No, not Christmas! The Portuguese festas season is about to start!
So, what are festas? Festa means “party”, but I’m using the word here in a broad sense: some kind of folk celebration (religious days, medieval fairs, food festivals, day-to-celebrate-local-attraction-or-important-date) that includes typical food and drink, sweets, snacks (or, if you prefer the Portuguese word, petiscos) and, of course, music!
From early June to mid-September there are plenty of festas going on all over the country: they happen on the street/open spaces, they’re loud and they’re fun!
June is the time for Santos Populares (Popular saints, that’s right) but before that there’s a national holiday on the 10th: the day of Portugal, Camões and the Portuguese Communities. Then comes Santo António (Saint Anthony), in Lisbon: the 13th is the holiday itself, but most of the fun happens on the 12th, so that means booze on the 12th and hangover on the 13th. This same logic applies to São João (Saint John), celebrated in Porto and several towns, mostly in the North, on the 23rd and 24th, and to São Pedro (Saint Peter), celebrated in Sintra and other towns, on the 29th and 30th.
But although festas means celebrating patron saints (the ones I mentioned above are the most popular, there are plenty more across the country) it also means medieval fairs, produce fairs and you-name-it fairs taking place all through the Summer. Not far from Lisbon, in Óbidos, there’s always a medieval fair, although the most famous of these is probably the “Viagem Medieval em Terra de Santa Maria”, in Santa Maria da Feira. If you happen to be in Portugal at this time of the year just do a bit of research and I’m sure there’ll be some kind of festa taking place not very far from you.
Here is some info and quick tips for surviving and enjoying this time in the best possible way:
– typically there will be stalls grilling sardines (sardinhas) and mackerel (carapaus). You can eat them with a slice of bread or on a plate. Usually it comes with roast bell pepper salad and boiled potatoes, but there are variations. If you’re not a fan of fish there are meat alternatives, like bifanas (sliced pork, which can be grilled or cooked in sauce, usually eaten with bread and a drizzle of mustard). Vegetarians and vegans will do better in the cities, where they’re more likely to find stalls with suitable alternatives.
– drinks means, mostly, beer, wine and sangria. Especially in the cities don’t expect the sangria to be strong enough to make you drunk. Most stalls are trying to make a quick buck (like half of the world population!) and they’ll usually add more of the fizzy stuff and less wine. So, basically, there are variations in the quality of the sangria – still, it’s refreshing and you can’t argue with that! In cities it’s also easy to find caipirinhas* or mojitos.
– when it comes to desserts there will usually be some stalls selling more traditional things, but you’ll always find at least one stall selling churros and farturas. The dough is similar for both and they’re both deep fried but there are differences: the dough of the farturas comes out of a big metal syringe and goes straight into boiling oil in a spiral like shape. It’s then cut into chunks and rolled in a mix of sugar and cinnamon powder. They’re more soft and chewy than their friends, the churros: in this case they’ll add bits of dough into the oil using a syringe but you can get them small (in paper bags of 6 or 12 churros) or you can have a bigger churro which is then rolled in sugar and cinnamon and filled with a “jam” of your choice. I used brackets because this is obviously not *real* jam, but a sugary thing tasting more or less of strawberry, sweet condensed milk, chocolate, mint, egg custard or any other flavours available. Both churros and farturas are best eaten warm.
– like I mentioned above these are street festas, so if you take a car it’s best to park it somewhere central and walk a little because more likely than not some streets will be closed to traffic.
– if possible take small bills/paper money (5, 10 and 20 Euro) and coins: it’ll avoid difficulty with change and if you’re like me you can just keep a few coins in your pocket so you don’t have to reach for the wallet when you want another glass of sangria. This might seem silly but trust me that it will make life easier for you and the people selling. Everybody’s happy!
– comfortable shoes. Seems obvious, right? Well, I’ve lost count of how many women I’ve seen in Santo António alone walking up and down the streets with a glass of sangria in their hand and frail looking stilettos on their feet. Ladies, street festas are not glamour parties and they’re not kind to your feet!
– the above rule also applies to clothing: no need to dress all fancy. If you really lived the festas you’ll be going home smelling like a big grilled (and sweaty) sardine and probably with a stain of wine on your shirt. So just dress casual and comfortable!
– this is the time for dancing in the streets! Without David Bowie or Mick Jagger, granted, but it’s fun to dance in the streets with dozens of other people, even if the quality of the music is not the best. Actually… nevermind that: most of the fun comes from the fact that the music is *not* great. Ever heard of pimba?
– tourists don’t usually make an effort to speak Portuguese and I get that: it can be intimidating. But a few words in Portuguese and a smile will go a long way and it melts our little hearts when tourists say things like obrigado (thank you) and por favor (please). Even if you’re a little tipsy and your accent isn’t perfect nobody will care. 😉
Enjoy the festas and don’t forget to get a manjerico!
*Caipirinha is a drink of Brazilian origin, made with sugar, lime juice and cachaça (a hard liquor made from sugar cane).
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