Young, free, single…hungry? Fly to Lisbon this June, the Portuguese capital is ready to welcome you to one of Europe’s most colourful street parties – the Festival of Santo Antonio.
The festivities can be traced back to an event in the 13th century, when local Lisbon hero, St Anthony travelled to Rimini, Italy. The trip didn’t quite go to plan so when the people of Rimini failed to take a shine to his sermons, he decided to preach to the fish instead.
To the amazement of everyone, row upon row of sea creatures bobbed their heads above the waves, eager to hear what he had to say. Today, the people of Lisbon remember the story by hosting huge street parties and feasting on grilled sardines from June 12th-14th.
In preparation for the festival, districts throughout Lisbon are transformed with colourful decorations and twinkling lights. Food and drink stalls pop up on street corners ready to serve the thousands of all-night revellers.
The Alfama neighbourhood is at heart of all the fun. As the smell of grilled sardines and the sound of Fado music fills the air, locals watch from balconies draped with multi-coloured light bulbs, tinsel, bunting and paper lanterns.
Although a sardine feast is the main focus of the festival, cupid also makes an appearance.
In the days before dating apps, it was customary for local single girls to write a shortlist of boys’ names on pieces of paper, scrunch them up and place them in a bowl of water under their beds.
In the morning, their perfect match was revealed as the name on the piece of paper that had unravelled the most. Ah, the innocence of it all. But some have been known to take more extreme measures.
According to one festival tradition known as ‘blackmailing St Anthony’, a small statue of the saint is placed upside down in the ground. The statue is only returned to its proper position when the saint successfully finds her perfect man.
For local men, things are much more straightforward. They present the girl of their dreams with a basil plant containing a paper carnation and small love poem.
The mixture of romantic Fado music and matchmaking traditions seems to be paying off. During the festival, it’s common to see mass weddings known as St Anthony Weddings taking place around Alfama.
The weddings are funded by the local parish for couples who are struggling to afford a ceremony of their own.
There’s skinless and boneless varieties, traditional oily options, spicy types and posh caviar-like sardine roe. Over 600 different varieties sit side by side, guarded by a huge mural created by local artist Jaime Rydel.
Lojas das Conservas is open all year round, so even if you miss out on all the fun from the festival, you can still walk away with a tasty souvenir from the Portuguese capital.
Lojas das Conservas, Rua do Arsenal 130, Lisbon.
- Fiona Hilliard