Portugal is a land of pageants, processions, lively country fairs and other joyful folklore-based festivities where tourists who happen upon them by accident can expect the unexpected.
Old-style country festas are often held under the auspices of a popular saint, and nowhere else in Europe is the romaria (which literally means ‘peregrination’) is so fun-filled and exuberant.
At the numerous annual events in the hinterland (known as the saloio regions) during Portugal’s long hot summer months, visitors fill their bags with charming souvenirs such as pitchers and pans in glazed earthenware, plates decorated with flowers or people’s names, little pigs crafted as money-boxes, wicker-work objects of all kinds and high-quality utensils in copper or brass.
There’s much merrymaking to be had at villages, towns and cities the entire length and breadth of the country, from the lush, green mountains of the north to the sun-scorched plains of the south.
For instance, on Corpus Christi day (3rd of June) in the picturesque town of Amarante, northern Portugal, a cardboard serpent is carried through the streets and dutifully killed according to local tradition amid a great din of fireworks, to which a supplementary animation is provided by the Minho’s effervescent vinho verde wine.
Barely a half-hour drive west, the magnificent city of Porto is a gastronomic melting pot with a riot of regional dishes like partridge soup as thick and pale as honey and capon in saffron followed by sweetmeats of the conventual variety made of biscuits, sugared fruits and almond paste with eggs.
Still in the north, wonderfully attired ladies vie for attention in the Midsummer Procession of the lovely town of Vila do Conde (indicated on the Google map below) where the lace-makers leave their cushions and spindles for a day to form a very pretty pageant, all of which is in stark contrast to the fishermen of nearby Póvoa de Varzim who day by day don thick white sweaters often embroidered with lobsters, anchors and Solomon’s cross.
Of all the Portuguese provinces, the Minho region north of Porto is arguably the most traditional and culturally diverse, ranging from the elaborate dresses of Viana do Castelo to the emblematic Barcelos cock, both valuable vestiges of the past. Abiding by strict traditions, Minho festivals are a medley of processions, fairs, folk dances and fireworks, and the costumes are rich in glass trinkets and woollen embroidery with fringes and gold jewels aplenty as the dancers swirl round with a perfect sense of unity and harmony.
In contrast to a Minho cock, a piece of Beira pottery, an Alentejo rug or an Algarve esparto artefact, the colours of Trás-os-Montes are based on the dark phosphorescence of mineral ore, metal or lava. In this remote part of northern Portugal, the miniature pots or pans that some lovers still give each other when they get engaged are made of the blue-black clay of the land, while the thick, reddish wool dress spun and woven by the women of the region’s little remote villages is also dark and perhaps a little somber.
The Devil himself is often a self-invited guest at many Trás-os-Montes fairs and festivals, often choosing to wear a horned mask bristling with vipers in a province where the pagan rites of the Celts and their cult of fertility have left very curious traces in the more outlying areas of northern Portugal.
The women of the Douro Valley (an area affectionately known as Port wine country) are also a sight to behold with their gold rings on each finger and sometimes a triple pair of ear-rings and necklaces, brooches, chains, crosses and those delightful hearts of filigree work, the masterpiece of the goldsmiths of Gondomar.
Wherever you go in Portugal, you’ll find that caldo verde soup – a cabbage broth made with potato and olive oil into which a thick hunk of maize bread is crumbled – is served at fetes and festivals all over the country, serving as a worthy prelude to hearty main courses of roast kid, meat rissoles with saffron or the famous Lafões veal with lashings of local wine.
On Portugal’s west coast, in the airy seaside town of Nazaré to be precise, the local women traditionally wear seven skirts if they are single but only two if they are married (the latter being pleated and embroidered with coloured lace), which can be seen swirling majestically at country fairs throughout the summer to every step and flowing movement of their dancing hips.
Despite being in such close proximity to the capital, central Portugal’s fertile Ribatejo region has remained true to itself by keeping its annual festivals and typical dress intact. Herdsmen galloping on their lusitano horses across the damp meadows of Salvaterra or Azambuja are still a regular feature. And thanks to them, the many colourful country fairs of the Ribatejo have maintained their vigorous gaiety, most notably the great Abrantes festas which last for a week, Almeirim fair with its parade of herdsmen and the famous Alcochete Boatman’s Festival featuring the blessing of the salt-pans.
Ribatejo is also home to the mother of all Portuguese parties, the Tray Festival (Festa dos Tabuleiros), which takes place every four years in Tomar. Here, more than six hundred women go in procession to the local hospice carrying on their heads amazing concoctions of small loaves and sausages threaded on reeds and decorated with flowers, rosettes and ears of wheat to provide a tourist spectacle par excellence.
Tastefully and genuinely rural and picturesque, Ribatejo is the place where visitors can be tempted to indulge themselves in local delicacies like veal roasted whole, fried shad, boatmen’s fish soup, Tagus eels, cheese from Tomar and the many delicious sweets of the region such as Abrantes ‘straw’ made of egg yolk threaded through sugar, the aptly-named ‘heavenly delights’ from Santarém and the popular bride’s cake from Almeirim, all washed down by the potent Cartaxo wine.
The great fairs of the Alentejo further south offer visitors the chance to pick up high-quality pieces of pottery, ceramics and tin moulds for cheese-making and other culinary activities. The region’s immense landscapes are reflected in the delicacy of the water-colours painted by scores of locally-born artists and with the vast vistas similarly depicted through tapestries of clear, simple lines firmly drawn with soft, warm shades and delightfully detailed backgrounds.
No one can pass through the Alentejo without collecting some of the intricate Estremoz terracotta dolls, or choosing a vase from Niza inlaid with white pebbles to offer someone as a souvenir, or purchasing a fine striped blanket to give colour to their bedroom back home.
But the Alentejo is most famous for the magnificent Arraiolos carpets, inspired by Persian motifs that the Portuguese have enriched through unique colourings and designs to make them attractively original. The enchanting city of Portalegre, thankfully, has revived its rich tapestry tradition in recent years, thus giving a second life to a noble class of craftsmen far too long neglected.
On the sun-drenched southern shores of the Algarve, there’s the fair of S. Bartolomeu de Messines in Silves where curious visitors are attracted to all manner of handicrafts, such as the little baskets of embroidered raffia or esparto, intricately-crafted wicker-work objects, carved wax candles, harnesses for donkeys made of plaited wool, saddle-bags with pompoms and chestnut-wood walking sticks made by the mountain folk of Monchique.
The Algarve is the land of Prince Henry the Navigator’s ground-breaking exploits of the 15th century, a period of history depicted at many of the region’s local festivities with the unveiling of centuries-old seafaring secrets, such as how boatmen tie their ropes and fishermen bait their fish hooks.
In places like Olhão, an ancient and very traditional seaside town with one foot still firmly in its Moorish past, local fishermen continue to pay humble homage to their families through the vivid illustrations painted on the bows of their boats, which are as curious as they are varied: slime-carriers with flat bottoms and curved like a swan’s neck, robust cod-fishing barquentines, sturdy wind-jammers, elegant sailing boats and a whole fleet of freshwater or ocean-going vessels with all their gear and tools.