Posts Tagged With: pagan

Strange things in strange places (part 4)

altar3Roadtrips can be surprising.

As we were driving along a road in the Trás-os-Montes region, in the north of Portugal, I thought I saw a sign mentioning an “altar of sacrifices”.

Wait. What? Go back.

Yep, it does say “altar of sacrifices”.


I couldn’t find much on this site, I have to say. I’m not an archaeologist but I can’t see anything resembling an altar of any kind. Still, it is strange (to say the least) and probably stranger still is the casual sign by the side of the road.


Known as “altar of sacrifices” or “Pias dos Mouros” these are two parallel rectangular structures, which were dug on granite. The smaller one is about 2 meters long by 0,55 meters wide, while the bigger one is roughly 2,47 meters long by 0,60 meters wide.


On the sides you can see several carved stone steps. As far as I know no real archaeological exacavation has ever been carried out on this site, but it is believed to have been built previously to the arrival of the Romans to what is, today, Portuguese territory.

Its true purpose and origin? Still a mystery… But it only goes to show that sometimes fascinating things can be where we least expect them!

Enjoy!  🙂

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A long, long time ago…

mezio1Before Portugal even existed there were people already living here. Obvious, right? Those people built huge stone monuments, some of which made their way to our day and age more or less intact.


Today I’m bringing you a couple of examples you can find in the Peneda-Gerês region, particularly in the area called Mezio (near Soajo).


Not much is known about them, but they’re thought to be approximately 5000 years old. You can find examples of this type of pre-historic monument all over the country, but mostly in the north and in Alentejo (as far as I know).


Truth be told, they’re not always easy to find, even when they’re mentioned in maps and hiking trails. Sometimes you’ll just have some obscure reference to a dolmen in a particular area and little more information besides that.


But who doesn’t love exploring around a bit? 😉

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Little place, big history

cabo são vicente

Can you see it? Can you see that tiny white spot in the distance?

Remember when I told you about Sagres, the “holy promontory”? Well, that white spot is the lighthouse of the Cape St. Vincent (Cabo de São Vicente) as seen from Sagres.

This bit of land is, surprisingly enough, full of stories as well as history.

According to legend (and some history) Cabo de São Vicente, much like Sagres, was considered sacred in the Neolithic period. Later, ancient Greeks would come to call it Ophiussa, meaning “Land of Serpents” (although some claim that the name extended to much of today’s Portuguese territory) and Strabo mentions the existence, in the area, of a temple dedicated to Hercules.

In the 16th century this little bit of land suffered attacks from French and Dutch pirates and even from Francis Drake. Most of the buildings that existed in the area were destroyed in the 1755 earthquake, so there’s not much left from that time that would let us know how the whole thing looked back then.

Trivia tidbit of the day: Lisbon’s coat of arms has, among other things, a ship and two ravens. Legend has it that two ravens guarded the dead body of the martyr St. Vincent until it could be found by his folllowers. When his body was taken to the cape which now has his name, a shrine was built over his grave – being guarded at all times by flocks of ravens. This caused the Arab geographer Al-Idrisi to call it “church of the raven”. In 1173 Portugal’s first king, Afonso Henriques, had the body exhumed and brought by ship to Lisbon. The ship was guarded by (you guessed it!) two ravens.

Enjoy! 🙂

Oh, before I forget, there’s a surprise on the way! 😉

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Ye olde medieval castle (Part 2)


Again, I had no intention of writing a sequel but… we do have a lot of medieval castles!

The castle of Santa Maria da Feira (a city which is about 30 minutes to the south of Porto) is probably one of the most beautiful castles in Portugal. In recent years it became also one of the most well known castles in the country because of the medieval fair it hosts every year (note: If you happen to be in the area at the time of the fair, usually between late July and early August, it’s well worth spending at least a day there).

For all we know today the castle was built where a pagan temple used to be. This temple, dedicated to a local divinity called Bandevelugo Toiraeco (try saying that 3 times, quick!), would later become a temple dedicated to the Virgin Mary.

The oldest written reference to the castle dates back to the 11th century and, actually, this castle reflects a variety of defensive methods used between the 11th and the 16th centuries.

As with most castles in Portugal, this one is located in the city centre and it also happens to be near a park. Even without the medieval fair I’d highly recommend going there!


Enjoy! 🙂

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Douro: enjoy the silence

douro 2

Writing this post was not easy.

I wanted to give some information about the Douro river, in the north of Portugal. My not-that-great memory assured me I had already spoken about it – and it was right.

I could tell you about the uncertain origin of the name Douro (maybe related to the Celtic tribes that existed there before the Romans, maybe related to the god Durius…). I could speak about all the monuments, cities, towns and villages that exist on its margins. I could even write about all the dams and bridges you can find there. But how could I put into words the foggy mornings and the peaceful water surface?

I don’t think I could.

douro 1

Enjoy! 🙂

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Strange things in strange places (part 2)


I really wasn’t thinking of writing a sequel to the previous “Strange things in strange places” post, but such is life – showing me unexpected things in unexpected places. Like a chapel on a beach.

I had actually seen photos of this place before but had never been there. Nothing the internet could not help me with!

Not far from Porto, in a place called Praia de Miramar, you can find a chapel on a beach. This chapel (Capela do Senhor da Pedra) was built in 1686 and, legend has it, there used to be a Pagan altar there before.

Do you know of any similar buildings in other places? I’d love to hear about it in the comments!

Enjoy! 🙂


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A special day in May


Every year, there’s a special Thursday in May – special in Portugal, that is. It has to do with flowers and it is a Christian festivity, although pre-Christian in origin. Dia da Espiga (loosely translated as Wheatstalk Thursday) used to be one (if not the most) sacred day of the year.

No working was allowed on that day, not even making bread or cheese, and at noon people would go to the fields to collect ears of cereal, wild flowers and olive branches – each with a specific meaning. Small bouquets were made which, depending on the local custom, were kept for a whole year behind the door or on top of the highest shelf of the house, until it was time to replace it with a new bouquet one year later.

Today, on the Feast of the Ascension you go to work as usual (no going to the fields to pick flowers, oh bu-hu) but every city, town and suburban area will have people selling these bouquets on the street, prices usually ranging from 1€ to 2€. This year’s Dia da Espiga fell on May 29th.

So what’s the meaning of each one of the elements in this “country style bouquet”? White and yellow flowers stand for “silver and gold”, i.e., money; the wheat stalk (or anything resembling one) stands, obviously, for bread; poppies mean joy and life; and, last but not least, olive branches mean nourishment/food, but also peace and light (remember the old oil lamps, before electricity was around).

Do you have any similar tradition in your country? I’d love to hear about it! Please share it in the comment section bellow.


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Portuguese trivia (VI)

marafonaMeet the marafona. If you go to Monsanto (or anywhere near it, actually) you’ll see these dolls being sold as a souvenir. So what’s so special about them?

I mentioned these dolls before but I really think they should have a post of their own. Marafonas are typical from Monsanto, in Central Portugal, but the concept can be found both in the North and the South of the country as well. They’re a good example of how a mix of pre-Christian and Christian traditions survived until today.

On the one hand the structure of the doll is a simple wooden cross. On the other hand they were traditionally kept on the bed, protecting the house from thunderstorms and the evil eye, acting somehow like a totem or amulet. They were given to young women and put under the newlyweds bed on the wedding night to bring them good luck: the dolls have no eyes to see and no mouth to speak, so the couple’s secrets would be safe with them.

Does your country also have a mix of different religious/cultural traditions that have stood the test of time? I’d love to hear about it in the comments!

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Random photo of the week

conimbrigaSunset in the Roman ruins of Conimbriga, near Coimbra. It’s one of the largest and the best preserved Roman settlement in what is today Portugal. Here you can see part of what used to be the forum.

This blog is about to go on a very much deserved vacation! Yay! Where will the road lead me to? Uncharted territory? Friendly people? Strange lodgings? Great food? Stick around: I’ll try to post when I can!

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From Folklore Legend to Science Fact

Like so many other places in Portugal Serra da Estrela (of which I’ve spoken about in all of these posts) has several legends. The most popular is, probably, the one that talks about a shepherd who loved a star. Like all legends it has some variations but it goes something like this: There once lived a shepherd whose only friend was his dog. This shepherd longed to travel to the mountains beyond his village. One night while gazing at the starry sky a star with the face of a child came down and spoke to him, saying that it would guide the shepherd to where he wished to go. So the shepherd walked for years and years, looking for his destiny, with the star smiling down on him. One day he came to the top of the highest mountain he could find. Because it was closer to the sky and his star he decided to stay there and go no further.


A view of the snow covered Serra da Estrela.

This, according to the legend, would explain the name of this mountain range (Serra da Estrela = Star mountain). Everyone seemed to think this was just another legend and nothing else. But all legends have some element of truth to them and it seems to be the case here, as well. In 2010 Fábio Silva* was in Central Portugal, between the rivers Douro and Mondego, studying 6000 year-old dolmens. Three years later he focused on a particular area of the valley of the Mondego river and that’s when he came to a conclusion: all the dolmens in that area were aligned with the Serra da Estrela. What’s the significance of this? Let’s hear it (or read it, actually) from Fábio Silva himself: From within the chambers of all these dolmens it would not only be possible to see Star Mountain Range in the horizon, it would also be possible to see the stars Betelgeuse and Aldebaran rising above it. These two stars are not only very bright they are also both red. Around 4,000 BC, when the megaliths were built, these stars would disappear from the night-sky at the end of February/beginning of March, not to be seen for two lunar cycles (two and a half in the case of Betelgeuse), until they would reappear in the eastern sky at dawn before sunrise, just as spring was starting to reinvigorate the landscape. This was when the Neolithic communities of the Mondego valley would “follow this star” and transition to the high pastures of the mountain range it illuminates. One can’t be sure whether it was Betelgeuse or Aldebaran that was being targeted, or even both, but the timing of the heliacal rising of the latter, closer to the Vernal Equinox, would make it better suited to be used as a seasonal marker. The presence of the Hyades star cluster around Aldebaran, giving it a “different shine”, would further support this, based on a (semi-)literal reading of the toponymical folktales about Star Mountain Range. (Source: and you can read his paper there as well: “Landscape and Astronomy in Megalithic Portugal: the Carregal do Sal Nucleus and Star Mountain Range”).

The Hyades Star Cluster

The brightest star is Aldebaran, the eye of the bull (Taurus constellation). Photo credits:

What I find really fascinating about this is the fact that it is directly connected to something still done today in some areas: transhumance  or migratory herding. Simply put: In Winter months you live in the valley, in the Summer months you go to the mountains. It’s obviously connected to herding, usually of goats and sheep, and even if it seems a waste of time or just plain silly to do it today it does have a reason if you consider all the specifics regarding the production of milk-based products and fleece. Remember this bit of legend Vs science next time you visit Serra da Estrela!


Painted chamber of the Dolmen de Antelas. Photo credits:

*Fábio Silva: BSc Hons., Physics, University of Aveiro (PT), 2006; PhD, Astrophysics, University of Portsmouth, 2010; MA, Cultural Astronomy, University Wales TSD, 2012; currently a PhD student at the Institute of Archaeology, UCL (Sources: and

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