Alentejo Portugal

Getting Olivença back: a raid on our own territory

Olivença is the stage of a 200 year-old territorial dispute between Portugal and Spain. We cross the Guadiana to solve the issue once and for all.

Tired of waiting for Zeza to get ready, I step outside to another warm Alentejo morning. I sit on the porch of our house at this rural tourism complex in Juromenha, watching the sparrows skim the pool water mid-flight. Across the lazy Guadiana, the morning Sun rises above the plains of Olivenza. I mean, Olivença.

“Oh-lee-vehn-ssa”. Not “oh-lee-vehn-tha”, the lisped corruption the Spanish insist on calling it, adding insult to injury. Yes, because Olivença, that patch of terrain directly across the river from where I stand, is being illegally occupied.

Those of you hailing from beyond the Pyrenees might be wondering what the hell am I talking about. Let me try and break this down really quick.

The Issue of Olivença

About 200 years ago, at the dawn of Napoleonic France in Europe, Portugal was targeted for its allegiance with England. Besides shunning Portuguese ships from every European port, Napoleon urged our lifelong enemies the Spanish to attack us, in an attempt to weaken our defenses for a future invasion. And since nuestros hermanos never needed much of an excuse to bully us around, they were happy to oblige.

Heck, they even took a few border territories for themselves while they were at it. Those included Juromenha, where we are right now, and Olivença.

Eventually, the French invaded. Three times. And three times we repelled them, with the help of the British. During the last invasion, we had the help of the Spanish too, by then betrayed and invaded themselves by their former allies.

After French definitive withdrawal, Portuguese and Spanish finally buried the axe they had been wielding at each other for centuries. And to celebrate their newly found friendship, they went on a trip to Vienna together. With booze and hookers, I would expect. And in the midst of this debauchery, the Spanish pinky-promised to return every territory they had occupied during the war.

And so they did. Except for Olivença and the surrounding lands on the left margin of the Guadiana. The Spanish turned a blind eye to the treaty they signed, and until this day, Olivença remains Olivenza.

But, if the Spanish somehow managed to overlook a commitment for 200 years, that’s because the Portuguese allowed them to do so. Our government authorities aren’t keen on doing more than sending the Spanish an occasional kind reminder about Olivença. Which ends up being treated like every other kind reminder: mark as read, send to archive.

The subject, known within our borders as Questão de Olivença (Issue of Olivença), has been highly discussed in the past. But I have always felt curious about how such an affront to Portugal’s sovereignty can be so undervalued by our rulers for such a long time.

Why? How? Those are valid questions. I guess the best way to know is to see it for myself.

If only Zeza would hurry up.

But first, we’re stopping at Elvas

To fully understand the importance of the Issue of Olivença, we needed first to skid through Elvas.

Elvas, like most Portuguese border towns, is a garrisoned settlement built on a hillside. What makes it special is its network of walls and exterior forts, composing the world’s largest bulwarked fortification system. AKA the world’s largest “Spaniards not welcome” sign.

Two of these exterior forts stand out as pièces de résistance: Santa Luzia, to the south of town, and Senhora da Graça, to the north. The city and both forts are in plain sight of the city of Badajoz, less than 20km to the east, assuring our neighbors have a last chance to reconsider any possible invading plans.

Manueline arch in white and yellow in between military structures in Elvas, Alentejo, Portugal
Streets of Elvas

Inside the walls, Elvas is a mesh of narrow streets climbing up the hillside. The harmony of the Alentejo white housing in blue or yellow skirting is broken here and there by a few examples of manueline architecture, mostly on churches and government buildings, and by sturdy military structures. Even the gutters are shaped as bulwarks.

Before departing Elvas, we went up to Senhora da Graça Fort. From here, a whole panorama of the region is available, reaching as far as Olivença.

View from Senhora da Graça Fort: the walled city of Elvas stands atop a hill, with an aqueduct and a recent neighborhood to the right
View towards Elvas from Senhora da Graça Fort

Down to business

I wasn’t expecting to arrive in Olivença to a session of Cante Alentejano, grilled sardines and Reguengos wine. But I was happy to note that, after two centuries of Spanish occupation, Olivença retained, at least, its Portuguese architectural identity.

Like in the black and white limestone pavements of its pedestrian streets. In the Alentejan white houses with yellow or blue skirting. In the occasional Manueline feature in a governmental building or a church. Or in the bulwark fortifications that defend most of our border settlements.

Typical Alentejo street with white houses in yellow skirting, Portuguese black and white limestone Pavament in Olivença
Typical Alentejo street in Olivença

All in all, apart from the bi-lingual street signs, the differences between Olivença and Juromenha, Elvas or just about every other Alentejo village or small town were, at first sight, nonexistent.

At first sight. Because once we look closer, these streets filled with Portuguese architectural heritage are empty.

Not that the Alentejo villages are particularly buzzing, for that matter. But there’s always someone peeking through a window, sitting in a shade, chatting on the threshold of a store. Olivença, however, has its blinds shut, its shades vacant, its stores closed.

We needed to get our brains to work to figure this one out. Having crossed the Guadiana, the clock leaped one hour ahead, scheduling our arrival in Olivença smack in the middle of the siesta.

There’s nothing as blatantly Spanish as an ingrained siesta schedule. Only in heavily hispanicized cultures does it become such an institution as to freeze a whole town.

Granite church tower outside the city limits of Olivença
Santa Maria do Castelo church

Walking around frozen towns is boring. And with great boredom comes great hunger. But the siesta makes it difficult to find where to grab a bite. We had already given up on lunch when we found what was perhaps the only business running at the time. Luckily, it was a snack bar.

If it’s open, maybe it is Portuguese owned, or at least, inspired, I thought. How poetic it would be. A 4th or 5th generation innkeeper, with a pot belly and a chevron mustache, tenaciously keeping his people’s culinary traditions among the hibernating intruders. “My great-great-grandfather didn’t flee from the Spanish, nor will I”, he would say, as the bunch of his regular, cause-committed costumers cheered. “I’ll keep cooking açorda until they leave, even if I have to wait for the return of Sebastião!”

But my imagination ran too far ahead of me. The menu is tapas, jamon ibérico, tortilla, patatas bravas. Not the slightest hint of açorda or anything else out of Portuguese cuisine. The owner is slender, hairless and didn’t understand a word of what I said to him in Portuguese. Neither did the only other costumer there, reading El País at the counter.

Huevos rotos and a candy bar

We wait for our order of huevos rotos con patatas y chorizo and two cervezas as Olivença slowly awakens. Traffic intensifies, stores re-open, people wander about its streets. And we wonder: what is it so special about Olivença that the Spanish wouldn’t retrieve it?

There are theories about different interpretations of the Vienna treaty. Or about retaliation due to Portuguese annexation of Uruguay, which after Brazilian independence never returned to Spanish rule. But the real reason might be a lot less complicated than that.

The Spanish city of Badajoz is, by far, the largest settlement on either side of the whole length of the border. For 500 years, Badajoz lived surrounded by three major Portuguese defensive strongholds. Campo Maior to the North, Elvas to the West, and Olivença to the South.

The latter posed the highest threat, due to its location on the left bank of the Guadiana. No natural obstacles stood between Badajoz and an incoming invasion force. So maintaining Olivença had mutiple advantages for the Spanish. Not only did they improve Badajoz’s defenses, but they also threw the Portuguese to the other side of the river. Simple military strategy.

But why didn’t the Portuguese take further action to ensure the restitution of Olivença?

There was a time, in the decades that followed the annexation, when it would have made sense. When most inhabitants were born in Portuguese territory, spoke the language, identified with the culture.

However, that was a tough period. Well, to be honest, it’s been tough ever since Sebastião disappeared in the XVI century. But shortly after the Peninsular war, Brazil began its struggle for independence, depriving Portugal from its main source of income. And shortly after that, the country fell into Civil War. Three consecutive war efforts had crushed our already weakened economy. Engaging on another conflict would be shooting ourselves in the foot.

This is understandable, from an external politics point of view. But while we went on with more pressing matters, the replacement and suppression of our identity in Olivença continued.

During the dictatorship years, it went up a notch. Franco made Castilian the only official language in Spain, forbidding all others. As in the rest of the territory, streets and buildings in Olivença were renamed, and the inhabitants that still maintained their Portuguese surnames were forced to hispanicize them (i.e. Pires turned to Perez, Ferreira to Herrera, etc).

Once the regime fell, the whole of Spain reconnected with their regional heritage. In Olivença, revival of Portuguese culture is a far cry from the engagement seen in Catalonia, Galicia, Basque Country and the rest of the communities with their local traditions. And other than the re-instating of toponyms, nothing else is to show.

In 2014, Portuguese authorities granted Oliventinos the right to apply for Portuguese nationality. By the end of 2018, less than 1 000 of the total population of 12 000 had applied.

When most inhabitants were born in Spanish territory, don’t speak Portuguese and don’t identify with the culture, do we still really have a claim?

The snack-bar gets busy, and soon a fired-up discussion about the current political crisis in Spain unfolds. Apparently, new elections might be coming soon. And with new elections, maybe a new government to ignore the kind reminders from Portugal about the issue of Olivença. Which is, by the way, the best way to handle them.

Olivença is like the last candy bar on the fridge we’ve been keeping for later. And right when we’re about to grab a chunk of it, our brother comes out of nowhere, swipes it and licks it end to end right in front of our face. We’re upset, no doubt about it. But after 200 years, it’s time we stop whining about that candy bar.

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