A civilised dispute in a sparsely populated Spanish border town

Wed, Feb 29, 2012, 00:00

OLIVENZA LETTER:OF ALL Europe’s outstanding border disputes, few can be as dormant as the one between Spain and Portugal over the picturesque town of Olivenza.

Or Olivença, if you are persuaded by the Portuguese claim.

Nestled in this part of Iberia where the poor, sparsely populated Spanish region of Extremadura meets the poor, sparsely populated Portuguese region of Alentejo, Olivenza has been ruled by Spain for more than 200 years.

Though control passed to Madrid in the same year as our own Act of Union, many Portuguese still feel an emotional attachment to its austere white adobe dwellings and delicate churches in the Manueline Renaissance style that remain as witnesses to 500 years of Portuguese rule. Back across today’s border, the cry of the sentimental Portuguese nationalist is “Olivença is Ours!” The town’s residents are aware that their history sets them apart from the rest of their neighbours in Extremadura. As a local folk song has it: “The lassies from Olivenza are not like the rest Because they are daughters of Spain and granddaughters of Portugal”.

On a midweek morning the town is as dormant as the border dispute. In the otherwise empty Plaza de España two taxi drivers lolling in their cars say they are proud of the influence Portugal has had on the town’s history and architecture.

However, in case they give the wrong impression they emphasise that “like everyone else” they feel Spanish. Of Portugal’s claim they are dismissive, the younger man insisting that before the town was ever Portuguese, it was Spanish.

There is historical truth to the claim. Before half a millennium of Portuguese suzerainty, Olivenza was indeed ruled over for 19 years by Castile, one of Spain’s precursor kingdoms.

In fact this region, like the whole of Iberia, has had lots of masters down through the millennia: Phoenicians settled here and were followed by Romans, Visigoths, Moors and Crusaders, who first built Olivenza’s castle.

Then came Portugal and, after it won the now largely forgotten War of the Oranges, Spain. It banned the teaching of Portuguese in the town’s schools and later renamed its streets and plazas with patriotic Spanish titles. Its official name today is “The Very Noble, Notable and Always Loyal Community of Olivenza” – which sounds like over-egging.

But Portuguese survived and many residents remember grandparents who spoke the language among themselves and Spanish to the next generation.

There are still supposedly those in the town who speak the old language but they are hard to find. I come across an elderly man being pushed slowly in his wheelchair by his equally elderly wife. I politely ask if they speak any Portuguese. The man says he understands it alright but cannot speak it, saying that to find anyone who does I will have to talk to older residents, passing himself off as a young buck.

Maruja, the sprightly 74-year-old president of the town’s well-appointed pensioner day centre, also grew up hearing Portuguese. But she says despite great affection for Portugal, few today want a return to rule by Lisbon, whose claim rests on the supposed violations by Spain of the treaty that ended the War of the Oranges.

Maruja says those residents that still cling to the old connection are gathered in a group called the Friends of Portugal. Their last known public appearance was about 15 years ago when an elderly man planted a small Portuguese flag on the altar during a Mass to celebrate Extremadura Day.

The fact is that today Portugal and Spain are allies within the European Union and the dispute over Olivenza/Olivença does not occupy their diplomats. Perhaps just as well, as they deal with the euro crisis that has engulfed the two Iberian states.

In recent years Olivenza’s streets have gone bi-historical, with street signs now displaying the old Portuguese names under their Spanish replacements. Children once again learn Portuguese. If only all border disputes were so civilised.

My friend João comes from Lisbon to pick me up. It is his first visit to Olivença and he marvels at how Portuguese it feels rather than Spanish, a distinction not immediately obvious to untrained non-Iberian eyes.

If João has a gripe with the neighbours, it is less over Olivença than with the fact that he feels many Spanish view Portugal as an appendix of Spain “when in fact our country is far older than theirs”. But there is no venom. He roots for Spain’s football team against the likes of Germany and England, though he will root for Croatia and Ireland against them this summer.

On the way out of town he stops to ask directions. He asks in Spanish, the Spanish policeman attempts to respond in Portuguese. Some confusion ensues but we are soon on our way towards the unmarked, unpoliced border.