If football is a game of 2 halves, then for me, Portugal is a land of 2 seasons. As winter descends, the intensity of the summer heat and the frivolities of the festa are all but forgotten. The grapes have been picked, the new wine tasted, the olives pressed and peace descends; the smoke from the chimneys and the market day traffic provide the only clues that this is not a population in hibernation. And then, one day, the seasons turn. The arrival of spring is proclaimed and the population of Portugal turns out for 'Carnaval'.
Carnaval. It's not just another festa. Whereas the 'feriado' (public holiday) holds political importance or religious significance and the 'festa' (festival) generally commemorates a saint, on first impressions this is not the case with Carnaval. So why the party?
Prior to Roman occupation, Portugal had already been settled by Celts. Worshipping forces of nature, the Carnaval. It's in the name. Similar to the Latin 'carnevale', interpreted as a farewell to meat or flesh. 'Carnevale' is associated with the observance of the period of Lent, held in remembrance of the time Jesus spent in the desert avoiding the temptation of Satan, commencing on Ash Wednesday and leading to Easter. Traditionally, Lent signified a time of prayer and fasting, or at the very least, a withdrawal from festivities, rich foods and meat. In preparation, it was necessary to dispose of temptation, hence the tradition arose of holding a final festivity prior to Ash Wednesday. Lent is widely observed today, with many Christians choosing to fast or to renounce a vice. As the dates of Easter and hence Ash Wednesday alter annually, it is no surprise to find that the date of Carnaval alters likewise. In 2011 Ash Wednesday will fall on March 9th, and Portugal will celebrate Carnaval between March 5th and 8th with fun, fervour and frenzy. It's party time! year of the Celts was divided into a "dark" half, commencing at Samhain, a precursor of the modern Halloween, and a "light" half, commencing with the fire festival of Imbolc, held around the beginning of February. Imbolc signified the end of winter and the beginning of spring. Celebrations honoured the rebirth of the earth, with rituals of fertility performed in the hope of agricultural abundance in the year to come. It is therefore no coincidence that in Portugal, in February or March, we find a celebration of life, a celebration of the reawakening and fertility of the earth after the short, dark, damp winter days; we find this within the feast of music, revelry and dance that is Carnaval. Further links with Samhain and Imbolc, times when the division between the earthly world and the otherworld of spirits was said to be at its weakest, can be seen in the large-headed figures and masks of Carnaval, symbolic of links with the spiritual world. The spiritual element within Carnaval, however, is far from being limited to pagan elements.
When searching for Carnaval capers, Lisbon features high on a list of likely contenders. Easily reached by car, train, bus or plane, Carnaval in Portugal's cosmopolitan capital city promises to be a spectacular sight. Vibrant and vigorous, energising, entertaining and loud, the performers, parades and floats of Lisbon rival the sights and sounds of the famed celebrations in Rio de Janeiro. Just as Brazil inherited the celebrations of Carnaval from Portugal and developed it accordingly, Lisbon now draws on the strength of the samba with a thoroughly modern take on Carnaval, and where better to sample the glitz and glamour than in the contemporary surroundings of Lisbon's Parque Nações. For a good choice of hotels with discount prices, visit Places to stay in Lisbon for more information
Fancy a foray further south? Loulé in the Central Algarve provides the same breathtaking buzz as the Brazilian Carnaval. Loulé Carnaval was revamped in 1906, due to festivities of old being characterised as somewhat aggressive and holding little grace, and has continued to be developed such that it is now famed throughout the country. Take a dose of Algarve sunshine, add a good pinch of political satire, a considerable quantity of colour, copious helpings of music, and a substantial serving of samba; the resulting party atmosphere that pervades ensures that Carnaval in Loulé provides pleasure year on year.
If, however, you prefer your parties a little more Portuguese, try Lazarim, a municipality of Lamego. Listen out for the music, laughter and merriment which guides you to the parades featuring colourful, hand-made costumes, cabeçudos (large-headed figures), and men wearing hand-crafted wooden masks portraying both male and female forms. In true Carnaval spirit, food features prominently, with frolickers feasting prior to the Lenten fast. In Lazarim, expect also to witness a unique Portuguese tradition, with the 'Enterro of the Entrudo'. 'Entrudo' relates to the period of time between Epiphany and Lent, but is generally regarded as one and the same with Carnaval. The enterro (burial or burning) is symbolic of the ending of the festivities and the beginning of Lent. The lead up to the enterro is seen during Carnaval, as men (Compadres) and women (Comadres) light-heartedly vie against each other for authority, drawing on a Saturnalian concept of overturning the normal social order. At the end of festivities, the 'wills' of the Compadre and Comadre are read, and the Enterro of the Entrudo takes place with mannequins of the Compadre and Comadre burned on a bonfire, representing the expulsion of evil and the excesses of Carnaval before the purity of the period to follow.
Tradition and custom are also revered in Torres Vedras, some 50 kilometres north of Lisbon. With historical references dating back to 1574, the festivities possess social and cultural importance, with spontaneity, input, and involvement encouraged and the participation of citizens being paramount. Schools play a particularly important role, whereby the children create vibrant masks and vivid costumes which are worn by the youngsters when they feature in the opening ceremony. Their enthusiasm, together with the Portuguese passion for the family and children, join to create an intensity and passion which continues throughout the festivities. Celebrations include the crowning of Carnaval King and Queen, and parades feature floats, flowers, cabeçudos and satirical political parodies. In true Portuguese style, the final flourish of festivities comes with the Enterro of the Entrudo. Remaining faithful to Portuguese Carnaval traditions, revelries in Torres Vedras claim to be "the most Portuguese in Portugal".
If, however, you're looking for something even more outlandish, then Podence promises the truly spectacular. For here in the far northern municipality of Macedo de Cavaleiros, one can witness the extraordinary phenomenon that is the 'careto'. Mysterious and magical, the careto is related to rituals of fertility. Clad in multi-layered costumes of bright, strong colours, created from fringed wool or linen, and masquerading within a tin or wooden mask, the careto summons up the energy of the earth and the sun. The provocative shaking of his waist and hips in a frenzied dance causes the jingle-jangle of the many bells which adorn his costume. His cries serve to accentuate the elevated energy levels, and the result is a mesmerising sight. Indeed so strong is association of fertility with the careto, who seeks to seduce the single lady, that unmarried women in days gone by used to watch only from their balconies. The careto was also associated with devilish pranks, resulting in village people locking their doors in fear of abuse. Such fiendish pranks have been tamed, but the exhibition of energy remains, resulting in magical memories for all who participate or spectate. Not least the "facanitos", male children who dress up to imitate their elders, awaiting the day when they graduate to the role of careto, ensuring the future of the event for years to come.
The above examples serve to illustrate only a small number of the more popular Portuguese Carnaval celebrations, festivities which feature throughout the country and indeed in Madeira and The Azores likewise. Variations are to be found, and while each celebration is likely to be unique, there are many common factors. For Carnaval is a festival of life; a feast of food for the taste buds, a feast of music and merriment for the ears, and a feast of parades, dance, costume and colours for the eyes.
If, however, you are unable to partake in any of the big Carnaval celebrations, do not fear, for it is likely that Carnaval will come to you! Within the smaller villages, tradition holds strong. Do not be surprised to find children (or adults) clad in colourful rags, or perhaps wearing their clothes inside out or their underwear on their heads. And should you fall victim to some of the mischief that unfolds, remember the saying, "É Carnaval, ninguém leva a mal" – roughly translated as, "It's Carnaval, nobody takes the bad", or basically, it's all a bit of fun, and anything goes!