Where to go for traditional Carnival in Portugal
While spending Carnival in Portugal won’t probably cross your mind in February or March (it’s cold, and I don’t judge your dreams of a warmer Mardi Gras elsewhere), these days are perfect for a long weekend break.
I’m only listing the events that I believe are truer to the country’s cultural identity and take place in towns or cities that you can easily drive to from Porto or Lisbon (for convenience), except for Terceira Island.
Locals call the Carnaval de Torres Vedras the most Portuguese of all the Carnivals in Portugal, and they go to great lengths to throw the greatest and biggest Mardi Gras celebration you’ll ever see. Maintaining their cultural identity is important, which is why I included Torres Vedras on my list of cultural tourism destinations to visit in 2018.
For five days, from Friday before Fat Tuesday to Ash Wednesday, the Mayor gives full control of the city to the Carnival’s King and Queen (always played by two local men).
Unlike other places in the country that try to copycat the flair of the Brazilian Carnival, in Torres Vedras it’s all about keeping the local traditions alive including the matrafonas (men dressed in drag, loud and flashy), the zés-pereiras (a group of men parading while playing drums) and the cabeçudos (people wearing a strange costume, where the head is disproportionately bigger than the body).
Although the Carnaval de Ovar mixes local traditions with Samba school parades, it stands as one of Portugal’s most traditional celebrations.
It’s the city’s trademark event, and it’s all about the biggest parade with the brightest costumes, so expect lots of color all over town.
Historical records show the first mentions of Carnival celebrations in local newspapers as early as the late 19th century, so it’s fair to say they know what they’re doing. They also proudly claim this is the best Carnaval in the country. Well, publicity stunt or not, I guess you have to see it for yourself and find out.
I feel like I’m always talking about Podence when people ask me about Carnaval in Portugal, and I confess I might be slightly obsessed with how they do it in this little town in the North.
They call it the most genuine Carnaval in Portugal. If not that, it is, at least, one of the most intriguing and original Mardi Gras celebrations in the country.
Caretos – men dressed up in a peculiar wool costume, wearing tin or leather masks and cowbells around their waists – are the star of the festivities. Traditionally, young men would dress up like this during what is known as Carnaval today and chase girls around town. A rather savage courtship ritual that historians trace back to when the North of Portugal was occupied by Celts.
(Note: as of December 2019, the Podence “caretos” are officially UNESCO World Heritage)
Angra do Heroísmo
There’s a reason why the Azoreans call Terceira the “party island.” There is always some celebration, cultural event, or local festivity (even off tourist season).
Carnaval is celebrated in all nine Azores islands (celebrations begin early, four weeks before Mardi Gras week), but things are done differently in Angra do Heroísmo.
According to local folklore, the three days of Carnaval are the best days to speak your mind because no one will take you seriously (and even if they do, they’ll brush it off as a harmless joke). Think of these dates as the small timeframe when you can screw the political correctness.
Terceirenses took it so seriously they made a whole event out of it and created the Danças de Carnaval (Carnival Dances in English). These are stage performances, with local musicians and actors dressed up in intricate costumes, appreciated by the Islanders for their puns, riddles, and satire in verse. It does take a full grasp of Portuguese and of local politics to understand all the jokes, though.
The Carnaval’s biggest attraction in Sesimbra is the colorful (and loud) parade by the sea, too close to mimicking the Brazilians for my taste. I think the need to attract more people to an event may lead to the complete obliteration of a place’s cultural identity.
However, I’m including Sesimbra in this blog post because of an old tradition of satirical poems called Cegadas (meaning blinded). Similar to what happens in Angra do Heroísmo, these poems are an upgraded version of a Portuguese medieval literature genre called “songs of scorn and cursing” (Cantigas de Escárnio e Maldizer). It was and still is, a seemingly innocent social and political criticism, similar to a roast.
Carnaval in Estarreja was always about the floats, all the way back to the 19th century. Local newspapers report these first events mentioning the “flower battle” (batalha das flores), a parade entirely funded by wealthy resident families.
Well, although the focus on Samba schools seems to have taken over, the Carnival here is still about the floats, and that’s what people are eager to see on Fat Tuesday.
I wouldn’t exactly call it traditional (as in, you will probably see versions of this all over the world), but I’m including Estarreja on this list because, undeniably, it stayed true to its roots.
Canas de Senhorim
I wouldn’t think of visiting Canas de Senhorim during Carnival until I came across this 400-year-old tradition. Two of this town’s neighborhoods, Paço and Rossio, have been sorting out their long-lasting feud (over what, I have no idea) with what I can only call a Carnaval dance-off. Yes, that’s right. Think of it as maybe the Portuguese Carnaval version of West Side Story?
It seems like the group that sings and dances more joyfully is deemed the winner, until the next year when the rivals meet again at the town’s main crossroad.
Cabanas de Viriato
I had to save the best for last, and I would like to end this list with the most peculiar celebration, the “Dance of the Asses.” Not asses as in donkeys; asses as in butts.
But before your mind starts rushing with the worst images, let me assure you there is nothing NSFW about this traditional event. This time of year is too cold for butt-bearing anyway.
This dance is more like a waltz with a twist in the end. Dancers line up, side by side, and on the third beat, they bump their rears. That’s it.