In the Footsteps of the Crypto-Jews

In the Footsteps of the Crypto-Jews (Spain & Portugal)

Overview / Highlights


The first documents mentioning Jewish people in Iberia are from the Visigothic period. It was also in this period that the first documented anti-Judaic persecution took place. The persecution would continue again and again during the long troubled history of the Jewish people along the Iberian Peninsula, a region that covers Portugal and parts of today’s Spain. All these events culminated with the Inquisition and the Decrees of Expulsion. Some Jews converted to Catholicism while others resisted and were forcedly baptized, becoming the first Iberian Crypto-Jews. The information concerning Sephardic and Iberian Crypto-Jewish descendants is scant. This tour attempts to tell the story by visiting regions where these stories come to life including Belmonte and Bragança district in Portugal, and the Chueta community from Mallorca Spain.

Tour Program Summery Outline

Day 1 : Barajas Airport - Madrid
Day 2 :  Madrid
Day 3 :  Madrid - Segovia
Day 4 :  Segovia - Zamora - Miranda do Douro -Carçao - Bragança
Day 5 :  Bragança - Vila Nova de Foz Côa-Guarda
Day 6 :  Guarda - Trancoso - Linhares da Beira -  Guarda
Day 7 :  Guarda - Belmonte - Covilha - Castelo de Vide
Day 8 :  Castelo de Vide - Marvâo - Valencia de Alcantara – Caceres
Day 9 :  Caceres - Hervas
Day 10 : Hervas - Bejar - Candelario - Hervas
Day 11 : Hervas - Avila - Madrid
Day 12 :  Madrid - Toledo – Madrid
Day 13 :  Madrid - Barajas Airport

Click   icon to enlarge map to full screen view and back 

Day 1: Madrid

Madrid After we pick you up at the airport, we will have a panoramic tour of the city on the way to our hotel. Our tour begins after lunch. We will visit the Bet Yaacov (main) synagogue with its small museum and meet with a representative of the Jewish community. We will have a welcome dinner together in a kosher restaurant.

Day 2: Madrid

Our walk through the center of Madrid will take us to the Plaza de España, with its monument to Miguel de Cervantes, author of Don Quixote.  We will also visit the area in Moorish Madrid where the Jews lived under Moslem rule, near the Royal Palace and new Almudena Cathedral. We will walk through the bustling Plaza Mayor, now a magnet for tourists, but the site of far more sinister activities a few centuries ago. In the afternoon you will have free time in Madrid to visit a museum, try some tapas, or just walk around the city.

Day 3: Madrid - Segovia

Segovia On our private tour we will visit what was once the main synagogue (now a convent) and Jewish Information Center (with information in Spanish and English), which is located in the house of Jewish community leader Abraham Senior, confidant and advisor to Queen Isabella. We will walk through the extensive Jewish quarter, climb to the top of the old wall and visit the information center located there.  We will also see the surprisingly well-preserved thousand-year-old Jewish cemetery. We will also visit the Alcazar, the palace fortress that figured prominently in 15th-century Spanish (and Jewish) history.

Day 4: Segovia - Zamora - Miranda do Douro - Carçao - Bragança

Zamora We leave Segovia early in the morning and arrive in Zamora, where we will have a private tour including a visit to the old Jewish quarter.  It was located in the lower part of the town, near the Duero River, and often subject to floods. We will also see the Plaza de Santa Lucia where the main synagogue used to be, and hear about the 12th-century siege of Zamora and the role played by Jews. We head west to Portugal, which we enter through the region of Tras-os-Montes, where tens of thousands of Jews from Spain fled in 1492 after the Decree of Expulsion.  It is also the same area to which Portuguese Jews escaped from the horrors of the Portuguese Inquisition in Lisbon and Porto. Tras-os-Montes has the biggest presence of Crypto-Judaism in northern Portugal.  As we travel the length of Portugal from north to south, you will hear the amazing story of how the existence of Crypto-Jews was discovered in the early 20th century, and the status of these communities today. Miranda do Douro Upon entering Portugal we will make a quick stop in this border town, to see one of the points through which poorer Jews escaped from the Inquisition in Spain. Carçao We will see evidence of the Jewish history of this village in its buildings, stones and coat of arms, and our local historian/guide—himself a Crypto-Jew—will tell us about the history of its Jewish population, from the time of the Inquisition to the present. We arrive in Bragança, capital of the district of Tras-os-Montes, where we will spend the night.

Day 5: Bragança - Vila Nova de Foz Côa - Guarda

Bragança   First we will visit the castle, built in the 12th century as a defense against invasion from Spain. The citadel has been well preserved throughout the centuries and within its walls are various historic items of interest. The 12thCentury “DomusMunicipalis” was used as a reservoir for water until the 16thCentury and then converted into a building that was used as a civic court for disputes between tradesmen and landowners. Outside its walls, we will see the Jewish quarter that was established by Jews fleeing from Spain and North Africa in the 15th Century, including the site where the synagogue once stood. We depart for Serra da Estrela, the highest mountain range in Portugal, and part of its largest Natural Park. Vila Nova de Foz Côa The road will take us through the town of Vila Nova de Foz  Côa.   Here we will  stop for lunch  and see  two surviving  inscriptions, used to ward off evil, carved into the houses of  “New Christian”– converso-- families.  Nearby, we will see a small chapel, formerly a synagogue. From Vila Nova de Foz Côa we will go by jeep to visit the Côa Valley Paleolithic Art site, the biggest open air site of Paleolithic art in Europe, and possibly in the world. Guarda We arrive in Guarda in time to take an introductory evening walk around the town.

Day 6: Guarda - Trancoso - Linhares da Beira - Guarda

Guarda In the morning, as we will walk through the old Jewish quarter, which has remained practically unchanged over the centuries, and we will see cruciform markings at the entrance to some of the houses. We will hear about when and why they were put there.  Nearby, in the heart of the judiaria, we will see a small church where the synagogue used to be. Trancoso Our private tour, guided by an expert in local Jewish history, will include the medieval walls, castle, stone crosses, and the Jewish quarter, including the casa do Gato Preto.  We will also visit the new Isaac Cardoso Center for Interpretation of Jewish Culture. After lunch we take the scenic route back to Guarda, passing through the village of  Linhares da Beira.  This tiny, out-of-the-way town was home at one time to a community of Jews who felt that here they would be safe from the long arm of the Inquisition.  We will hear their story, and see the remains of their neighborhood. We return to Guarda, where we spend the night.

Day 7: Guarda - Belmonte - Covilha - Castelo de Vide

Belmonte We will see the modern synagogue and Jewish Museum, and hear the fascinating story about how the “hidden Jews” of this remote little village came “out of the closet” after 500 years living as marranos and practicing Judaism secretly. We will also visit the local Olive Oil Museum, and learn about the history of this product and how it is made. We head south to Covilha. Covilha We will walk through the old Jewish quarter, which still retains its medieval atmosphere.  We will also visit the cooperative winery, where kosher wine is made.  We will taste some, and enjoy a kosher lunch there.  After that we will see the Museum of Woolmaking and then we will take a side trip to a small nearby town, where we will visit a kosher cheese factory. We continue on to Castelo de Vide, where we will have an introductory evening walk and spend the night.

Day 8: Castelo de Vide - Marvão -  Valencia de Alcantara - Caceres

Castelo de Vide We will see this town by day. Our first stop will be the top of the castle that gave the town its name.  From here, we will see a magnificent panorama with Marvão in the distance, and Spain just beyond. We will walk through the medieval Jewish quarter and visit Portugal’s oldest synagogue, now a Jewish museum and study center.  We will walk down to the public fountain at the foot of the Jewish quarter and hear some of the traditions related to the Jews of the town, then and now. We continue on to Marvão, which we had seen from the castle in Castelo de Vide. The mountaintop “Eagle’s Nest” has a breathtaking 360º view of the surrounding countryside.  We will hear about its Jewish history and visit the Municipal Museum, where we will see two tombstones with Jewish inscriptions. We head east and enter Spain. Valencia de Alcantara We will have a private tour of the extensive and well-preserved Jewish quarter and restored synagogue in this gathering place for Jews fleeing Spain in 1492. We leave for Caceres, the provincial capital. Caceres On our arrival, we will go for a nocturnal walk in the historic center, the walled city of the 15th century. This is a city of nobles given their titles by the kings of Castile for their services during the long war against the Moors, the Reconquista. Their fortress-like palaces look magical at night.

Day 9: Caceres - Hervas

Caceres In the morning we will have a private tour of Caceres.  We will visit the walled city again, and go into the Jewish quarter, whose small whitewashed houses contrast markedly with the aristocratic buildings of Caceres’ nobility that we saw last night.  We will see the mansion that belonged to the Carvajal family and hear about their surprising ties with converso families in Extremadura. We will also hear about converso conquistadores in Nuevo Leon (present-day New Mexico). We will visit the synagogue (today the Chapel of San Antonio) and also see an aljibe (underground water storage cistern) dating from the Muslim period. We depart for Hervas. Hervas We will hear about why there were Jews working the land in Hervas--this was not a common Jewish activity—and also about why so many Jews returned from Portugal to their former lands around Hervas after 1536. Our private tour will be led by members of a local cultural association that specializes in Hervas’ history and Sephardic music.  As they guide us through the very narrow alleyways of the Jewish quarter, we will see where the Jewish Guild continued to function after the expulsion in 1492, the site of the synagogue, and the Street of the Rabbi.  During our tour our guides will treat us to a performance of traditional Sephardic songs.

Day 10: Hervas - Bejar - Candelario - Hervas

After revisiting Hervas’ Jewish quarter in the morning, we will leave for Bejar. Bejar We will have a private tour of the ancient Jewish quarter and the David Melul Jewish museum, and discover why Jews started returning to this area after 1535.  We will also see the bullring, considered to be the oldest functioning one in the world. Candelario As we walk through the town’s narrow hilly streets on our private tour we will see traces of mezuzah concavities on house doors. The Jewish quarter, located behind the church, was known as the Barrio de los Perros(“Neighborhood of the Dogs”). We return to Hervas, where we spend the night.

Day 11: Hervas-Avila-Madrid

In the morning we leave for Avila. Avila As we approach the city, our first impression will be the imposing medieval wall that surrounds it.  We will stop to take a closer look—and find some surprising Jewish secrets embedded there.  Our private tour will take us to the remains of two synagogues and the 14th-century Jewish-run tannery, the most important in Spain at that time.  As we walk through the Moshe de Leon Garden, we will hear about the author of the Zohar and the story of how the book made its way to Eretz Israel, where it became known to the Jewish world, and why there is a controversy surrounding its authorship. We will see the church-convent, now a museum, built on the site where Santa Teresa de Jesus was born.  Daughter of conversos, she joined a convent at the age of 20 and later founded the Discalced Carmelite Order.   She is Spain’s foremost female saint and one of its most important literary figures as well.  We will hear about the influence the Kabbala had on her thoughts and writings. We will also hear the horrific story of “the Holy Child of la Guardia” and the part that Avila played in that blood libel. We go on to Madrid, where we spend the night.

Day 12: Madrid - Toledo - Madrid

Toledo Before entering Toledo we will stop to see the spectacular view of the old walled city, immortalized by El Greco, and the Tagus River flowing around it.  The two ancient Jewish quarters can be seen clearly, as well as the Cathedral and the Alcazar (12th -century fortress). We will hear a detailed description of the imposing panorama. Our private tour will include visits to the two synagogues remaining today: Santa Maria la Blanca and El Transito, which now houses the Sephardic Museum (the first museum in Spain to be adapted for blind visitors).  The synagogue was built by Samuel Ha-Levi, a prominent member of the Jewish community of Toledo in the 14th century, and treasurer and advisor to King Pedro I.  We will visit Ha-Levi’s house, which the painter El Greco lived in two hundred years later, and which now houses the El Greco Museum. We will wander through the alleyways of the Jewish quarter and hear about the street battles that took place between the “old” Christians and “new” Christians (conversos) and the role of the Church and local nobility at that time. We return to Madrid in time for you to do some last minute shopping, or take a last walk around the city. In the evening we will have a farewell dinner together.

Day 13: Departure from Madrid - Barajas Airport