Feast of St Anthony: a guide to Lisbon's sardine festival

Alfama. Lisbon. Portugal.'Alfama - Lisbon 's oldest district 'by detengaseCreative Commons Attribution

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Location: Alfama, Lisbon, Portugal

Dates: 12–14 June

Level of participation: 2 - snack on sardines

On the feast day of St Anthony, patron saint of Lisbon, the Portuguese capital goes sardine crazy. The winding streets and steep staircases in Alfama, the city’s oldest quarter, fill with the smell of sardines being grilled outside little houses and restaurants.

Even by the standards of a coastal country where the population lives on fish dishes, the grilled treats consumed in honour of Anthony of Padua are a tasty snack. The tradition relates to a remarkable event that occurred while the 13th-century Catholic saint was in Rimini, Italy. Depressed that the locals would not listen to his sermons, he wandered to the shore to confide in the fish. Suddenly, row upon row of fish raised their heads above the waves, from nippers in the shallows to sizeable listeners in the deep water.

Rimini’s townsfolk flocked to witness the fish, which bowed their heads and opened their mouths to show their reverence to the wandering missionary. There is a parade along Avenida de Liberdade and balconies everywhere are draped with coloured lights, streamers and paper lanterns. And the quirky practices don’t end with sardines. Single girls carry out all sorts of rituals to implore Anthony, known as the matchmaker saint, to help them find a worthy husband. The girl might fill her mouth with water until she hears a man’s name mentioned, or write her suitors’ names on pieces of paper, roll them up and place them in a bowl of water under her bed. In the morning, the piece of paper that has unfurled the most indicates the lucky man.

If girls are really sick of being single, they stand a small statue of Anthony upside down and bury its head, returning it to its proper position only when the hard-working saint has placed their case at the top of his long list of lonely hearts. Men, meanwhile, present the Portuguese apple of their eye with a basil plant containing a love poem. This is a popular practice, and balconies across the city sport pot plants and paper carnations with messages of affection for Anthony or the recipient.

Unsurprisingly, a popular soundtrack for these activities is fado, the melancholy Portuguese music imbued with a sense of longing. Bands often play alongside an image of the saint.

The matchmaking ploys must work. Mass marriages, known as St Anthony’s Weddings, take place in his church, where you can also see the tradition of St Anthony’s Bread. People write prayers and press them, with a small bread roll, into the frame of the saint’s portrait. The practice relates to a woman who agreed to give the poor an amount of wheat equal in weight to her drowned child, who Anthony revived.

Local attractions: one of Europe’s most beautiful cities, Lisbon has architecture from baroque to art deco on its seven hills.

More info: www.visitportugal.com

See other top festivals in June here.

This is an excerpt from Lonely Planet's A Year of Festivals.

This article was first published in December 2010 and was refreshed in April 2013.