It is tempting to dismiss the cataplana as a touristy gimmick. The globe-shaped copper (or, increasingly, stainless steel) cooking utensil with a hinged lid is sold in every gift shop in the Algarve and I wonder how many have been bought by sun-drunk tourists and are now stored at the back of cupboards unused and forgotten.
However, far from being something just for the tourists, the cataplana is still widely used in cooking in the Algarve; most Portuguese restaurants proudly include a cataplana dish on their menu and it is understandable why both the dish and cooking utensil have remained a staple in Algarvean homes since Moorish times. It is believed that the cataplana pan was used by fishermen and hunters in the past. They would fill the pan with chopped vegetables before leaving home and once they had caught some fish or killed an animal they would add the fish or meat to the pan and cook it over a fire for their lunch. Nowadays, apart from not having to hunt your own food, the principle hasn’t changed. The two most popular cataplana dishes on restaurant menus are cataplana de peixe e marisco (fish and shellfish cataplana) and cataplana de carne de porco com amêijoas (pork with clams cataplana), but any kind of fish, meat or vegetable can be cooked in the cataplana, which due to the tight fitting of the two halves, works like a pressure cooker, steam-cooking the food in a short amount of time. Most recipes recommend a cooking time of 15 to 20 minutes and the unique shape of the pan allows it to be turned over on the flame during the cooking process, ensuring everything is evenly cooked. All cataplana dishes use the same basic ingredients of onion, garlic, olive oil, tomatoes, red and green peppers, white wine, coriander, bay leaf, chilli and salt and pepper and then the fish, shellfish or meat is added. The fish and shellfish cataplana usually includes clams and prawns (and other available shellfish) added to meaty white fish such as monkfish, skate, dogfish or grouper (basically whatever fish is available that day) and sometimes potato.
The pork with clams cataplana usually has prawns and sausage or chouriço added to it and sometimes sweet potato.
Most restaurants serve the cataplana as a meal for two or more people to share (as it would be in the family home), but I have noticed several restaurants in the tourist areas of the Algarve offering cataplanas for one person. It is often accompanied by rice, but just as often with bread. The dish is brought to the table in the cataplana pan, which is guaranteed to make everyone else in the restaurant turn and look. Then notice how your waiter or waitress serves it onto the plate with pride and delight.
Portugal is famous for its seafood and of all the many seafood dishes on the menus of coastal restaurants the most popular is the enigmatically named amêijoas à Bulhão Pato (clams Bulhão Pato). For a long time I have wondered who or where Bulhão Pato was. Was he a chef who created this simple but delicious recipe or was the dish named after a place with excellent clams? In fact, it is neither of these. Raimundo António de Bulhão Pato (1828-1912) was a writer of poetry and prose who was also a bon vivant and wrote about the food he enjoyed. He lived on the south bank of the River Tejo, which at that time was said to have clams of the highest quality. The exact details of how the dish came to be named after him are lost in history, but it is believed that it was created by the chef at the Estrela de Ouro restaurant in Lisbon, of whom Bulhão Pato had written favourably, and the eponymous clams Bulhão Pato may have been a thank you from the chef. The dish has stood the test of time and continues to make a great starter to an evening meal or as a light lunch in a beachside café. The ingredients are basic, consisting of clams, olive oil, garlic, coriander, lemon juice, white wine, salt and pepper, and the dish only takes a few minutes to cook. Serve it with lemon wedges and lots of crusty bread to soak up the broth and you will almost be able to smell the sea air!
The ‘Trail of the Headlands’ (Caminho dos Promontórios) is a six-kilometre walk, inaugurated in 2018, from Carvoeiro to Ferragudo along the cliff tops, following a rugged coastline of rocks shaped by the waves and wind, which has resulted in promontories, small cove beaches and the distinctive arches, caves, galleries, sinkholes and sea stacks which are prevalent along this part of the coast.
The scenery is absolutely stunning; it is some of the best I have seen in southern Portugal. Through facts given on information boards along the walk we were able to look out for flora and fauna, although, maybe because we were concentrating on not falling over, we didn’t spot much on the day we did the walk. But you may be lucky enough to see a variety of seabirds which rest and breed in the cliffs, including the Alpine swift, common kestrel, cormorant, northern gannet, peregrine falcon, rock dove and yellow-legged gull, as well as scrubland birds such as the Sardinian warbler. The caves also make a good home for cave bats, who can hide there during the day. The coastline offers biodiverse marine habitats ranging from sand pockets and rocks to seagrass beds and encourages species such as anemone, spiny starfish and seahorses. On the top of the cliffs plants that thrive in limestone are abundant, such as the succulent Sedum sediforme, the flowering herb Teucrium polium and the more easy to pronounce broadleaf cattail, which grows in puddles found on the limestone surface, as well as lilies and orchids (Ophrys lutea, Ophrys speculum and Spanish iris) and Mediterranean scrubland plants (mastic tree, kermes oak, juniper, wild olive, dwarf fan palm, rock samphire, sea orache and beach daisy).
The walk starts in Carvoeiro by the Mar d’Fora restaurant, above Paraíso beach (with its distinctive zigzagging white steps).
Not far into the walk we came across the first, and steepest, of the inclines, which runs by Salgadeira beach, a beach that can only be reached by sea. We attempted this part of the walk two years ago and decided to abandon the rest of the walk after reaching the bottom, however, the council has now erected a rope handrail all the way down this slope and it was much easier.
As we continued the walk we got good views of the secluded beaches of Padre Vicente and Cama da Vaca, which are also beaches that can only be reached by sea.
Just under halfway along the walk we came to Vale da Lapa beach (which can be accessed from the land) and a hanging valley known as Presa da Moura, which, according to the information board, has links to Roman times when, it is thought, a dam was built there as part of a fish salting plant. The dam has now disappeared due to coastal erosion.
A bit further on we came to a large circular watchtower (4 metres high and 5 metres in diameter), the Torre da Lapa (Lapa Tower), positioned near the edge of the cliff with good views of the coast along to the mouth of the River Arade. It was built in the seventeenth century as a lookout and to prevent pirates from North Africa landing on the shore. The lookout would live in the tower and send fire or smoke signals if there was any danger. Pirates were a very real threat in those days, particularly during the fig harvest in the summer months when labourers working on local farms were susceptible to capture and enslavement, and once the pirates were on the shore they would also be able to attack and pillage local towns and villages.
Around here the ground has formed a limestone pavement, which, although flatter than some other parts of the walk, was made up of large blocks of limestone with big gaps in between and we needed to watch our feet as we walked to avoid twisting an ankle or tripping up.
Further along the walk, after passing Afurada beach and Caneiros beach is the smaller Torrado beach which is notable for the sea stack known as the Leixão da Gaivota (Gull’s Sea Stack), a large boulder in the sea which is an important breeding ground for cattle egrets and little egrets (who are best seen at dusk when they are returning from their feeding grounds), as well as being a resting place for other sea birds, and it is now a very small but important Special Protection Area.
A little further on, is the Ponta do Altar, a large promontory which separates Caneiros and Pintadinho beaches and has housed a lighthouse since 1893. The name Ponta do Altar means Altar Point and the site is believed to have been a prehistoric shrine.
The next beach is Pintadinho beach, at the back of which are two arches in the cliff which look very fragile.
The walk ends at Molhe beach which marks the mouth of the River Arade, protected by two jetties with a small lighthouse at the end of each, one jetty coming from Molhe beach and the other from Praia da Rocha on the other side of the water. From here it is a short walk into the town of Ferragudo.
The walk is 6 kilometres and can be done from Carvoeiro to Ferragudo or vice versa. There is a car park at both ends, but the walk is not a circular one so you will need to get back to your car either on foot or by taxi. If you prefer not to walk back to Carvoeiro, unfortunately there aren’t any direct buses between Ferragudo and Carvoeiro. There is a bus from Ferragudo to Portimão and from there you can get a bus to Lagoa or, occasionally, directly to Carvoeiro. A taxi is a better option, but be prepared to pay approximately 15 euros one way. If you don’t want to do the full walk, it is possible to leave or enter it at Caneiros beach or Ponta do Altar. The walk took us two and a half hours one way. As dusk was imminent we decided not to walk back along the cliffs and instead walked back to Carvoeiro following the road walk, which took another one and a half hours. There are cafés at Caneiros, Pintadinho and Molhe beaches, however, it is worth noting that we did the walk in late December and at that time of the year there were no cafés (or toilets) open at any of the beaches. In fact, we did not find a café open until we reached the outskirts of Carvoeiro.
The walk is (on the whole) well-signposted. There are a few places where it isn’t clear which path to take, but the paths are well-trodden so it is easy to get back onto the right track. However, it is a fairly challenging walk involving lots of scrambling down and climbing up the steep cliffs, which have loose stones. Shoes with a good grip are essential. We did the walk in winter when the temperatures were comfortable, but I can imagine it would be much harder in the middle of summer. All direction markers have red and yellow lines: a red arrow to the left or right with a yellow line above it indicates a left or right turn; horizontal yellow and red lines indicate straight on; and crossed yellow and red lines indicate no entry. There are several information boards along the walk with information in Portuguese and English about the flora, fauna and geological features.
Anyone who has flown into or out of Faro Airport cannot failed to have noticed the wonderful sculpture in the middle of the roundabout at the entrance to the airport showing a group of people looking up at the sky. It is called Os Observadores (The Plane Spotters) and was created in 2002 by the sculptors Teresa Paulino and Pedro Félix in 2002, being the winning entry of a competition run by Faro Airport for students at the University of the Algarve to create a design for the roundabout. The figures are crudely carved in limestone and depict a disparate group of ordinary people, including a man with a suitcase, a woman with a dog, another woman with a child, a business man, a man with a book and a couple with their arms around each other, who are all caught in a single act of looking up at the sky. They appear serene as they watch the planes take off and land and the sight of them always makes me smile.
Although there are only 13 official public holidays in Portugal it sometimes seems as if there are more. This is partly due to the fact that events which aren’t technically public holidays are celebrated as if they were, such as Carnival (Shrove Tuesday) in February or March, and partly due to the vast number of patron saints’ days or the commemoration of regional historical events throughout the country which are celebrated as local holidays. The popular saints’ days in June bring a month of holidays in various regions of the country, starting with the Festa de Santo António (Feast of Saint Anthony) in Lisbon celebrated on 12 and 13 June, followed by the Festa de São João (Feast of Saint John) in Porto and Braga on 23 and 24 June and the Festa de SãoPedro (Feast of Saint Peter) in Sintra and Évora (among other places) on 28 and 29 June. In addition, every village and town has its own dedicated day at some point during the year which is honoured with traditional festivities.
The 13 official holidays are very important to the Portuguese and when four of them (Corpus Christi, Republic Day, All Saints’ Day, and Restoration of Independence Day) were abolished by the then Prime Minister, Pedro Passos Coelho, in 2012, as an attempt to increase productivity during the financial crisis, it was one of the most unpopular pieces of legislation of Passos Coelho’s government. One of the first things that António Costa did when he became Prime Minister in 2015 was to reinstate these four holidays. Each public holiday is celebrated on the day it falls, even if it falls on a weekend. However, if it falls on a Tuesday or Thursday many people take the opportunity to have an extra-long weekend by taking the Monday (if it falls on a Tuesday) or the Friday (if it falls a Thursday) off as a ponte (‘bridge’) between the public holiday and the weekend. One of the highlights at the start of the new year is looking at a calendar to see how many long weekends and ‘bridges’ there are in the year ahead.
The following are the 13 official public holidays observed throughout the country:
Banks, post offices and other public services are closed on national and local public holidays (this also includes some museums) and public transport runs to a reduced timetable. However, large shopping centres and shops and restaurants in tourist areas should be open as usual. Churches will be closed to tourists while Mass is taking place.
The first time I celebrated New Year’s Eve in Portugal (A Passagem de Ano, also sometimes known as Réveillon or Véspera de Ano Novo) it is amazing that I made it through the following year, as, according to Portuguese tradition, I did everything wrong. I ate chicken for dinner on New Year’s Eve, wore a coat with a button missing, had no money in my purse and toasted the new year with water (as I had to catch a very early flight the next morning). Since then Portuguese friends have advised me on how to celebrate New Year’s Eve properly in order to achieve success and happiness in the year ahead.
For many people the night begins with a family dinner of seasonal food similar to that of Christmas, including the ubiquitous bolo rei (king cake), followed in the early hours of the new year with a sustaining bowl of caldoverde (a comforting soup made of potatoes and a green leafy vegetable similar to kale, usually served with slices of chouriço in it). At midnight most towns and cities have a firework display, and often have live music in the main square. The best places to celebrate New Year’s Eve are Lisbon (in Terreiro do Paço), Porto (on Avenida dos Aliados), Coimbra (in the lower part of the city), Albufeira (on Praia dos Pescadores) and in Funchal on the main island of Madeira (which has one of the biggest fireworks displays in the world).
Throughout Portugal most people, young or old, still observe a few simple customs:
At midnight everyone eats 12 raisins, one at each stroke of the clock, and makes a wish with each raisin.
The new year is toasted with a glass of champagne or sparkling wine, based on the notion that alcohol brings health and vitality.
People hug and kiss their loved ones at midnight, to bring them luck throughout the year, and wish them Feliz Ano Novo, Próspero Ano Novo, Bom Ano Novo or Boas Entradas.
But unlike Christmas, which is based around Christian traditions, scratch beneath the surface and on 31 December you will find people upholding New Year’s Eve superstitions and rituals that go back to pagan times, particularly among the older generations in rural areas. Many of the rituals are focussed on ensuring that wealth is achieved in the year ahead, such as the following which are all believed to attract money.
Eat chocolate on New Year’s Eve.
Keep a bay leaf in your wallet throughout the year.
Put a bank note in your right shoe on New Year’s Eve and then use this note for your first purchase of the new year.
Ensure there is money in your pocket or wallet on New Year’s Eve, so that you don’t start the new year with no money, as this state will last throughout the year.
Stand on a chair with money in your hand (to symbolize a promotion or rise in status in the new year) and then come down with your right foot first, or climb onto a chair with your right foot first with money in your hand. These both mean you start the new year with money which is thought to attract more money.
Throw money into the house or up into the air at the stroke of midnight to bring about wealth to all who live there.
Wear yellow underwear to encourage financial success in the coming year.
Avoid wearing clothes that are dirty, torn, coming unstitched, have buttons missing or are too tight-fitting to avoid financial problems.
Dance around a tree at midnight.
Many other rituals at the stroke of midnight are based around getting rid of the bad spirits of the past year.
Hop on your right leg three times at the stroke of midnight with a glass of champagne in your hand, without spilling it, and then throw the champagne over your shoulder without looking behind you to get rid of all your problems from the past year. It will also bring luck to the people whom the champagne lands on!
Bang pots and pans out of the window at midnight to make as much noise as possible. Nowadays fireworks have the same effect.
Turn on all the lights and open all the doors in the house so that the old year can leave and the new year can enter, then at midnight go outside and re-enter the house with your right foot first.
Have a clean house, replacing anything that doesn’t work and throwing away old crockery and other broken items to rid the house of negative energies. In the past people used to throw broken vases and crockery out of the window into the street below, but nowadays people maintain this tradition by throwing streamers and confetti.
There is also a desire for harmony in the family in the new year brought about by yet more rituals.
Put new bed linen on the bed on New Year’s Eve to ensure a happy love life in the ensuing year.
Avoid arguments on New Year’s Day, to keep familial peace in the year ahead.
Other customs are based on a desire for good luck, health and happiness in the new year.
Avoid eating chicken as the last meal on New Year’s Eve, as it is believed that eating chicken will make happiness in the year ahead fly away.
Choose the colour of the underwear you wear on New Year’s Eve based on what you want to achieve in the year ahead. Blue underwear is thought to bring good luck, white will bring peace, green will bring good health, red is for love, brown will bring career success and, as mentioned above, yellow underwear will bring financial success.
Wear new clothes on New Year’s Day to represent a new start to the year ahead.
Keep the champagne cork from the bottle of champagne for the entire year to come to renew your strength.
Swim in the sea on New Year’s Day as it is said to renew the body and soul at the start of the year.
So, this New Year’s Eve at midnight I’m going to cover all the bases and will be hopping on my right leg three times with money in one hand and a glass of champagne in the other, then will throw the money up into the air while eating 12 raisins and banging my pots and pans. I’m not superstitious, but you never know …!
One of the most enduring images of Christmas in Portugal is the traditional nativity scene (presépio) which can be seen in every church, in every town or village square and in most family homes. Some of the most noteworthy nativity scenes can be seen in the Museu Nacional de Arte Antiga in Lisbon, while, in contrast, an eclectic exhibition of nativity scenes, containing approximately 2700 scenes from around the world, is on display in the Igreja de São Francisco in Évora (which is also famous for the Chapel of Bones). The collection is owned by Fernando and Fernanda Canha da Silva, who have been collecting nativity scenes since 1973 and it is now on permanent display in the first gallery on the first floor of the church, along with a temporary exhibition, which changes annually, in the second gallery. The collection ranges from the sublime to the ridiculous and from the simple to the elaborate. Each scene reveals something of the culture in which it was created, including a Chinese Mary, Joseph and baby Jesus in traditional costume and a depiction of the birth of Christ in a Bedouin tent accompanied by camels in place of the ox and ass. Many of the scenes have been made by local craftsmen using traditional materials, such as clay, wood, cork, wool, tin, ivory, ox horn and even seeds: there is a detailed scene painted on an ostrich egg, cork figures in a sardine tin, miniature scenes in cups, a naïve rustic scene where Mary and Joseph are dressed as traditional Portuguese farm labourers, and a tin field ambulance with the holy family in the back. The more unusual scenes include the depiction of Jesus on the cross with a nativity scene inside his belly, a carved wooden pagoda-like structure with a propeller at the top, a hippie-looking Mary and Joseph with an evangelist preacher-like Angel Gabriel accompanied by two enormous donkeys, and a piece of contemporary glass art by Mónica Favério, in which three very surprised characters seem to be floating around in outer space.
Unlike the large-scale baroque nativity scenes in the Museu Nacional de Arte Antiga, the exhibits in the collection on display in the Igreja de São Francisco are small, often personal, depictions of the birth of Christ, but despite, or maybe because of, their simplicity they express a heartfelt belief.
Igreja de São Francisco, Praça 1⁰ de Maio, Évora. Open daily (except 1 January, Easter Sunday, 24 December (afternoon) and 25 December): 1 June to 30 September 9am-6.30pm; 1 October to 31 May 9am-5pm. Entrance is included in the Chapel of Bones ticket: €4.