Olivenza: the best architecture of an empire

Sara Rodriguez Romo | Live the World

November 23, 2022

Olivenza is an extraordinary place south of Badajoz, in Spain. I was lucky enough to be born there, and I am thrilled to be given a chance to write about it. At school, we used to have a teacher that taught us all the little secrets of this beautiful, unique city. Let me share them with you! 

© Sara Rodríguez Romo

To fully understand the idiosyncrasy of Olivenza, you need to know that it was the only Portuguese territory on the right side of the river Guadiana for five centuries. For them, owning it, it was a matter of prestige. To show off in front of the Spanish government, they brought in the best architects and engineers of the world to build its marvelous buildings. Take the Church of Magdalena, for instance. 

The Church of Santa Maria Magdalena

© Sara Rodríguez Romo

Its architects were the same ones that built the Palace of Pena in Sintra and the Monastery of Jerónimos in Lisbon. It was built for the bishops of… Ceuta. Yes, the city in the north of Africa! Do you see how vital Olivenza was at the time? Its first bishop happened to be the confessor of King D. Manuel, who then got transferred to Brazil and officiated there the very first mass of its history. 

© Sara Rodríguez Romo

The church is a beauty. It is a tribute to the sea: the sea made the small Portuguese kingdom one of the biggest empires of history.  Outside, two ropes in stone divide the central tower. At its center, a rose window is surrounded by spheres representing the world that they ruled during the XVIth century. Go inside: it is so delicate! The columns are unique: they represent the waves of the sea. If you stand on the back part of the church, on a specific time, there is a ray of light coming from the rose window. When it strikes the golden altar, you have the impression that the columns are moving. On the left side, if you look up, you will see a medallion on the ceiling, representing a man with a big nose. It was a Jew that had to contribute with a lot of money to the construction of the church to be allowed to stay while all the others were expelled. The sculptor did not want him to be forgotten, even if he was a Jew. So, like a bad joke, he depicted him with a huge nose!

© Sara Rodríguez Romo

Some decades later, Portugal came under the rule of Spain, and King Phillip II decided that he too had to build something that would compete with all the previous masterworks. He made the Church of Saint Mary of the Castle, in his particular style, more austere and sober than the joyful Magdalena, but equally imposing. 

Military architecture

However, Olivenza was, before all, a defensive city, so military architecture was fundamental. A disciple of Descartes worked here as an engineer. To facilitate access from Portugal, the same king, D. Manuel, built a massive bridge (380 meters), with the very explicit name of 'Ayuda' (Bridge of the Help). Of course, it did not last long: less than three centuries later, it was blown away. However, only the central arches are missing, while the rest are in perfect condition. It used to have a huge tower in the middle that served as a checkpoint. 

© iStock / Fotoeventis

Olivenza used to be a templar fortress. Its name would come from the huge amount of olive trees that grow in these fertile lands. While in Portuguese hands, the king built the higher homage tower of the country: 36 meters (like a 15-floor building), a proud provocation to the nearby Spanish villas. Inside, 17 ramps allow you to go to the top. The most important military men could go up in horses, like in the Sevillian Giralda. Around it, a few rings of city walls. Also, a medieval moat was revealed recently. In the past, there were houses built over it. Its inhabitants used to complain about the humidity!

© Sara Rodríguez Romo

Rumour has it that a highway is to be built shortly, improving its connection to the capital, Badajoz, Madrid and Portugal, via Elvas. Funny thing, no welcome sign when you cross the Guadiana River and officially reach Portugal: you were supposed to be in this country already if you are coming from Olivenza! Also, until 2017, the American CIA thought that Olivenza was as dangerous as Gaza or the West Bank and advised its citizens never to go there. The Spanish national medias found it hilarious and for years it went on the news... 

Nowadays, people born here have the right to double nationality. We are even allowed to vote in Portugal! I think it sets a very good example for other regions: Olivenza is proud to be both Spanish and Portuguese. As a local song goes:"the girls from Olivenza are not like the rest, because they are daughters of Spain and grand-daughters of Portugal."

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