By Mehdy Ghannad
I went to Portugal to write about one festival and I ended up experiencing two! I can only attribute this to dumb luck! Having visited Portugal a few times, I happen to have made some great friends who live in Lisbon and strongly encouraged me to extend my stay and make the trip down from Porto to go to a party that had sardine sandwiches, sangria, and street dancing into the wee hours of the morning. How could I refuse an offer like that?
Santo Antonio (Saint Anthony), as most Catholics may know, is the patron saint of lost things. However, in Portugal there is a different Santo Antonio who is actually the patron saint of marriage. To celebrate the biggest party of the city and maybe even all of Portugal, make sure you plan your vacation for the week of the 13th of June. You will need a couple days to get adjusted and definitely a couple of days after to recover. The 13th of June is the actual holiday and the entire city gets the day off of work. In the days leading up to and on the eve of holiday, the Alfama neighborhood is definitely the place to be, to drink, to eat, and to celebrate.
Early on in the eve of the holiday, I was able to view some of the most sobering events of the festa. A lucky selected group of couples, sponsored by the city, get married on this day, as it is believed being married on the eve of Santo Antonio guarantees that your marriage will last forever. Kind of romantic, right? The practice of the government sponsoring weddings on the eve of the holiday goes back to the 1950′s. The lucky couples are blessed by Santo Antonio all together in one large wedding ceremony called the Santo Casamenteiroa, at the historical Se Cathedral in the Alfama neighborhood.
Men who are not yet married and are looking to court a woman or express their interest, commonly give a gift of manjerico; this is basically a chia pet of newly sprouted basil in a pot that has a note or poem attached to it. Stands that sell the manjerico can be found all over Alfama. If you can’t find a girl to reciprocate your affection, no need to worry! Maybe further down the street and close to another manjerico stand, one might try again!
A few hours after the wedding festivities finish, at approximately 9:30pm, the Marchas Populares parade commences. This parade starts at the top of the Marques de Pombal square and streams through Avenida da Liberdade, until finishing at Rossio Plaza. This type of parade, filled with colorful costumes, started back in the 18th century. Then in 1932 when the military dictatorship ended in Portugal, and the newly appointed Estado Novo led by Antonio de Oliveira Salazar, decided to promote this march as a competition between the neighborhoods to instill a sense of nationalism and tradition. The competition is said to be quite fierce, as the neighborhoods spend months picking the theme for their costumes and rehearsing, and the entire even is broadcast on national television. On the following day, the losers of the march pour out into the streets to complain about the unfair judging, in a fashion similar to our "water cooler" talk about our favorite American Football team that we do here in the United States, but on a much grander scale.
Nevertheless, if you're not looking for love or to get married, but do fancy a good time, all of Lisbon, the surrounding areas and tourists such as myself, fill the streets to drink, dance, and eat until 6:00 am. I personally was only able to make it to 5am, but as I was walking back to my hostel, I did see a few people who may have pushed their limits of drinking the plentiful sangria a little too far.
Before you leave the festa make sure you eat sardines and bifanas (pork meat sandwiches). Sardines and bifanas were originally associated with the lower class as they are such cheap products; however, June is the peak season for sardines and even though I am not a fan of this “fishy fish”, slapping it on a bun at 3:00 am to help soak up all that sangria and beer is a surprisingly welcome relief on the stomach. The best way to eat sardines or bifanas is grilled and plain on a bun. There are plenty of stands scattered all over Alfama at which one might procure this tasty meal.
If you are looking for a fun time, want to experience a cultural activity, and maybe put back one too many glasses of Portuguese Sangria, then plan a trip to Lisbon to celebrate Santo Antonio on the week of the 13th of June. Once again, do make sure you allot yourself a full week, as you will want to celebrate a few days before and give yourself a few days to catch up on some much needed sleep or recover from that hangover afterwards. If I could offer one final tip, I would suggest that you make sure to head to the Alfama neighborhood early on. The roads fill with people by 8:00 pm, making it difficult to navigate; if you don't, you will be packed like sardines you would have otherwise eaten!