Art, The art of Joana Vasconcelos: out of the commonplace into the rare

The art of Joana Vasconcelos: out of the commonplace into the rare

A Noiva (2001-2005)

Joana Vasconcelos (born in 1971) is one of Portugal’s best-known contemporary artists and is widely exhibited internationally as well as within Portugal. You may not know her name, but it is likely that you have seen some of her art, as it is hard to miss! She takes everyday objects and transforms them into something else in a surprising, funny or shocking way. Her most famous work is A Noiva (The Bride, 2001-2005) which put her on the international scene in 2005 when she exhibited it in the 51st Venice Biennale. It is an enormous five-metre high white chandelier that goes from ceiling to floor over two floors and from a distance it looks like it is made up of thousands of white beads, but close up I was shocked to see that it is made entirely of tampons.

A Noiva (2001-2005) (close-up)

Other commonplace objects that she has used include green wine bottles which she has used to create two giant candlesticks in Néctar (Nectar, 2006). I have seen this on display in the Buddha Eden sculpture park in Bombarral and in the formal garden of the Serralves Park in Porto and in both settings they were graceful structures that looked like they belonged in the beautiful grounds.

Néctar (2006)

Another sculpture where functional objects are used to create something surprisingly elegant is the seven-metre high engagement ring called Solitário (Solitaire, 2018) which is made up of gold-coloured alloy wheels with a diamond on the top created from crystal whisky glasses. (It’s not surprising to learn that Vasconcelos studied jewellery design as part of her art course at the Centro de Arte e Comunicação in Lisbon.) The ring merges seamlessly the stereotype of what men and women are seen to desire (fast cars and whiskey for men and a diamond ring for women). (Unfortunately on the day I visited the exhibition at Serralves they were dismantling this exhibit and were about to remove the ‘diamond’ when I took the photograph below.)

Solitário (2018)

The two giant silver stilettos in the work named Marilyn (2011) caught my eye from a long way away and made me laugh when I realised they were made of saucepans and saucepan lids! There is a clear feminist message in this work, where the symbol of a woman’s domestic role (the saucepan) is used to create the symbol of artificial beauty (the stiletto): both of which could been seen as images of women’s oppression.

Marilyn (2011)

My favourite work of Joana Vasconcelos has to be the large-scale teapot with its intricate wrought ironwork, Casa de Chá (Tea House, 2015), which I discovered unexpectedly in the grounds of Portugal dos Pequenitos in Coimbra.

Casa de Chá (2015)

In contrast the final work that I am including from a vast and varied catalogue doesn’t have the intricacy of the teapot, but is unmissable wherever it is positioned; it is a full-size swimming pool in the shape of the outline of Portugal and named Portugal a Banhos (Portugal Swimming, 2010). When I first saw it it was placed upright on a roundabout outside the grounds of the Serralves Park and I initially thought it was an advertisement for a swimming pool supplier, until I realised what the shape of the pool was and, like most of her work, it left me with a smile on my face.

Portugal a Banhos (2010)
Óbidos: a picture-perfect town fit for a queen, Centro region

Óbidos: a picture-perfect town fit for a queen

Óbidos is a picture-perfect Portuguese town located at the top of a hill and completely enclosed within preserved town walls. It was fittingly given as a wedding present from each king of Portugal to the future queen from the 13th to the 19th centuries, a tradition begun in 1282 when King Dinis gave the town to Queen Isabel and as a result it is nicknamed ‘Vila das Rainhas’ (‘Queens’ Town’) or ‘Presente das Rainhas’ (‘Queens’ Present’). We approached it on a warm September morning from the small pretty railway station at the bottom of the hill.

Óbidos station

After dropping our bags off at our hotel located just outside the town walls, we entered through one of two town gates built into the walls, the eastern gate, Porta do Vale (also known as Porta de Nossa Senhora da Graça, after the small chapel to Our Lady of Grace, originating from the 12th or 13th century and renovated in the 1720s by a man in memory of his daughter who was said to have died of a broken heart).

Porta de Nossa Senhora da Graça, Óbidos

Lunch was calling and we were attracted by a sign at the entrance to an archway advertising a medieval bar called Arco da Cadeia (Arch of the Prison). I love a building with history and this definitely had that, with original gothic archictecture that may have been part of a prison in the 15th century. The current owners have embraced the medieval theme and decorated it throughout with heraldry and weaponry from that period; thankfully my toasted tuna sandwich and orange juice didn’t date back that far.

Arco da Cadeia bar, Óbidos

After a quick lunch we were ready to explore, but before exploring the town we decided to visit the nearby sculpture park and wine estate of Buddha Eden in Bombarral, a taxi ride away from Óbidos, which I have written about separately. We returned to Óbidos later in the afternoon and as the town is so compact, we still had time to see the main sights. Just outside the town gate is the church of São João Baptista, one of the oldest churches in Óbidos, which was founded by Queen Isabel in 1308 or 1309 and is believed to have been part of a leper colony during the Middle Ages. She also ordered houses to be built around the church for people suffering from leprosy to live in. The church was rebuilt in the sixteenth century and again after the earthquake of 1755, when the ornate bell tower was added, and it now houses the Parish Museum.

São João Baptista Church, Óbidos

This time we re-entered the town through the southern gate, Porta da Vila (Town Gate), which dates from around 1380 and contains the shrine of Nossa Senhora da Piedade (Our Lady of Mercy) decorated with eighteenth-century azulejo tiles and a Baroque balcony. We were even greeted by a medieval knight in full armour!

Just after the Porta da Vila is a monument dedicated to Portugal’s most famous 16th-century writer, Luís Vaz de Camões, designed by the architect Raúl Lino in 1932 which consists of a stone column with the coat of arms of King Afonso Henriques topped by a castle and an inscription ‘Já lhe obedece toda a Estremadura, Óbidos’ (‘All Estremadura, including Óbidos, was now under his (King Afonso Henriques) control’), which is a line from Camões’ most famous work Os Lusíadas (The Lusiads) (in Canto 3) where he celebrates King Afonso Henriques’ victory over the Moors. There is also a memorial to this, dating from the 15th century, outside the town walls, next to the big car park.

Monument to Camões, Óbidos

We climbed one of the four staircases that lead to a sentry path along the top of the town walls, which were originally built during Moorish rule and later restored in the late 18th century (after the 1755 earthquake), and from here got wonderful views of the town below, the railway station, the distinctive hexagonal, solitary and slightly neglected-looking, 18th-century Santuário do Senhor da Pedra (Sanctuary of Our Lord of Stone), and the surrounding countryside, but the walls are not for the faint-hearted, as the path is quite narrow, there are no handrails and at some points the drop is up to 13 metres. I was surprised to learn that Óbidos had been an important port up to the 16th century, when the river silted up, as nowadays there is no water in sight. From the 16th century water was brought to the town via a three kilometre-long aqueduct, which is still standing, and which fed into the fountains of the town.

The full circuit of the walls is 1560 metres, but we exited the walls at the castle, an impressive medieval structure which retains features from the ninth century with added Manueline features (as on the windows) from the 16th century, when it was a royal palace. It is now a pousada (luxury hotels owned by the Pestana Group which are generally located in historic buildings). There is something quite fairy-tale-like about it.

As we left the castle my eye was drawn to a church that was full of books. I knew that Óbidos had been named the UNESCO City of Literature in 2015, so I wasn’t completely surprised to learn that the former church of São Tiago (St James) has been transformed into a bookshop, the Livraria de Santiago. The exterior of the building retains the appearance of the original church, which dates from the 12th century (although rebuilt after the aforementioned earthquake), and inside there are still original features, including the altar, and the hushed tones inside make it a natural place to have a bookshop.

From here it was a short walk to two churches that are still in use, the Igreja de Santa Maria and the Igreja de São Pedro. Firstly we walked down the main shopping street, Rua Direita, a cobbled street dating from the 13th or 14th century with whitewashed buildings which house souvenir shops and ginjinha stands and which runs from the castle to the Porta da Vila, until we came to the Praça de Santa Maria. The square is charming and at this late hour of the afternoon was relatively free of tourists. We were able to enter the church of Santa Maria, which contains works by Josefa de Óbidos, Óbidos’ most famous artist: to the right of the main altar there is a panel with five paintings from c.1661 which refer to the life of Saint Catherine and it is also thought that the paintings depicting the Baptism of Christ and the Ascension of Christ at the top of each side of the nave are by Josefa de Óbidos. Another noteworthy piece of art in the church is a Renaissance tomb sculpted in the 16th century by João de Rouão and Nicolau Chanterene, which includes a bas-relief of the Assumption of the Virgin above it and on the tomb is a wonderful sculpture depicting the Deposition of Christ in the tomb and not surprisingly it has been classified as a National Monument. The church also has azulejo tiles dating from the 17th century and an eye-catching Renaissance portal showing the Virgin Mary surrounded by angels. It is also widely reputed to be the church where King Afonso V married his cousin, Isabel, in the 1440s. The square also contains one of the aforementioned fountains and a Manueline granite pillory dating from the 15th century decorated with the royal coat of arms and a fishing net, a symbol which is associated with Queen Leonor (wife of King João II) whose son, Prince Afonso, died in a horse-riding accident in 1491 and whose body was brought back in a fishing net. The queen came to Óbidos to grieve.

From the Praça de Santa Maria it was a short walk along the Rua Direita to the Largo de São Pedro, passing the Municipal Museum, a former manor house dating from the 18th century, which contains works of art by, among others, Josefa de Óbidos, including the renowned portrait of ‘Beneficiado Faustino das Neves’ (c.1670). Unfortunately the museum was just closing as we approached, so I will have to leave that painting until another time. The Church of São Pedro in the Largo de São Pedro is distinctive by its bulbous bell tower. Although the church dates from the 13th or 14th century it was rebuilt after the 1755 earthquake destroyed it and inside the church the late-17th/early-18th-century Baroque giltwood altar dominates. To the side of the altar is a painting of Christ giving Saint Peter the keys to heaven painted by another local painter, João da Costa, in the late-17th or early-18th century. Josefa de Óbidos is believed to be buried in this church, but there seems to be doubt about where. Opposite the church of São Pedro is the Capela de São Martinho (St Martin’s Chapel), a Gothic-style private tomb chapel built in the early 14th century, which contains three tombs and is remarkable for withstanding the 1755 earthquake.

The light was starting to fade and we were in need to some refreshment, so we made our way back to the Rua Direita and bought two ginjinhas de Óbidos, a local speciality of Óbidos, which is a shot of cherry liquor served in a small chocolate cup and can be bought from one of the many stalls on the Rua Direita.

We then winded our way through the narrow streets of pretty whitewashed houses with blue and yellow borders back to our hotel, the Casa do Relógio, a former 18th-century manor house, named after the original sun dial on the wall beneath the terrace. There we enjoyed a glass of wine and the view of a small square below which contains the Hotel Real d’Óbidos in a nicely restored 14th-century building, the (appropriately named) Literary Man Óbidos Hotel located in a former convent and another of Óbidos’ fountains, while the sun set over the fields in the distance.

We finished the day at the cosy Muralhas Restaurant and Pizzeria, whose menu had a mixture of Portuguese food and pizzas. The walls were lined with azulejo tiles, the food and wine was good and the bill reasonable. We walked back to our hotel through the atmospheric deserted dark streets and it was hard to believe it was the same town as in daylight, but it was nice to have Óbidos to ourselves even for a short while.

Óbidos

Practicalities
Lunch: Bar Arco da Cadeia, Rua do Hospital, Óbidos
Dinner: Muralhas Restaurant and Pizzeria, Rua D. João Ornelas, Óbidos
Hotel: Casa do Relógio, Rua Porta do Vale, Óbidos. One night, including breakfast, cost €55 (as of 2017)

Getting there: Buses from Lisbon, Caldas da Rainha, Nazaré and Peniche stop outside the Porta da Vila. Trains from Caldas da Rainha and Valado dos Frades stop at the railway below the town. It is also possible to get to Lisbon by train from here, but it takes at least an hour longer than the bus.
It’s a bit of an uphill climb from the station to the town, especially with a suitcase, so allow 20 minutes.

1st May in Portugal: A day of workers’ rights and springtime rites, Festivals

1st May in Portugal: a day of workers’ rights and springtime rites

As in many countries around the world Portugal celebrates Dia do Trabalhador (Worker’s Day) on 1st May. It is a public holiday that is marked by parades and rallies by left-wing political parties and trade unions. These demonstrations for workers’ rights began in the late-nineteenth century, when 1st of May was named as International Workers’ Day, and continued into the early-twentieth century. It was renamed Festa do Trabalho Nacional (National Celebration of Work) during the oppressive right-wing dictatorship of Salazar and, later, Caetano, when any form of demonstration was violently quashed, and any celebrations on this day were organized and controlled by the State. Worker’s Day was reinstated in May 1974, a week after the Carnation Revolution that had overthrown the dictatorship, and over half a million people gathered in Lisbon to welcome the return of Mário Soares, the secretary-general of the Socialist Party, and Álvaro Cunhal, the secretary-general of the Communist Party, who had both been in exile, and to celebrate the freedoms of democracy denied during the dictatorship, such as freedom of speech and the freedom to gather in public. Nowadays, two of the largest rallies, organized by one of the main unions, the Confederaçāo Geral dos Trabalhadores Portugueses-Intersindical Nacional (CGTP-IN) (General Confederation of Portuguese Workers-National Inter-union), are held in Lisbon and Porto. In Lisbon they gather in the Praça Martim Moniz and march to Alameda Dom Afonso Henriques and in Porto the rally is held in the Avenida dos Aliados.

Long before it was named ‘Worker’s Day’, 1st May has had significance as a springtime festival which goes back to Pagan times and throughout the country, but particularly in the Douro, Beira-Alta and Minho regions in the north, is symbolized by the giesta bush (Cytisus striatus or hairy-fruited broom) with its yellow flowers known as Maias which are abundant in late April and early May.

Sprigs or garlands of yellow broom or other flowers are placed in door and window frames, on balconies and even on cars, agricultural machinery and animal sheds before midnight on the night of 30th April to bring prosperity, health, fertility and to ward off the evil spirit known variously, depending on the region, as Maio (May), Carrapato (Tick), Burro (Donkey), Bruxa (Witch) or Mau olhado (Evil eye). During the Middle Ages the Catholic Church banned pagan celebrations, including this tradition of placing flowers on the doors and windows, however, people got around this ban by giving it religious significance and the yellow broom became associated with the Bible story of the flight of Mary and Joseph with the baby Jesus into Egypt. It was said that in one village where the Holy Family was hiding an informer agreed to put some yellow broom on the house that was sheltering them so that Herod’s soldiers could find them, but when the soldiers arrived the next morning all the houses in the village were displaying yellow broom and the soldiers were unable to find them. In the Trás-os-Montes and Beiras regions chestnuts were seen as a way of keeping the evil spirit at bay, following a proverb: ‘Quem nāo come castanhas no 1˚ de Maio, monta-o o burro’ (‘Whoever doesn’t eat chestnuts on 1st May, will be ridden by the “donkey”.’).

 In the past it was common to venerate a May Queen on 1st May, which, depending on the region, was a variation on the theme of a young girl dressed in white wearing a crown of flowers on her head (symbolizing purity and personifying spring). She may have been seated on a throne around which other children danced and sang May songs, she may have walked around the village greeting the local inhabitants or, as in the Trás-os-Montes, rather than being a May Queen, may have been a Maio-Moço (May-Lad), who was a young boy dressed from head to foot in yellow broom whom the girls of the village danced around in a ritual meant to scare away the evil spirits. In Beja (in the Alentejo) a May Queen ritual has been revived in which very young girls dressed in white and with flower garlands on their head are seated on thrones, with small baskets in front of them, who are venerated by song and dance. The baskets relate to a tradition of asking for ‘Uma moedinha (or um tostāozinho) para a Maia que nāo tem saia’ (‘A penny for the Maia who does not have a skirt’). The name ‘Maia’ is thought to originate from Maia, the Roman goddess of spring and growth but the entreaty dates back to the mid-twentieth century when people did not have much money and had to beg for money to buy the basic necessities.

In the Algarve region it is common to see a display of life-size figures filled with straw, rags and newspaper, dressed in traditional clothes, doing everyday activities and accompanied by flowers and satirical verses. It is believed that this is based on an ancient Pagan tradition where people danced around a straw doll, known as a Maia, on 1st May, most probably as a fertility dance. The life-size figures appear at dawn on 1st May and can be seen outside houses or in the street in various places in the Algarve including Lagos and along the side of the main EN125 road between Marim and Alfandanga, near Olhāo. It is clear that a lot of thought and effort has gone into making these figures and there is now a competitive element as a prize is awarded to the best ones.

As this is a public holiday, banks, post offices and other public services are closed on this day (this includes some museums) and public transport runs to a reduced timetable. However, large shopping centres, shops and restaurants in tourist areas should be open as usual.

Portuguese cinema, The Murmuring Coast (2004)

The Murmuring Coast (2004)

The Murmuring Coast (A Costa dos Murmúrios) is a film version of the 1988 novel of the same name by one of Portugal’s most respected novelists, Lídia Jorge. It is set in Mozambique in the early 1970s, during the Colonial War when the Portuguese armed forces were fighting to suppress independence movements that were gaining momentum in the Portuguese African colonies. The central character is a young Portuguese woman, Evita (Beatriz Batarda), who arrives in Lourenço Marques to marry her fiancé Luís (Filipe Duarte), a lieutenant in the army and throughout the film we see events through her eyes. On the wedding day she notices a change in her husband, a former mathematician who while at university in Lisbon had discovered a new formula and liked to be called Evaristo Galois. He now no longer wants to talk about maths or be referred to by that name, however, the most significant change is in his patriarchal attitude towards her, telling her to ‘change the way you are. You don’t need to go around showing everyone what you think’. He is particularly angered by the way she voices her political opinions in favour of African independence to his misogynistic captain, Jaime Forza Leal (Adriano Luz), a man that he hero-worships and whom he emulates to the point that when Luís goes away to the front he asks Evita to stay in the room of the hotel without stepping a foot outside until he returns, just as Forza Leal’s wife, Helena (Mónica Calle), does.

The fighting at the front is never shown but we learn about the horrors through a series of photographs that Helena shows Evita. Photographs depicting the Portuguese soldiers, including Luís, committing atrocities on the indigenous people which Forza Leal has kept as proof of his commitment to the cause and that he can show to the relevant people when Portugal wins the war, as he believes it will. The reality is that things are not going well for the Portuguese armed forces and on his return from the front Luís is a broken man and he can no longer convince himself that the Portuguese will be victorious. Meanwhile Evita has taken on her own battle after discovering some suspicious-looking wine bottles on the beach that she believes are connected to the poisoning of hundreds of local indigenous people. Through this she becomes involved with a local journalist, Álvaro Sabino (Luís Sarmento), a man with whom she begins a dangerous affair; dangerous because it mirrors an affair Helena had which ended with Forza Leal killing the man in a game of Russian roulette. Álvaro is a complex character, as he is a white Mozambican and has strong roots in the country, including fathering several children with both white and black women, but who writes for the official Portuguese newspaper. However, he reveals his true allegiance to African independence in a poem that he manages to get published in a little read column of the newspaper, in which he speaks of Africa shaking off Europe and impaling her and, significantly, after Luís finds outs about Álvaro’s affair with Evita it is the Portuguese man who dies, not the Mozambican.

The dichotomies between those who conform and those who question the system and the belief in colonialism and the desire for independence, as well as the dehumanising effects of war, are represented by the four main characters who are convincingly portrayed, particularly by Beatriz Batarda as the outsider Evita and Adriano Luz as the menacing Jaime Forza Leal. Lídia Jorge’s lyrical style does not easily lend itself to adaptation into other genres, but the director, Margarida Cardoso, has sensitively created a cinematic version of the story without losing the essence of the novel. The Murmuring Coast provides some context to the Carnation Revolution of 1974 when a group of army officers, disillusioned by having to fight a colonial war in Africa that they no longer believed in, peacefully overthrew the right-wing dictatorship. The film slots neatly between Tabu (2012), which is partly set in Mozambique in the years just before the colonial war and April Captains (2000), which depicts the unfolding of the events of the Carnation Revolution on 25th April 1974.

Festivals, From abstinence to 'aleluia': Lent and Easter celebrations in Portugal

From abstinence to ‘aleluia’: Lent and Easter celebrations in Portugal


Crucifixion scene, Bom Jesus do Monte church

Ash Wednesday and Lent

After the excesses of carnival, life takes on a more sombre aspect on Quarta-feira de Cinzas (Ash Wednesday), a day which marks the start of Quaresma (Lent) and is celebrated in a secular way by the funeral of the carnival king and in a religious way by Catholics who attend a mass where a cross is made on the forehead using the ashes of the palm and olive branches from the previous year’s Palm Sunday service. Catholics in Portugal still adhere to the Church’s dictate that meat should not be eaten on Ash Wednesday or on any Friday during the period of Lent and furthermore that people should do a partial fast on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday. I prefer the modern take on abstinence, which is to give up something other than food (such as using social media) that you are willing to sacrifice for 46 days (or 40 days if you allow yourself a reprieve on the Sundays of Lent, when the Catholic Church permits the eating of meat).

In Óbidos the start of Lent is celebrated with a procession on the first Sunday of Lent known as the Procissāo Penitencial da Ordem Terceira (Penitential Procession of the Third Order) (also known as the Procissāo da Rapaziada (Procession of the ‘Gang’)), in which nine litters with statues of saints who were followers of Saint Francis of Assisi (including Saint Louis IX King of France, Saint Isabel Queen of Portugal, Saint Rosa of Viterbo, Saint Margarida of Cortona, Saint Bebiana and Saint Ivo), and Saint Francis of Assisi himself, decorated with flowers are carried through the town to remember the ideals of Saint Francis.

In Braga, the sanctuary of Bom Jesus do Monte on the outskirts the city holds a devoçāo da Via-Sacra (devotions of the Way of the Cross) ceremony every Sunday in Lent. The ceremony starts near the first chapel of the Via-Sacra staircase, goes to each of the 14 chapels (which represent the Stations of the Cross), at each of which a prayer is said, and ends with a celebration of the Eucharist in the church.

Via-Sacra, Bom Jesus do Monte, Braga

The week leading up to Palm Sunday was traditionally the week when people spring cleaned their houses. As well as the practical need to clean the house after the winter, it was also believed that a dirty house couldn’t be blessed on Easter Sunday. Women would take advantage of the spring-like weather and wash or air all the household linen, but a proverb regarding this reminds us that the weather can be unpredictable at Easter: ‘Na semana de Ramos lava os teus panos, que na da Paixāo lavarás ou nāo’, which loosely translates to mean ‘In the week before Palm Sunday (when the weather is good) wash your household linen, as in Holy Week you may or may not be able to wash (and dry) it (as it may be sunny or rainy)’.

Incidentally, April Fools’ Day on 1st April is known as Dia das Mentiras (Day of Lies) in Portugal and is marked by the media reporting hoax news stories, and Portugal celebrates Dia da Māe (Mother’s Day) on the first Sunday in May (not the fourth Sunday of Lent as in the United Kingdom and Ireland).

Holy Week

The week before Easter is known as Semana Santa (Holy Week) in Portugal and begins on Domingo dos Ramos (Palm Sunday), which is celebrated by processions representing Jesus’s entrance into Jerusalem on a donkey where the people welcomed him with palm fronds and olive branches. After the Palm Sunday mass, palm fronds, sprigs of rosemary, olive branches and bunches of flowers are blessed and people carry them in the procession and later take them home where they stay throughout the year to protect it from evil. Those left in the church are burnt and, as mentioned above, used in the Ash Wednesday service the following year.

On Palm Sunday it is traditional for children to give a gift of flowers or sugared almonds to their godparents. Holy Week is marked by processions and Biblical reenactments which take place over the course of the week. The most famous are in Óbidos on Palm Sunday with a procession of Senhor dos Passos (Our Lord of the Stations of the Cross) through the walled town led by a gafaú (a barefoot man dressed from head to foot in black holding a snake-like musical instrument called a serpentão (a wind instrument related to the tuba) who represents the executioner announcing the arrival of the condemned man)

and on Sexta-feira Santa (Good Friday) when a moving torchlight procession re-enacts Jesus being taken down from the cross and his burial, and the night-time processions in Braga in the north of Portugal acted out over several nights. These include the Procissāo dos Passos (Procession of the Stations of the Cross) on Palm Sunday, which depicts scenes of the day of the crucifixion of Christ as Jesus carries the cross around the city; a Biblical procession ‘Vós sereis o Meu povo’ (‘You shall be My people’) on the Wednesday which depicts scenes from the Old and New Testament leading up to the events of the Easter story (the procession is also known as the Procissāo de Nossa Senhora ‘da Burrinha’  (Procession of Our Lady ‘of the Little Donkey’), after the scene which depicts the flight into Egypt);

and on Quinta-feira Santa (Maundy Thursday) a procession of Our Lord Ecce Homo (‘Behold the Man!’), which is also known as Senhor da Cana Verde (Our Lord of the Green Reed), which represents the events in Gethsemane, the betrayal by Judas and the scene from the Easter story when the soldiers of Pontius Pilate mock Jesus being named King of the Jews by dressing him in a purple robe, putting a crown of thorns on his head and making him hold a reed in place of a royal sceptre. In this state Jesus is paraded through the streets of Braga led by Farricocos (barefoot penitents dressed in black habits with hoods that cover their entire face and carrying rattles, which they spin noisily, and fogaréus (tall lanterns that contain burning pine cones; the procession is also known as the Procession of the Fogaréus, after the soldiers who arrested Jesus, carrying torches)), and followed by the clergy, people dressed as characters from the story of the Last Supper and the sentencing of Christ, and a marching band.

A particularly emotive procession on Maundy Thursday is the Procissāo do Senhor da Misericórdia (Procession of Our Lord of Mercy, also known as the Procissāo dos Fogaréus (Procession of the Lanterns)) in Sardoal (near Santarém in the Centro region), in which all the street lights are turned off and the only light comes from candles and lanterns carried by the people in the procession, giving the procession a mystical atmosphere. Also on this day the lava-pés (foot washing) ceremony sees 12 people having their feet washed by the priest, representing Jesus washing the feet of the 12 disciples, before the Maundy Thursday Mass of the Lord’s Supper.

Good Friday is a public holiday in Portugal and marked by religious services and processions throughout the country. In Braga the Procissāo do Enterro do Senhor (Burial procession of Our Lord) is a silent procession with mourners accompanying Christ’s coffin through the streets. The mourners include Farricocos, but on this night they walk in silence.

For Catholics it is also a fast day and the main meal eaten on this day is cod. For many non-religious people, the long Easter weekend is an opportunity to go on holiday.

Easter Saturday

Sabado de Aleluia (Easter Saturday) sees a temporary return to the pre-Lenten silliness of carnival in places such as Figueira da Foz (near Coimbra), Sesimbra (south of Lisbon), Soutocico (near Leiria) and Vila Real (in the Trás-os-Montes region in the north of the country), with a decidedly secular celebration known as the Enterro do Bacalhau (Burial of the Cod). The ceremony marks the end of the period of abstinence from meat in which, in the past, dried salted cod (nicknamed the ‘fiel amigo’ (faithful friend)) was the staple food and during the evening, in a theatrical performance that takes place in the streets, the cod is satirized, tried, sentenced to death and, following a funeral procession behind a coffin with a cardboard cod on top, it is finally buried in the ground. One of the biggest productions in Portugal is the one in Soutocico which was first held in 1938 and takes place every four years with a cast of around 300, followed by a meal of cod for the performers and the audience served at midnight. The tradition of burying the cod originates from the sixteenth century when, although it was forbidden to eat meat during Lent, people could buy a dispensation, but naturally only the very rich could afford to do this. Not surprisingly, the act of burying the cod was seen as a criticism of the church and the ceremony was banned during the years of the Salazar dictatorship.

In addition to the Burial of the Cod, another highlight of Easter Saturday is a the Queima do Judas (Burning of Judas), which occurs throughout Portugal, usually with an effigy of Judas Iscariot being paraded through the streets of the town or village, hanged and then burnt or exploded with fireworks, symbolizing the destruction of evil as well as the end of winter and start of spring. However, in Tondela (near Viseu in the Centro region) the Burning of Judas is a large-scale theatrical musical production, dating from 1985, put on by the Cultural and Recreational Association of Tondela, which takes place in the municipal sports pavilion just before midnight. Rehearsals take place, at what is known as the Fábrica da Queima (Burning Factory), over the week leading up to Easter Saturday with over 300 teenagers from schools around the country being involved and attracting an estimated audience of 6000 people.

In contrast, a simple religious ceremony, the Bênçāo dos Borregos (Blessing of the Lambs), is held in Castelo de Vide in the eastern Alentejo on the morning of Easter Saturday when the lamb market is held and the priest blesses the lambs outside the church.

In the evening the people gather outside the church in a vigil known as Vigília Pascal e Chocalhada (Easter and Cowbell Ringing Vigil) waiting to hear the ringing of the church bells at the end of the service (around 11pm). At that time they start ringing their cowbells and make a procession through the streets of the town.

Easter Sunday

What must be one of the prettiest Domingo de Páscoa (Easter Sunday) religious processions takes place in Sāo Brás de Alportel (north of Faro in the Algarve region). The Procissāo da Ressurreiçāo (Procession of Resurrection), which is part of the Festa das Torchas Floridas (Flower Torch Festival), is marked by the men of the town carrying torches of flowers; there is a beautiful carpet of flowers on the ground and colourful bedspreads hanging over the balconies of the apartment blocks. As the procession progresses there are shouts of ‘Ressuscito, como disse!’ (‘He has risen, as he said!’), which is followed by more voices shouting ‘Aleluia! Aleluia! Aleluia!’.

Also in the Algarve is the Festa Pequena a Nossa Senhora da Piedade (Little Festival of Our Lady of Mercy, also known as Māe Soberana (Sovereign Mother), the patron saint of Loulé) procession which takes place in Loulé (north-west of Faro) on Easter Sunday when the statue of the Virgin Mary is carried through the streets to the church of Sāo Francisco. On 5th May, in a procession known as the ‘Festa Grande’ (Big Festival), the statue is then carried from the church to a shrine. This is an important religious festival and is considered to be the biggest one in southern Portugal.

In the village of Fontāo in Ponte de Lima, near Viana do Castelo (in the north-west corner of Portugal) a tradition that has been running for over 30 years, o Mordomo da Cruz (the Steward of the Cross), takes place on Easter Sunday. Despite the name, the main duty of the annually elected steward is to organize a lunch for the local people, which can be up to 500 people, at a cost of around €25,000. The women of the village prepare the meal, which includes traditional Portuguese dishes such as canja de galinha (chicken soup), cod, goat, veal, rice pudding, folar (an Easter sweet bread) and wine, while the teenagers of the village are the waiters and waitresses. At the end of the lunch the following year’s steward is named by the wife of the current steward by handing an orange tree branch to the successor. The name ‘Steward of the Cross’ comes from the fact that he carries the cross around the village in the Easter procession. This tradition, known as the Compasso Pascal (Paschal Visit), is still practiced in villages in the northern part of the country in which the steward, and sometimes the parish priest, will carry the cross from house to house to bless it and the people who live there and the householders will decorate their house with flowers or herbs to welcome the cross and offer food or drink to the cross bearer.

Easter food

As the long period of Lent comes to an end, people celebrate by eating meat, in particular roast lamb or goat in central and northern Portugal, while in the Algarve pork and chicken is more popular. No home would be complete without the traditional folar, but depending on the region it may be savoury or it may be sweet. In the Trás-os-Montes region in the north-east of the country they eat Folar de Chaves, savoury bread stuffed with meat such as ham, bacon and sausage. In the south they eat a sweet version called Folar de Olhāo, made with cinnamon and sugar. The most famous is the version with a boiled egg in the middle covered by a dough cross.

While chocolate is ubiquitous, a traditional gift at Easter time is sweets made of almonds, in particular amêndoas tipo francês (pink and white sugared almonds), amêndoas lisa cores (sugared almonds of other colours), amêndoas de chocolate or cláudias (chocolate-covered almonds) and amêndoas torradas or caramelizadas (caramelized almonds). Almonds are a symbol of fertility and renewal and to Catholics are a symbol of the resurrection of Christ.

A gift is traditionally given by a godparent to their godchild on Easter Sunday in return for the gift the godchild has given them on Palm Sunday and this gift usually takes the form of something sweet, whether it be a folar, pāo de ló (sponge cake) or almond sweets, however, these gifts are not just exchanged between godparents and their godchildren, but among friends and family. Segunda-feira de Páscoa (Easter Monday) isn’t a public holiday in Portugal, but it won’t be long until another Portuguese public holiday comes along!

Feliz Páscoa!

Dates of Easter Sunday up to 2029:
21 April 2019
12 April 2020
4 April 2021
17 April 2022
9 April 2023
31 March 2024
20 April 2025
5 April 2026
28 March 2027
16 April 2028
1 April 2029

Coconut cakes: surprisingly simple but utterly delicious, Food and drink

Coconut cakes: surprisingly simple but utterly delicious

Bolinhos de coco (coconut cakes) are one of the easiest cakes to make and I am grateful to my good friend Célia for sharing her recipe with me. The cakes contain only three ingredients: eggs, sugar and desiccated coconut and take only 10 minutes to bake. When cooked they should have a slight crust on the outside and be very moist on the inside.

Despite their popularity in Portuguese baking, coconuts are not native to Portugal. The fruit was introduced into Portugal during the era of the discoveries when Portuguese ships brought them back from India. The Portuguese named it ‘coco’ from their word cocuruto (crown of the head) because it resembled a head and from that we get the English word coconut.

Coconut cakes recipe
(makes 20)

Ingredients
3 eggs
150g caster sugar
200g desiccated coconut
Fairy cake paper cases

Method
Preheat the oven to 200°C.
Whisk the eggs and the sugar together and then add the coconut.
Put a heaped dessert spoon of the mixture into each of the paper cases.
Bake in the top of a pre-heated oven for 10 minutes until they start to form a crust on the top.

Carnival in Portugal: ‘Life lasts for two days, carnival lasts for three!’, Festivals

Carnival in Portugal: ‘Life lasts for two days, carnival lasts for three!’

Carnival or Entrudo (Shrovetide), as it is more commonly referred to in Portugal, is a festival ranging from the Friday before Lent to Quarta-feira de Cinzas (Ash Wednesday) which takes place in February or March. The weather is usually cold and often wet, even in the south of the country, and as a result in many places you may not see the stereotypical carnival scenes of samba dancers in minimalist costumes and extravagant floats. Carnival celebrations in Portugal are very unique to the country and, more specifically, unique to the various regions where they take place. Many of the celebrations originate from pagan times when it was believed that at the end of the winter evil spirits needed to be driven out so that spring could return and carnival was a celebration to drive out these spirits and herald a return to fertility. It also marked the start of a period with very little food as the winter stocks were running out or going off and food wouldn’t be available again until the spring. In Christian times it became a period of over-indulgence before the 40 days of abstinence during Lent. It is generally thought that the word ‘carnival’ is from the Latin carnem levāre (to stop eating meat) and a popular dish served in all regions of the country during Shrovetide is the meat-based feijoada, a hearty stew of pork (using all parts of the pig!), sausage and white or red beans. Throughout the country Shrovetide has certain recurring themes: there is a lord of misrule who on the last day of carnival is tried and sentenced to death; people play practical jokes on other people; the villagers and townsfolk dress up in costumes; those in authority are mocked; and there is music, dancing and a feast.

Norte region

In the north of the country there is a Celtic influence to the carnival celebrations which can be heard in the bagpipe, drum and fiddle music. Masked men known as Caretos, run through the streets and symbolic effigies are burned, such as in the Entrudo Chocalheiro in Podence in the Trás-os-Montes region in the north-east of the country, where men dressed in vivid costumes run around the streets of the village on Domingo Gordo (the Sunday before Lent) and Terça-feira Gorda (Shrove Tuesday), accosting any women, old or young, and doing a strange dance which involves shaking the cowbells around their waist (chocalheiro describes a person wearing a cowbell). Their costumes of red, green and yellow wool, bright red masks, cowbells and wooden sticks represent the devil and on Shrove Tuesday an effigy of the devil is burnt on a bonfire.

A similar figure appears in the Entrudo dos Compadres in Lazarim, in the Douro region, where men wear enormous carved wooden masks often with horns coming from the top designed to look frightening, along with costumes similar to  those in Podence, often made of natural-coloured wool, straw, foliage or even lace. In both places the masks hide the person’s identity and allow them to behave badly. A popular proverb sums this up: ‘É Carnaval, ninguém leva a mal!’ (It’s carnival, no one will be offended!). In the preceding weeks the compadres (the young men of the village) are pitted against the comadres (the young women of the village) in various rituals which subvert traditional male and female roles and revolve around the carnival preparations, including making costumes, creating effigies and writing verse poems. Masks made from alderwood by artisan wood carvers are begun months before. It’s not altogether surprising that these subversive traditions were banned during the years of the dictatorship, as were all pagan festivals. The main event is on Shrove Tuesday when everyone gathers in the village square to watch a piece of theatre in which a young man and woman of the village stand on a balcony with two effigies of a male and female figure behind them (representing the compadres and comadres) and read their ‘wills’ which are verse poems poking fun at members of the opposite sex. Each four-line verse is punctuated by a drum being beat and the ringing of cowbells. People carrying the effigies then lead a procession to an area when the effigies are attached to a wire and set alight. Fireworks inside the effigies explode and they spin around like a Catherine wheel before fizzling out. This marks the end of the Entrudo.

In Lindoso in the very north of the Minho region (close to the border with Galician Spain) the celebrations revolve around the funeral of Pai Velho (the Old Father), a life-size mannequin of a man who represents winter. Pai Velho sits atop a decorated cart pulled by oxen followed by another cart with a structure of reeds, straw and branches and decorated with flowers representing spring. On the Sunday before Lent the procession makes its way through the village making stops at certain points where satirical sketches are performed, followed by a traditional dance. On Shrove Tuesday the procession goes through the village again, with more sketches and dancing and the appearance of a number of people known as ‘sweepers’ who have sticks with old rags on the bottom which they dip in water and brush along the villagers’ feet to scare away the evil spirits. That night the Enterro do Pai Velho (the funeral of the Old Father) begins with a mock funeral with a Mass and mourning followed by his cremation. Finally there is a public gathering where the villagers have the opportunity to voice any grudges.

Centro region

In the Aldeias de Xisto (Shale Villages) of Goís, Ponte do Sótão, Comareira, Aigra Nova, Aigra Velha, Pena and Cerdeira in the Serra da Lousã near Coimbra a very traditional Shrovetide celebration called the Corrida do Entrudo (Shrovetide Race) involves dressing up in devilish masks made from cork decorated with horns and teeth from dead animals and old clothes (the older the better) and running from village to village playing practical jokes and chanting humorous verses about the people of the other villages. The men dress up in women’s clothes and the women dress up as men. In addition to the masks and the old clothes, they also carry anything that makes a noise, such as a bell or rattle, which are used to punctuate the verse poems, and they carry oak apples which they will throw at the other villagers. Some revellers also carry traditional instruments such as a concertina, a drum or a scraper, which accompany a communal meal and traditional dancing.

The Torres Vedras carnival (approximately 50km north of Lisbon) which runs from the Friday before Lent to Ash Wednesday is known as ‘o Carnaval mais português de Portugal’ (the most Portuguese carnival in Portugal) and preparations begin 12 months in advance.  Many of the satirical traditions date back to the 1920s, beginning with the crowning of the carnival King and Queen (both played by men) on the Friday who receive the key of the city from the mayor. The carnival continues with a themed parade consisting of matrafonas (men dressed up in a satirical depiction of women), carnival floats decorated with cabeçudos (figures with enormous papier mâché heads which are often caricatures of famous politicians and celebrities), gigantones (giants: huge figures, up to four metres in height, with a papier mâché head on a frame covered in clothes designed to look like a human body and worn by a person who can control the movements so that it looks like the gigantone is walking in the parade), and Zés Pereiras bands (groups of drummers energetically playing snare drums and bass drums in the parade).

The party atmosphere is added to by the throwing of cocotes (small paper parcels which until recently were filled with rubber shavings and sawdust, but now have been replaced by a cleaner version) between the people on floats and the crowd. On Ash Wednesday the Enterro do Entrudo (Funeral of the Carnival Period) is a scene that is acted out on a stage outside the law court where the King is condemned for his misrule during this period. An effigy of the King is exploded with fireworks representing the end of the carnival and a return to order.

In Canas de Senhorim the carnival traditions go back three hundred years when people from the aristocratic neighbourhood of Paço and the neighbourhood of Rossio, where the commoners lived, were given permission to criticise each other during Shrovetide. In the past it began in January when people started playing practical jokes on their neighbours such as a panelada which involves throwing an earthenware pot full of ashes and gallnuts into their houses or a pisão where a stone is attached to the door of a neighbour’s house by a string which when knocked against the house forces the owner to answer the door and find no-one there. Nowadays carnival starts on the Sunday before Lent when the two neighbourhoods parade through the streets and sing loudly at each other as a practice for the main parade on Shrove Tuesday. On the Monday before Lent the farinhada tradition occurs when any young woman leaving the house before midday is in danger of being covered with flour. The Monday afternoon is known as Segunda-feira das Velhas (Monday of the Old [Traditions]) or Dia da Crítica (Day of Criticism) when songs from the past are sung and parades with reference to the past take place and each neighbourhood makes fun of the other’s carnival floats and costumes. On Shrove Tuesday groups from Paço and Rossio parade through the streets of their respective neighbourhoods to a place where the two districts intersect, where they face each other in a despique (a singing competition). The winner is the group that displays the most joviality. The carnival ends on Ash Wednesday with the batatada (potato feast), a meal consisting of cod, potatoes, egg and cabbage, followed by the mock funeral mass for the carnival clown, who is then paraded through the streets where he is ceremoniously burnt.

The Carnival of Cabanas de Viriato, not far from Canas de Senhorim has, as part of its celebrations, a dance dating from the 1860s with the intriguing name of Dança dos Cús (Bum Dance). It is a dance where the people taking part in the carnival procession bump hips in a dance done to a waltz tempo played by a brass band. Even the cabeçudos join in!

Lisbon region

The major carnival in the Lisbon region is in Loures (north of the city of Lisbon). The carnival dates back to 1934 when it was started by a group of entertainers known as cegadas (a group of carnival masqueraders whose name comes from the idea that they beg like blindmen in the street) who performed satirical songs and verse that mocked a local celebrity. This tradition continues today, along with other features which include the coronation of the king and queen, the Baile Trapalhāo (Fool’s Ball, a masked-ball where everyone is encouraged to wear an unusual mask), a themed procession with decorated floats, groups in colourful costumes and the Mastronças do Moulin Rouge (Brutes of the Moulin Rouge: a large group of men who, as the name suggests, inelegantly dress up a women), and ending with the Enterro do Rei do Carnaval (Funeral of the Carnival King, also known as Enterro do Bacalhau (Funeral of the Cod, presumably named after the dried, salted cod which will be a staple food during Lent; a similar mock-funeral of the cod is held in some places on Easter Saturday to celebrate the end of Lent)) where King Ocarário, the carnival king, is tried at a satirical hearing and sentenced to a death that is followed by a fireworks display.

A little touch of Rio glamour and a lot of Portuguese irreverence

With all these celebrations taking place across the country it is surprising that Shrove Tuesday is not one of the official public holidays, while the little-celebrated Republic Day on 5th October is. Instead it is an optional holiday which means that it is at the discretion of the employer (or local authority for public sector workers). However, most people do take the day off, for carnival is part of the Portuguese psyche and as the Portuguese saying goes, ‘A vida são dois dias, o Carnaval são três!’ (Life lasts for two days, carnival lasts for three!).

Until recently, in many parts of the country, the period before Lent was marked by people throwing items such as flour, eggs and water at each other. In Ovar (south of Porto) they celebrated Carnaval Sujo (Dirty Carnival) up to the 1950s, in which people threw anything they could get their hands on, ranging from coal dust to sawdust, for an exact period of 60 minutes. This tradition was replaced with carnival parades and nowadays many towns have started to include elements of the Rio de Janeiro carnival with colourful floats and samba dancers, but they are usually combined with the Portuguese traditions of political jokes and satire (that became popular after the 1974 revolution), the coronation of the king and queen and the ultimate denunciation and burial of the king, and alongside the Samba schools are groups of passerelles (dancers) and apeados (groups with elaborate costumes and scenery, often irreverent), who take part in the parade and compete to be the best in their category in the carnival. Each carnival has an annual theme, often linked to an aspect of Portuguese culture or history (‘Made in Portugal’, ‘Seas and Oceans’, ‘The Big Shipwreck’, ‘The Great ‘Geringonça’’ (geringonça meaning ‘contraption’ is the dismissive term the right-wing used to describe António Costa’s left-wing coalition government when it formed in 2015)); Nazaré’s carnival (a coastal resort in the Centro region) always has a themed linked to a Nazarene saying written in dialect. There is always a children’s parade, usually on the Friday before Lent, where children of the local schools parade in costumes to a theme. The biggest carnival in the Algarve region is in Loulé (north-west of Faro) where the whole town is closed off for the duration.  Running for over 100 years, it claims to be the oldest carnival in the country (although the Moncarapacho carnival (near Olhão, east of Faro) is actually older, dating from 1899, the Loulé one is said to be the first carnival which included carnival floats in the parade). The carnival procession has a good mixture of Rio-style samba groups and Portuguese-style satire (mocking politicians and celebrities from the world of sport and television), particularly through the aforementioned cabeçudos and gigantones. Other Rio-style carnivals can be seen in Ovar, Sines (on the Alentejo coast), Elvas (near the Alentejo border with Spain), Mealhada and Estarreja (both in the Aveiro district), Nazaré, Sesimbra (south of Lisbon) and Alcobaça (near Nazaré, which claims to have the most Brazilian carnival in Portugal).

Dates of Shrove Tuesday up to 2029:
5 March 2019
25 February 2020
16 February 2021
1 March 2022
21 February 2023
13 February 2024
4 March 2025
17 February 2026
9 February 2027
29 February 2028
13 February 2029