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.
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 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.
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.
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!
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
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 Sky Gazers) 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 Póvoa de Varzim, Bombarral, Castro Verde, Felgueiras, Macedo de Cavaleiros, Montijo, São Pedro do Sul, Sintra, Seixal and Évora 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.
The variety of pastries on offer in Portugal is endless. Everyone knows about the ubiquitous pastel de nata (custard tart), but the pretty town of Sintra (approximately 30km from Lisbon) also boasts two sweet pastries that give the pastel de nata a run for its money: the travesseiro and the queijada de Sintra.
The travesseiro is a rectangular puff pastry shell, sprinkled with sugar, surrounding a filling of egg yolks, sugar, ground almonds and cinnamon. The name ‘travesseiro’ means ‘pillow’ and describes the shape of the pastry. The original convent recipe was revived by the owner of the Casa Piriquita bakery in Sintra
in the 1940s and the café is still famous for its travesseiros today, although they can also be found in cafés and bakeries all over Sintra.
The queijada de Sintra, which translates as ‘Sintra cheesecake’, is nothing like the cheesecake sold in the United Kingdom. It is a small tartlet with a thin, crispy pastry shell filled with a mixture of egg yolks, flour, sugar, cinnamon and queijo fresco (a Portuguese mild, white cheese with a custard-like texture; the closest cheese to it outside of Portugal is ricotta). This recipe dates back to the thirteenth century, when, it is said, the queijada was used as a form of currency. In the late-nineteenth century King Carlos I made queijadadas popular when he came to stay in the Pena Palace, his Sintra summer residence, and asked the Casa Piriquita bakery to make them for him. Like travesseiros, these little tartlets can now be found in cafés and bakeries all over Sintra. The Fábrica das Verdadeiras Queijadas da Sapa on Volta do Duche has been making queijadas since 1756 and its queijada recipe is one of the few in Sintra that is officially recognised by the town council.