What’s Up With the Sardines in Lisbon? And Other Useful Advice

It's mid-June, you have just arrived in Lisbon and you can feel the city is on party mode. But what exactly is happening? And what's up with the sardines in Lisbon?

Cover photo: One of the winning creations in 2015 by Rui Fazenda, “O Vendedor de Mines” as seen in Avenida da Liberdade.

It’s mid-June, you have just arrived in Lisbon and you can feel the city is in party mode. But what exactly is happening? And what’s up with the sardines in Lisbon?

You’ve probably read somewhere (your travel guide perhaps) that June 13th is St. Anthony’s day, and people hang colorful threads on the streets, stick little colorful paper carnations on pots of basil, put up improvised food stands, sell pounds and pounds of grilled sardines (with abundant quantities of alcohol and bread to go with it), and are ready to dance the night away to music most of them wouldn’t normally like any other day.

All written above is true and everybody will tell you that you can’t miss the “santos populares” (popular saints in Portuguese). I agree it’s a must and it’s very typical (no pun intended, nor intention of sending you into a tourist trap!).

But what’s up with the sardines in Lisbon? And these group weddings at the Cathedral? I know exactly how you feel. When I moved to Lisbon I wanted to know all about these local festivals and why they happened. Surely there was something more to it than people hanging out on the streets having fun and drinking beer, right? Yes, there is a background and I’ll share my findings with you.

Is It a Religious Holiday?

The tricky word in this question is “religious”. Technically it is a religious holiday. Lisbon celebrates the death of its patron saint, St. Anthony, on June 13th, usually with a Catholic service at the church of Santo Antonio (right next to the Cathedral), followed by a procession through the old quarters of the city, where other statues of other saints join (including the one of the other patron saint of Lisbon, St. Vincent).

But like many other such celebrations across Portugal, the lines between what’s religious and what’s pagan are slightly blurred. I am almost certain that most Catholics don’t celebrate this holiday around these premises anymore (Culturally, we are a Catholic people; religiously, not so much — which I think it’s the normal evolution of thought regarding notions of faith and what not. This would be a whole new post wouldn’t it?) However, for the sake of the holiday’s origin, I will say that yes, it is a religious celebration.

Why Saint Anthony?

St. Anthony, born Fernando Martins in Lisbon, is also known as St. Anthony of Padua (in Italy). Padua is the Italian city where the Franciscan friar died on June 13th, 1231, and that raises a lot of issues whether he should be worshiped as a patron saint of that city or of Lisbon. But this is more a matter of “I say potato, you say potahto“, so let’s leave it at that.

So why do you find information that St. Vincent is the patron saint? How many patron saints does Lisbon have after all? Well, it all boils down to territorial attachments. You see, St. Anthony was born in Portugal in 1195. The country was sixty years old then! It was a brand new nation, so this saint is as Portuguese as it gets.

St. Vincent, however, was born in Spain. And even though he was born about eight centuries before, when Portugal wasn’t even a country yet, I don’t think the Portuguese are keen to have a Spanish become patron saint of their capital. We have nothing against the Spanish… in theory… But ever since the country was ruled by Spanish Kings from 1580 to 1640, well let’s just say it’s a part of History most people would like to put behind their backs. So, sorry about that St. Vincent, but the people have chosen to go with a Portuguese-born saint instead. (Officially, for the Portuguese Catholic Church, St. Vincent is still the patron saint, but they celebrate both.)

There’s a Sort of Group Wedding?

People have claimed St. Anthony as the “matchmaker saint”. Allegedly, he had excellent mediating skills with couples. As you can see, people have adopted him as the saint of many things (which is probably why the epithet of “popular saint” suits him).

Following that popularity, and the motto that every man and woman should have the right to a beautiful marriage ceremony (regardless of their financial situation), in 1958 the extinct newspaper “Diario Popular” started sponsoring these group weddings of twenty-six selected couples. Everything from clothes, religious ceremony and reception were taken care of.

When the “carnation revolution” broke out in 1974, these ceremonies were cancelled — the new democratic regime wanted to steer away as far as possible from the previous dictatorship (conservative and Catholic), and the country needed to start new from clean slate.

Thirty years later, in 2004, the Lisbon City Hall recovered the tradition and began sponsoring new group weddings to sixteen new couples every year, usually at the old Cathedral in Alfama.

Is there a catch? Well, the couples have to give up image rights and let themselves be photographed, filmed, interviewed… And they do go through a long scrutiny process to make sure they are eligible… And because it’s a Catholic wedding, same-sex marriage is not allowed (only civil same-sex marriages are legal in Portugal, since 2010)… So yes there a few catches here if these couples want the big party with a smaller budget.

What’s Up with the Sardines?

The first thing I’ll tell you upfront is this: sardines are the least sexy fish to eat in public (consider yourself warned) — too many little bones poking your gums and sticking in your throat. That said, they taste great grilled. Even though fish don’t actually know borders (or any animal for that matter), sardines are the most Portuguese fish out there. Excessive fishing is endangering the species, but it’s still fished and sold by the thousands of tonnes every year, and June is definitely the peak season. But these aren’t exactly the sardines I want to talk about.

I want to address what I call the “creative sardine invasion”. You are wandering around Lisbon in June and you start to notice these colorful fishes all around. You probably didn’t know they were sardines until now. So what is this craze around voting for your favorite and award-winning sardines? Well, you’ve figured out that sardines are a symbol of these local festivities. Most of the Portuguese cuisine revolves around fish and it was the core product of the “varinas” business (the women who started to sell fish from door to door in the 19th Century Lisbon; true business, independent women in their time).

Twelve years ago, the sardine became a pop culture icon. It suddenly was more than a fish people ate between two slices of bread, pushed down with a cold beer or red wine. The sardine was a star, and it has had its share of renderings from all sorts of artists: locals, foreigners, famous, amateurs, students. For the last five years, the City Hall has led a competition to select the best sardines of the year, voted by the public. The 2015 winning creations are Portuguese, Italian and French.

Why is Buying a Pot of Basil So Special?

Yes, buying a pot of basil for St. Anthony’s is a thing. You will notice it (usually) comes with a colorful paper carnation attached, and a small piece of paper with a short poem (normally no more than four verses). You will also receive this set of instructions: don’t sniff the plant; rub it with your hand and sniff your hand instead, otherwise it will dry up. If you’re in a “basil sniffing” mood that is. (Sorry if this introduction sounded awkward.)

Remember when I said that the lines between what’s religious and what’s pagan are slightly blurred? Basil is commonly associated with a state of welfare, happiness, love. It even used to be called “the herb of lovers” by the Romans. Therefore, in the days before social media and texting (and snapchat and tinder…), if a boy liked a girl he would buy her a pot of basil. Cute.

These days people buy it because it smells very nice and it’s one of those traditions everybody does for the sake of doing. And I think today the poems are more of a sarcastic comment to the current political situation, than actual declarations of love.

What Are the “Marchas Populares”?

I can roughly translate “marchas populares” as popular marches, but they’re more of a dance parade than an actual march. And the tradition is as old as… 1932. It was created by the conservative dictatorial regime at the time, as an attempt to give the people some sense of authentic identity; you see some references of rural Portugal in that (then) new tradition (despite the evolution of the marches, it’s interesting how it’s possible to still find some small traces of folklore dancing and costumes). It was all part of a well-orchestrated propaganda system, highlighting Portuguese pride in everything that was National, that would later include the three “F’s”, Fado (music), football (sports), and Fatima (religion).

Fabricated tradition or not, the truth is that Lisbon takes its “marchas” seriously. And I mean territorial, “my-marcha-is-better-than-yours”, “I’m-not-a-sore-loser-the-contest-was-rigged” seriously. Everyone who is part of a “marcha” pours all the heart and soul into this: original score and choreography, hours of rehearsing, busy seamstresses creating outfits. And, if they can afford it, they bring out the big guns: they hire local stars (actors, musicians, reality tv celebrities…) to lead the march as sponsors.

After they parade down Avenida da Liberdade on the evening of the 12th of June, the winner is announced. Alfama has won seven times for the past ten years, so I’d bet they’re a pretty strong contender.

Where Is the Best “Arraial”?

Tough call! I will not take sides, but I like Alfama. But I will always like Alfama any time of the year. It’s a personal choice. Bica is usually fun for its geographic peculiarity. I think someone at one point dubbed it the most tilted “arraial” of Lisbon.

Then Graça, Mouraria, and Madragoa are also quarters to visit. The streets will be packed on the evening of June 12th to 13th, that’s the big day for the “santos populares”. Forget driving or taking public transport. And if you really want to feel the vibe of each quarter, you should try them all.

Here’s an idea for a plan for “arraial” hopping: choose one for dinner (and get there early, before it starts to get crowded), one for buying a “manjerico”, and one for dancing (I would say not Bica… I really don’t want to see you tumbling down those rails for turning the wrong way).

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7 Comments

  1. 1
  2. 2

    Here’s an idea for a post. How to eat a sardine. When I was in Spain, no one was eating them because they didn’t know how. I messily and unsuccessfully tried before giving up.

    • 3

      Bryan if I had the skills and the expertise I’d definitely right a post about it 😀 I think it has a lot to do with patience and true love for the food (sardines in this case).

  3. 4

    I hope to make it there one day for the celebration. As a fussy eater I wondered why I like sardines and anchovies- clearly it is in my genes! Thank you for all the tips! Roar!

    • 5

      Can’t beat the power of DNA! Especially if part of your DNA is from the Azores — that’s like having super powers 🙂

  4. 6

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