Our Beloved Month of August (Aquele Querido Mês de Agosto) is director Miguel Gomes’ celebration of life in rural Portugal during the month of August. Part documentary-style and part fictional narrative, it is a film divided into two halves. The first half appears to be a documentary, showing scenes of rural life in central Portugal, but in true Gomes style things are not always as they appear, and people who may or may not be real tell anecdotes which may or may not be true. Summer in this region is depicted through unrelated scenes showing local bands playing popular Portuguese songs in the village squares, the fire brigade preparing for the inevitable forest fires, a gathering of motorcycle groups at a campsite, and a religious procession. But these scenes are interrupted by a sub-plot where a film crew, led by a director (played by Miguel Gomes), is making a film in the area. Is the film we have started watching part of it? Maybe not, as the director admits to his producer that he hasn’t started filming yet. He then describes the film he wants to make, which leads neatly into the second half of the film.
This second half is a more conventional plot-driven narrative, concerning members of one of the bands that play in the village squares on summer nights, in particular, a teenage girl, Tânia (Sónia Bandeira), her father, Domingos (Joaquim Carvalho), and the girl’s cousin, Hélder (Fábio Oliveira). The plot focuses on the developing love between Tânia and Hélder, but there is a counter love story concerning Domingos and Tânia’s mother, who left Domingos several years ago. As a result Domingos is over-protective of his daughter, who bears a striking resemblance to her mother when she was younger, and the story takes on a dark tone for a moment.
In the second half of the film real people from the first half appear as characters in the fictional story. As in all of Gomes’ films, there are some wonderful comic moments, such as an overheard exchange between two villagers who both have a role in the film. Songs and radios programmes which appear in the documentary section, become part of the narrative in the main story. The lyrics of the pop songs reflect what is happening in the lives of the on-screen characters. The title of the film is bitter-sweet when we understand the lyrics of the eponymous song ‘Meu Querido Mês de Agosto‘: “Meu querido mês de agosto / Por ti levo o ano inteiro a sonhar / Trago sorrisos no rosto … / Porque sei que vou voltar” (“My beloved month of August / I dream of you throughout the year / I’ve got a smile on my face … / Because I know I’ll return”). Many of the villagers have left their villages to find work in the city or abroad, such as Hélder’s family who are living in France. For many migrant Portuguese the month of August is when they return to their villages and it suggests that for them the rural idyll suggested in the documentary part of the film is another fiction.
The film deservedly won Miguel Gomes several international awards, including best film and best screenplay. This is an evocative, charming film that stayed with me for a long time after it finished.
It is no secret that the Lagoa area of the Algarve has some of the most beautiful coastal scenery in the country and much has been written about coastal walks along the cliff tops, most famously the ‘seven hanging valleys trail’ from Centeanes to Marinha, but to really appreciate the beautiful red and yellow-brown cliffs, stunning rock formations, cove beaches and secret caves with hidden beaches and unearthly sinkholes, you really need to see it from the sea. However, I suffer from seasickness and for many years have avoided boats, but I decided that I really needed to overcome this phobia to enjoy some of nature’s best designs. So, dosed with seasickness tablets, we booked ourselves on one of the regular ‘visit the caves’ boat trips which depart from Carvoeiro beach. The next boat was due to leave in 10 minutes, which gave us a good opportunity to watch the returning boat being brought onto the sand for the passengers to disembark. This was quite a complicated operation as the boat was turned around in the sea for it to reverse up to the shore and then be dragged onto the beach by a pulley and two men. Once the passengers had disembarked, the boat then re-entered the sea for the next set of passengers to board. Wearing the cumbersome, obligatory, orange life jacket I inelegantly climbed onto the boat, getting my sandals soaked in the process (luckily they were waterproof and had good soles).
The boats that are used for these trips are former fishing boats. They are very prettily decorated in a traditional style and have names such as Rainha da Paz (Queen of Peace), Glorioso (Glory), Pardal (Sparrow) and Arrelias (Annoyances), but they are not built for comfort (nine passengers can just about fit on the wooden benches). We were on Nossa Senhora da Rocha (Our Lady of the Rock) with Captain Jorge, who ably steered the boat into some impossibly narrow cave entrances. I lost count of the number of caves that we went into – at least 10 – in the hour and a half trip. Many of the caves have blurred into each other in my memory, as most had interior walls made up of layers of purple, brown, green and grey stone and a secret beach at the back of the cave. Many also had sinkholes at the top, which is a distinctive geological feature of this area produced by water eroding the surface of the ground above the cave causing it to collapse. But there were some highlights, which Captain Jorge pointed out and told us the names the locals have given some of these features, such as ‘The Paradise’, a secluded beach only accessible from the sea though a narrow opening in the cliff; a cave, ‘The Heart’, with a heart-shaped sinkhole; another, ‘Devil’s Eyes’, with two sinkholes, which when the sun shines through these holes look like a pair of flashing eyes; and the pièce de résistance, the Algar de Benagil (also known as Algar do José Rodeira), which is listed as one of The Guardian‘s ’10 of the world’s best natural wonders … that you’ve probably never heard of’. By far the biggest of all the caves, the Algar de Benagil (algar means ‘sinkhole’) has another-worldly quality about it. The large sinkhole lets in the sun, which shines in a perfect circle on the beach below, reminiscent in appearance of the spaceship in the 1977 film, Close Encounters of the Third Kind. The walls inside the cave are striated in shades of gold, silver and bronze, giving it a regal quality. If Neptune had a summer palace, this would be it There are two entrances and our boat entered the cave through both, allowing us to see it from all angles. There is a surprisingly large beach inside the cave and many people had made their own way into the cave by swimming, paddle boarding or sailing in a dinghy. Due to the fame of this cave, we had to share this experience with several other tourist boats which had come from Centeanes beach and Benagil beach.
The boat closely hugs the coastline as it makes its way from Carvoeiro to Benagil, giving an excellent view of the craggy cliffs with their distinctive rock formations, such as ‘A Boneca’ (the doll) at Algar Seco and the profile of a face which appears on a cliff just past Centeanes beach. The trip gave me a sense of the fragility of these rocks, as the cracks on the cliffs and inside the caves are quite pronounced and I could clearly see large sea stacks (eroded rocks in the sea) and even perfect circles of rock beneath the sea inside caves, which had come from the top of the cave where the sinkhole now is. We passed the pretty beaches of Vale de Covo, Centeanes and Carvalho, which are all surrounded by steep cliffs and only accessible by steps that have been built into the cliffs, and one small beach that is still inaccessible. In the past these beaches would only have been reached by scrambling down the cliff face, so no wonder they were associated with pirates (Carvalho beach is nicknamed ‘Smugglers’ Cove’). At Carvalho beach we were lucky enough to see a row of cliff jumpers lined up on a rock ready to dive in. This is becoming a popular sport among the local young men, which requires skill, knowledge of the sea in this area and a certain amount of fearlessness.
Our trip ended at the Algar de Benagil and on the return to Carvoeiro, Captain Jorge took the boat further out to sea and speeded it up. This was when several passengers turned a bit green. It can be a bit of a rough ride, even on a calm day, but I’m glad to say that my seasickness tablet worked and I stepped off the boat at Carvoeiro beach very glad that I had faced my fear and seen one of Lagoa’s most stunning features.
Boat trips leave regularly from Carvoeiro beach. Tickets are sold on the boardwalk next to the beach, near the toilets. As of 2016, there are two trips on offer: the one to Benagil costs €20 per person and is advertised as taking 1 hour 10 minutes; the one to Marinha costs €25 per person and is advertised as taking 1 hour 30 minutes. In reality the trips can take longer.
The sea can be rough, so if you suffer from seasickness take a tablet before going on the trip.
Wear waterproof shoes with non-slippy soles, for boarding the boat.
The Festa de São João (Festival of St John the Baptist) in Porto is not for the faint-hearted. It is loud, brash and slightly insane. Imagine New Year’s Eve after 10 double espressos. The São João celebrations are part of the Popular Saints celebrations that take place in various regions of Portugal in June: namely, the Festival of St Anthony, which is celebrated in Lisbon on 12th-13th June; the Festival of St John, which is celebrated in Porto and Braga on 23rd-24th June; and the Festival of St Peter, which is celebrated in various cities, such as Póvoa de Varzim, Sintra, Montijo and Évora on 28th-29th June. All the festivals have links to pagan summer solstice celebrations and certain customs from pagan times still exist, such as jumping over bonfires and giving friends, family or a girlfriend/boyfriend a plant. In Porto, the Festa de São João also has something unique to Porto, the tradition of hitting people on the head with a martelinho (a toy plastic hammer). Originally people would carry a tall plant called elephant garlic (also known as wild leek), which has a large flower, and hit people with that, but some enterprising businessman in the 1970s came up with the idea of introducing soft, squeaky, plastic hammers for the festival and the idea caught on.
The main celebrations are held on the evening of 23rd June, but São João events start occurring in the city over a month before, including concerts, street entertainment, and events for children. We were lucky enough to be in Porto in the week leading up to the big night and there was a sense of anticipation in the air. On every street there was bunting and other decorations. In shop windows, on café tables, and on market stalls were the ubiquitous manjericos, pots of bush basil with quadras, four-line verses, stuck in them. (The Porto-based newspaper, O Jornal de Notícias, holds an annual quadras-writing competition in June which is very popular and gets around 5000 entries.) Walking around the streets of Porto on our first day we came across a full-size rotating ball of martelinhos in Largo de São Domingos, part art installation, part fairground ride and very popular with young and old alike. One afternoon we came across a group of people in traditional costume who started playing traditional music and dancing on a street corner. The joy of it was they seemed to be performing for their own pleasure, not for applause or for money from the passers-by. We were also lucky enough to see the rusgas (revels), a singing and dancing parade performed by groups from various districts of Porto who compete against each other. They can choose their own theme, which should include references to the traditions of the city and they are judged on music, choreography, costume, props and scenery. As a friend from Porto told me, they are reminiscent of the Lisbon marchas populares, but are a lot less sophisticated.
Wandering around the city we also came across what I initially thought was a large-scale nativity scene, but on closer inspection I realised that it was a scene of Porto with its distinctive buildings and small painted figures of people and animals added, including figures of the popular saints (St. John, St. Anthony and St. Peter). These scenes which represent Porto daily life in the past are known as cascatas and the tradition dates back to the nineteenth century when they starting appearing, based on the idea of the Christmas nativity scene but with the saints replacing the Holy Family. I later learnt that there are two figures that appear in most cascatas, which give it a touch of toilet humour: a milkmaid urinating into her milk pail and the ‘cagão’ (‘shitter’) who is a man caught defecating! Nowadays cascatas can be seen in various places around the city during the period of São João, including in the Mercado do Bolhão, and there is a prize for the best one.
These small events are like appetizers before the main day, which starts early in the morning of the 23rd with people setting up martelinho stalls all over the city. Often the ‘stall’ is just a sheet on the ground with a random selection of plastic hammers on it. Along with the martelinho stalls are the plethora of Superbock stalls along the riverfront on both sides of the river. This is where everyone will be congregating later in the night to watch the fireworks and they will be in need of liquid refreshment in the form of one of Portugal’s most popular beers, Superbock, who, judging by the number of advertisements around the city, seem to have a monopoly on the event. Also along the riverfront, from lunchtime onwards, is the distinctive smell (and smoke) of sardines being grilled. Added to that are the stalls roasting meat on spits, others selling traditional cakes, biscuits and sweets, and others selling farturas and churros (fried dough snacks), candy floss and popcorn, and we realised that we didn’t need to worry about where to have dinner that evening. All this is accompanied by loud Portuguese party music dedicated to the popular saints. One song in particular, called ‘São João Bonito‘ (‘Lovely Saint John’), sung with gusto by Lenita Gentil, got stuck in my head, with its chorus:
‘Santo António já se acabou O São Pedro está-se a acabar São João, São João, São João Dá cá um balão para eu brincar!’
(‘Saint Anthony is over
Saint Peter will soon be over
Saint John, Saint John, Saint John,
Give me a Chinese lantern to play with.’)
We discovered that São João is also an excellent day to go shopping, as many shops have a São João sale where everything is discounted. The shops, like everywhere else in Porto on this day, are very busy, but there is a wonderful holiday atmosphere wherever you go.
As complete novices to the São João hammer tradition we were a little unsure of what to do at first, until a little boy of about 6 hit me on the head with a hammer and then pointed to my hammer and then to his head. It seems that if you are hit you should return the hit. Once I’d gained my confidence I was able to hit strangers without waiting for them to hit me first. It was great fun, although Neil was getting a bit worried about my enthusiasm for this. Early in the evening the main people hitting with the hammers seemed to be children and tourists and I was beginning to wonder if the whole thing was a gimmick, but as the sun set the locals of all ages began hitting in earnest and the sound of squeaking filled the streets, along with the sound of whistles, which many of the hammers also contain. As well as the people wielding hammers were people carrying the stalks of elephant garlic, usually sadistic young men or equally sadistic old women, who took pleasure in thrusting the flower into people’s faces. Some women also carry a bunch of sweeter smelling lemon balm or lemon verbena which they push into the faces of passing men. It’s all part of the São João fun.
As evening turned into night the people continued to pour into the riverside area and the sense of expectation continued to rise. It is estimated that over 200,000 people attend the Festa de São João. Around us on the grass where we had chosen to sit to watch the fireworks families and groups of friends had set up picnic rugs and brought out bottles of wine and plastic cups. In the hours leading up to midnight, everywhere we looked were groups of people setting off Chinese lanterns. It seemed a dangerous combination of drunkenness, macho competitiveness, flimsy paper and fire in a very crowded environment. The hope was that the lit lantern would float gracefully up into the sky to join the others, but the reality was that many fell back into the crowd as a burning bundle of paper or even got caught in trees. No harm was done and it all seemed to fit in with the slightly anarchic São João atmosphere.
Finally, at midnight, the highlight of the whole Festa de São João kicked off: the firework display. It started with the opening riff from ‘Thunderstruck’ by AC/DC along with flashing lights on the Dom Luís 1 Bridge and on the words ‘Thunder’ fireworks exploded from the bridge. The rest of the 15-minute firework spectacular was choreographed against other rock standards, with fireworks coming from several boats in the middle of the River Douro as well as from the bridge. We had positioned ourselves on the Vila Nova de Gaia side of the river opposite one of the firework boats and from our position we got a memorable view of the fireworks against the backdrop of historic Porto, in particular the Cathedral and Archbishop’s Palace, the Torre dos Clérigos, São Francisco Church and the Cais da Ribeira. The last few minutes of the firework display was loud and frenetic, which seemed a fitting end to an excellent display, and was to ‘A Minha Casinha’ by Xutos & Pontapés, Portugal’s number one rock band. This track was a perfect segue into the next stage of our planned night, but we all know about the best laid plans of mice and men! Xutos & Pontapés were due to start playing a concert in Avenida dos Aliados in the historic centre of Porto at 1am. This meant that we would have to cross the only footbridge to get to the other side of the river. For safety reasons the police were only letting a certain number of people cross the bridge in one direction at a time. I will gloss over the next hour or so of the night and the drunken crush to get onto the bridge, but by the time we arrived on the Porto side it was nearly 2am and the desire to stand in another mass of people to see Xutos & Pontapés had gone.
Instead, we collapsed into bed at 2am, while outside our hotel window a party was in full swing and at full volume. There was to be no sleep in the city that night.
The following afternoon, once the city had started to come to life again, we joined a large number of people on the bank of the Ribeira to watch the final moments of the Regatta of the Barcos Rabelos. This is an annual event, organised by the Confraria do Vinho do Porto, in which each of the main port houses races their barco rabelo (a traditional flat-bottomed boat with a long oar at the stern that used to carry the port barrels from the upper Douro into Porto), from Cabedelo at the mouth of the River Douro to the House of Sandeman near the Dom Luís I Bridge. It seemed a fitting way to end our São João experience.
Coffee is a serious business in Portugal. Look at any menu in a café, bar or restaurant and there will be a bewildering selection of coffees listed, many with strange-sounding names and no description, further complicated by regional variations in what different coffees are called. For a long time I ordered a café com leite (coffee with milk) and usually got the type of coffee I liked (a strong white coffee with a froth on the top, served in a regular-sized coffee cup). This worked in the Algarve, but on a recent trip to the north of Portugal ordering a coffee became more challenging. Asking for a café com leite was met with a string of questions regarding what size cup I wanted and often resulted in a disappointingly weak, milky mug of coffee or an espresso-sized cup of strong coffee with a dash of milk. After talking to Portuguese friends I discovered that café com leite is not a term used in Portugal and most waiters wouldn’t understand what I wanted. I realized that I needed to learn the language of coffee in Portugal and leave my café com leite comfort zone. Here is a short guide to successfully ordering a coffee Portugal. Where possible I have included regional variations in the names. This list is not definitive and I will continue in my quest to gain a comprehensive understanding of successfully ordering coffee in Portugal.
Uma carioca is a weak, black coffee served in an espresso-sized cup.
Uma bica (in Lisbon and the south) / Um cimbalino (in Porto) / Um café (other parts of the country) is a black espresso-type coffee served in an espresso-sized cup. A variant of this is uma bica escaldada / um café escaldada, which is the same drink as described above, but served in a heated cup.
Uma meiadeleiteis usually a strong, white coffee with a froth on the top, served in a regular-sized coffee cup. If you want to ensure it is strong, ask for uma meiadeleite escura.
Um café duplo is a double espresso-type coffee served in a regular-sized cup.
Um café duplo com um pouco de leite is a double espresso-type coffee with a little milk served in a regular-sized cup. Sometimes it comes with a small jug of milk for you to add as you require.
Um galão is a large, weak, milky coffee served in a glass.
Um garoto (in Lisbon and the south) / Um pingo (in the north) is a coffee with a dash of milk served in an espresso-sized cup.
Um abatanado is a black coffee served in a regular-sized cup. It is made with espresso beans and is similar to a caffè americano.
Um café com gelo is a cold, black coffee with ice cubes.
Um café com gelado is a black coffee served with a scoop of ice-cream.
Um cappuccino is best avoided unless you like weak, milky coffee with a thick layer of artificial whipped cream on the top. It is better to order a uma meia de leite escura, which in my experience is the closest to the Italian-style cappuccino.