One of the joys of being on the border is that you can nip over to Spain to experience a different culture and time zone (make the most of this when you’re hungry for lunch but nothing’s yet open in Portugal). You may doubt much difference can be gained by driving a few km across the border to the nearest Spanish town, but I assure you the difference is immense.
Valencia de Alcantara is a functional, yet proud little town which once hosted the wedding of Portuguese king Manuel I to Spanish Princess Isabel (in an unsuccessful bid to bring the two countries together). The town, although only home to about 6000 people, stretches far and wide, so be sure to head for the centre of town (near the Bull Ring) to start exploring. Make sure you visit during the morning or evening, or you will be faced with a sun-scorched ghost town indulging in its daily siesta. The oldest part of town is found in the vicinity of the castle and the Church of ‘Nuestra Señora de Rocamador’, and a wander around these monuments and nearby streets reveal some grand architecture and family crests, dating back to the town’s heyday in the 16th and 17th centuries. The castle and church, together with other domed and steepled buildings, are home to many families of storks during the hot months. You may hear their bill-clattering ‘round of applause’ before you see them.
A good day to visit the town is a Monday, which is market day. Follow the shoppers with empty pull-along trolleys to get to the food market, or retrace the steps of those whose bags and arms are full of greenery and bulging bags of fruit. The market is a bustling place on one of the main squares, and nowhere is the difference between the reserved Portuguese and the loud Spaniards more apparent. You can measure the difference between the two countries in decibels. Although intimidating, don’t be shy, the busiest noisiest market stalls are likely to be the best, so make yourself known, wave your euros for attention and bag the bargains. After the ordeal of battling for supremacy, you will probably be ready for a sit down, so have a caña (small beer) or café con leche at the plaza next to the market, or for a little more peace head to one of the cafes on Plaza Amistad Hispano Luso, where you can watch life go by accompanied by the tinkling music of the pretty fountain (and a bunch of locals chatting/arguing). If you are a fan of jamon iberico (Iberian ham made from specific black pigs), get yourself to ‘Franju’ where you can try before you buy. The quality and taste of the meat is sublime, and perfect for taking away with some local bread for a picnic in the Dolmens.
And so onto the Dolmens! When a Spanish friend of mine first explained the dolmens to me I had curious images of old ‘doormen’ scattered around the countryside, but I am ignorant and naïve and knew nothing of rock formations! Dolmens are in fact megalithic chambers made from local stone, and there is an abundance of them in the countryside surrounding Valencia de Alcantara. The purpose and origins of these dolmens are unclear but the widest-held belief is that they acted as tombs some 7000 years ago. You will see signs for the ‘Ruta de los dolmenes’ at the entrance of Valencia de Alcantara and if you’re willing to make the effort, the best example is called Mellizo (twins) and is a short drive away in Aceña de la Borrega.
Living on an island (albeit a very big one) means that land borders are curious things for me to encounter. And the difference between Spain and Portugal is surprisingly large, despite their closeness. I am often hit by a trivial yet difficult dilemma when choosing between Spain and Portugal – I prefer the coffee in Spain, but the cake in Portugal, the ham in Spain, but the bread in Portugal. It seems as though I am destined to be split between the two countries (at least for snacking purposes), but that’s a unique dilemma to be in, so make sure you cross the border and find out what you prefer across each side of it.