. The open-air amphitheater was buit in 1992, and the 19th-century Hall was adapted as a museum, dedicated to the history of the municipality and the castle itself.
Church of Santiago/Pantheon of Cabrals
Next to the castle is the small Roman-Gothic church dedicated to St. James, the annex of which houses the Cabrals’ pantheon, although Pedro Álvares Cabral’s ashes are found in the Igreja da Graça, in Santarém.
Classified as a National Monument, it is an example of religious architecture with stylistic, Romanesque, gothic and Manueline characteristics, thought to have been built in 1240 by order of Maria Gil Cabral.
The Capela dos Cabrais was built there in 1433 by Pedro Álvares Cabral’s parents. In 1630, Francisco Cabral had the façade refurbished, the choir loft built and the frescoes repainted. Inside there are traces of the frescoes and a 14th-century Pietà, which José Saramago said was the finest piece in the church. The frescoes show St James, Our Lady of Hope and St Peter, which some say represents Pedro Álvares Cabral. The nearby bell tower was built in 1860. The ashes of the Cabral family members rest in this chapel.
The old Jewish quarter of Belmonte was located around the current Rua Direita and Rua Fonte da Rosa (the latter originally called Rua da Judiaria). At the top of Rua Direita, there is a square, one of the oldest in Belmonte, which has preserved much of its original architecture.
Visitors to the Jewish Museum, learn about the history of the last Crypto-Jewish community to survive in Portugal.
In Rua do Inferno and elsewhere in the Jewish quarter, there are cross-shaped motifs on the doorposts. Some researchers say this was a way for the Crypto-Jews to state their new religion and avoid being persecuted by the Inquisition; others suggest the cross was used to purify a space considered heretical.
Located in the former Tulha dos Cabrais in Rua Pedro Álvares Cabral, this is an educational museum in which you can follow the River Zêzere from its source to its mouth, and get to know the fauna and flora in each stretch, including species in danger of extinction.
Olive Oil Museum
Making the most of an old olive press in Belmonte, a museum was installed where visitors can see all the machinery used for transforming olives into olive oil in the 20th century. Local legend legend had it that the Lord of Belmonte stood firm against the enemy’s threat and chose to watch his daughter be crushed in an olive press rather than surrender the castle.
Museum of Discoveries
Once the Cabral family’s home and now housing the municipal library and archives, this two-story building bears the only remaining coat of arms of the Counts of Belmonte – all others were mutilated. The Museum of the Discoveries is an interactive museum that transports visitors through a 500-year history of the construction of a country and its nature. The exhibition addresses the history of the Portuguese discoveries that unified the New World, the voyage of discovery of Brazil, the construction of a sister nation, and much more.
Romanic town of Fórnea
Quinta da Fórnea is a group of Roman ruins dating back to the 2nd century. Excavations have revealed several Roman pieces, presumed to have been a property inhabited by a family and servants.
Statue of Pedro Álvares Cabral
The work of sculptor Álvaro de Brée, and completed in in 1961, the discoverer is in a relaxed pose holding an astrolabe, a sword and a cross.
The house where Zeca Afonso lived
José Manuel Cerqueira Afonso dos Santos, a Portuguese singer and composer, better known by his nickname Zeca Afonso, lived in Belmonte. There is a plaque in Largo Afonso Costa recording the fact that this land was his land.
In the Old Town Hall of Belmonte, this exhibition supplements the displays at the Museum of the Discoveries and includes various objects relating to the everyday life and ceremonies of the indigenous tribes of the Coast of the Discoveries, from 1500 to the present.
Centum Cellas Tower
Formerly known as the Tower of St Cornelius, this curious Roman monument arouses attention and curiosity. One legend – and there are plenty – suggests that it was a prison with 100 cells, and the place where where St Cornelius was held captive. The building resembles an old crown made of stone, haunted by flocks of birds that nest in the crevices. Fascinating, and spooky, too.
Words: Livia Mokri