The village of Covões lies in the Gandara region of Portugal, near the old university city of Coimbra. Its architecture and design are typical of other villages in the region with the developed areas lying almost exclusively along the main road and the houses and property stretching far back. It is still primarily a farming village and most of the inhabitants have some sort of livestock or crops.
I was staying at the farm of António Castelo Branco, father of Pedro, a friend of mine from student days.
The residential part of the farm is usually unoccupied and the property is mainly used for keeping horses and other animals and for maintaining the vineyards (it’s a hard life…). Inside were large and airy rooms cleaned by a housekeeper and decorated with wooden furniture, old-fashioned ornaments, and washstands in each bedroom. I felt like I had walked into an Agatha Christie novel and kept my eyes open for the retired Colonel from India and the young governess to come strolling into the parlour for a pre-dinner sherry. Fortunately there were no suspicious activities on this particular weekend.
But there was tremendous joviality involving all ages. The festa began on Friday night with a traditional bull fight in which various local teenagers goaded a bull with water, sticks and other implements until he charged them in a fit of rage. The youths would hop the fence into the crowd just in the nick of time.
Another testosterone fuelled activity was held the next day at the motor cross racing site. As the crowd sipped beer in the cool shade, we were all splattered with mud just as the 4x4s careened around the corners. “Welcome to Covões,” my grinning friend Pedro muttered when he saw our shocked faces.
The culmination of the day was a huge dance party in the park outside on Saturday night. The band TV5 was a little Eurovision-esque, but energetic and clearly very popular as people salsa danced the night away.
Afterwards, at about 2am, a convoy of slightly-over-the-limit drivers took to the streets to seek out a suspected pool party at a local house.
As I discovered the hard way, there’s more to the festas than the parties. After staying up until 5 am at the successfully located pool party, I was awakened early the next day when a parade literally passed me by … And by … And by. Apparently the Covões Philharmonic band walk the main street from 8am on Sunday to wake the town up for the last day of the festa. Obviously the band leader does not approve of late night swimming!
This musical tradition sets the tone for Sunday’s activities, which are centred around the religious components of the festa. In the afternoon, following a mass, a procession is held through the village, where all the Saints from the church are paraded around to very sombre music. People throw flowers from their windows and watch respectfully from inside their homes.
For those who have asked a saint for a particular favour, it is now when they need to repay it by participating in the procession.
All of this merriment and tradition needed some sustenance and the true highlight of the festa was the food. Portuguese cuisine is well known for its use of fresh ingredients and great quantities, and these are shown to the full extent at festival time. This is not the place for dieters! On offer were salads, breads, sardines, pork, chicken, soups, rice pudding and fruit salad – and this was just one meal! The suckling pig cooked in its own juices and the squid freshly caught from the sea were outstanding, and for snacks it was always possible to go out to the orchard and pick oranges, figs, peaches, kiwis and pears directly from the trees. Portuguese hospitality ensured that people were always offered extra servings. Sure, I might have tried to say a polite “no, thank you” to my third or fourth helping, but they could sense any trace of indecision in my eyes, and I was done for. Sheer food bliss!
Of course, one must wash everything down with copious quantities of the local brew, and thankfully northern Portugal does not disappoint in this area either. The locally produced red and white wines were of outstanding quality, as well as geropiga, the fortified wine this region produces instead of port. “It tastes like the sun, moon, and stars rolled into one on my tongue,” gushed my slightly hyperbolic, and possibly slightly tipsy, Icelandic husband. As to whether the Icelanders can outlast the Portuguese in consuming the local tipple, bixo, I will leave it to your imagination. Suffice to say that my husband was assigned a “minder” named Helder, whose job the entire weekend was to ensure that he was never without a drink in his hand, morning or night.
The type of hospitality Helder was providing was indicative of my entire visit to this region, where everyone helps everyone else and guests are made to feel at home. During festa season everyone chips in in some way, from food preparation to decorating the streets with banners. The pace of life is relaxed, yet clearly accomplishes what it needs to. Maybe it’s just that the Portuguese seem to have their priorities right – good friends, good food, and a good attitude.
When the sights, sounds and general craziness of the festa make you crave a little break, there are many distractions in the region. Lisbon and Porto are large and busy cities and only a couple of hours away by train or by bus. I chose to go to the seaside town of Tocha and relax on the sandy beach where fishermen pulled their brimming nets onto the beach with tractors. We watched the death throes of the fish for several morbid minutes and then cheerfully bought some of the sand-covered squid and sardines to grill for dinner.
The Portuguese festas are a great reminder of some of life’s fundamentals. They are about families reuniting, communities working together, religious services for those so inclined, and enjoying life to its fullest. Pedro’s girlfriend told me that the Portuguese don’t understand why anyone would live somewhere else, and I’m beginning to agree.
As I made my way down south to re-join the sun drenched package tourists for the flight back home, I took comfort in the thought that I may not have had the chance to wear the flip flops or the bikini, but after such a Bacchanalian weekend, there was no way I would want to anyway.
•For the uninitiated, the best festas to try are in the bigger towns like Coimbra, Figueira da Foz or Porto.
•Most festas are held over the summer months, when the weather will be dry, hot and sunny.
Costs are very reasonable: We had a huge chicken feast with drinks, coffee, and dessert in a local restaurant for Eight euros per person.
THE CHEAPEST WAY TO GET TO PORTUGAL:
Iceland Express to London Stansted 7000 to 12000 ISK.
Ryanair London to Porto, Portugal, from five British pounds each way.