What do green wigs, sardine hats, music, beer, and Saint Anthony have in common?
That’s what I thought anyway — at least until recently, when Lisbon reminded me that travel is full of surprises.
I arrived June 12th, on a slightly delayed flight from London, super excited to be back in Portugal after a five-year hiatus. It turned out to be anything but your usual Monday night.
The first hint something special might be underfoot was a message my Airbnb host had sent the day before my arrival, which I only noticed as my plane was taxiing to the gate at Lisbon Portela Airport:
“Tomorrow there are party’s everywhere, because it’s the party of Santo Antônio. That is the Saint of Lisbon. Enjoy!” — Cristina
So, the “tomorrow” she mentioned was actually “today”?
“Sounds interesting,” I thought, but my attention quickly diverted to something more pressing: a reservation I’d made for 8:00pm at Lost in Esplenada Bar, which I was doubtful I’d now make.
I pulled up Cristina’s directions on how best to get to the AirBnB lodging: a tiny studio apartment not far from the lower embarkation point of the Elevador Da Glória — near Praça dos Restauradores, a monumental square in the heart of the city.
The directions were easy enough. I hopped on the metro and only had to change lines once to get to Avenida — the stop closest to what would be my local abode for the next two nights. Pulling my luggage up step after step after step towards the metro exit, I made my way out into the warm evening, glad that it was still light out at 7:30pm.
I walked down Avenida da Liberdade – the sycamore-lined Champs Élysées of Lisbon, consulting Google Maps along the way. With each loud da-da-da-da-da, my rolling bag announced my presence to passersby as it chattered over the cobblestone streets.
It’s hard to be inconspicuous rolling a bag over cobblestone, but I was happy to be back in Lisbon, and especially under such fine weather conditions.
Taking a right off the broad boulevard, I made my way up, up, up, turning here and there, until eventually I found myself at the gate Cristina had described in a previous message, with the two lock boxes to its right.
I punched in the code, and — voilà — there was a green key chain with one smaller and one larger silver key, to open both the front gate and the apartment door, just as she’d promised!
I love it when the little things in travel go according to plan! (Although, when they don’t, that also often leads to some memorable adventures!)
As quickly as possible, I got settled in and freshened up. The apartment could have been a minimalism-lifestyle or small-house movement advert. But it was cozy, the location was fantastic, and I loved it!
As I prepared to make a dash for Lost in Esplanada Bar, I began to wonder if it’d been a good idea to make a reservation the evening of my arrival, considering the jet lag was alive and real. And that I’d be a half an hour late at best.
But I wasn’t ready to give up on my reservations just yet. And “Lost” was surprisingly easy to find! Getting up there was quite a climb, though. If you don’t want to hit a gym or use a StairMaster when you travel, just visit Lisbon! You will get a workout!
I saw my name on the reservation list when I entered, so when the hostess came up, I pointed to my name and said: “That’s me! But my flight was delayed, so I’m late. Sorry!”
“Don’t worry,” she said with a smile, “we saved the best table for you, and we didn’t give it away! Follow me! (She’s probably used that line before, but I felt pretty special anyway!) 🙂
Considering I had five nights in Lisbon ahead of me — plenty of time to sample local specialties — I didn’t feel bad about dining on fusion Indian cuisine.
I’d spotted “Lost” by accident while checking out the neighborhood on Google Street View back home. With colorful, creative decor and a panoramic vista, it looked amazing! When I told a friend/co-worker about it, his reaction was: “I know that place! I’ve eaten there. It’s great!”
There’s my sign! I made the booking.
That’s how I ended up watching the sun set over Lisbon, sipping on a vinho verde (literally, “green wine,” a Portuguese dry white wine that is crisp, fruity, and effervescent) while enjoying a Prawn curry with sautéed vegetables and basmati rice at 9:00pm on a Monday night, Lisbon time.
And as any amateur blogger might do, I failed to photograph my food! Doh! (But here’s a short clip of the “vinho with a view!”)
The hostess came back to check on me. “See where the pink lights are?” she asked, pointing to the cityscape below us, “That’s the Avenida da Liberdade. That’s where all the festivities will take place. There will be parades and many people out in the street, and music as well.”
“Tomorrow?” I asked, still confused, as the official date of the holiday was Tuesday, not Monday.
“No! Tonight! Starting around 9:00pm will be the parades, the processions. Then later in the evening under the castle area people will be in the streets partying! You will see!”
Okay, so this Feast of Saint Anthony must be a big deal!
Although I was tired from twelve-plus hours of flying, a three-hour layover, and an eight-hour time difference, I decided not to pass up the opportunity to experience a unique Lisbon tradition. I made up my mind to head down to Avenida da Liberdade after dinner. And somehow, over the next five hours, I completely forgot I was jet lagged.
So, what did I see? Let me explain.
En route to Avenida da Liberdade, first I noticed small neighborhood gatherings with food, music, and drink. I passed several of these before wandering up to the Jardim Alfredo Keil ou da Praça da Alegria — that’s the super-long name of a garden with a fountain not far from the Avenida.
This gathering was much larger! There were lots of people dancing to rhythmic music. Colorful banners were strung from trees and lamp posts, and smoke billowed from stands of grilled fish, which smelled mighty dee-lish. It seemed like everyone was holding cups of — mainly beer! Or sometimes Sangria.
“This is so cool!” I inwardly exclaimed, smiling at the whole festive spectacle.
I continued on towards the Avenida, where the processions were passing in full force, as promised: colorful floats, marching bands, sequined costumes, choreographed song and dance, more music, and — in the crowds — I began to notice the hats.
Fish hats! Or “fish-head hats” as I kept referring to them that evening!
What could they possibly mean? I’d wondered.
The music I heard from the processions was in Portuguese, so I couldn’t understand, but it seemed that everyone else did! The crowds were chanting along in unison. They knew all the words.
And there were wigs! Green wigs, to be precise. Curly green wigs, like something you might see on a clown.
What did they mean?
Well, I found out the significance behind the fish hats! Apparently, a brand of Portuguese beer — Sagres — had been passing them out earlier in the evening as advertisement. Or at least that’s what a random dude on the street tried to explain in broken English when I asked him their significance.
Although I know commercialization influences culture nearly everywhere, I wasn’t completely satisfied with that explanation. Later I asked local tour guide, Cristina Duarte, and got a more in-depth explanation.
This excerpt from a Slate article explains it well:
“St. Anthony was born in Lisbon, the child of local nobles. He went on to become a Franciscan friar, and legend says that after a particularly frustrating day of preaching to heretics, he went to a river and began preaching to the fish. The fish gathered around to hear him, raising their heads above the water until he finished. It is a fitting story for the city’s patron saint, who today presides over an all-night fête that takes place in a smoky haze produced by thousands of grilled sardines.”
“The sardine is the symbol of Lisbon!” Cristina exclaimed! (Cristina the guide, not the AirBnB host!) That explained the fish paraphernalia strewn all around town!
After a while of parade-watching, I headed towards Alfama, the oldest district of Lisbon, where the festivities were to continue well into the wee hours.
There I came across another memorable scene:
People were lighting candles for (as well as tossing coins to) a statue of St. Anthony located in front of Igreja de Santo António, the Church of Saint Anthony, which also happens to house the Museum of Saint Anthony, located at the spot believed to mark the birthplace of — take a wild guess! — Lisbon’s patron saint, Saint Anthony.
The scent of burning candles was thick, and the placement of candlesticks so dense, it looked more like a bonfire of candles.
Have a look:
There was a lot of merrymaking, with many young people crowding the streets — but really, the frollickers were of all ages. Luckily there are no laws against carrying around open containers of alcohol in public in Lisbon. That sure would’ve put a damper on things.
They say a picture’s worth a thousand words, so these should give you a good idea of the extent of the evening’s jollification. (Plus, any excuse to use the word “jollification!”)
So, I got to take part in (and learn about) what clearly is a very special day for the people of Lisbon: the Feast of Saint Anthony. It was a thrilling evening. And I feel fortunate to have experienced it firsthand — especially as it came as a completely unexpected but very welcome surprise!
By the time I got back to my apartment, it was 2:00am, Lisbon time. I’d clocked 18,565 steps that day, or 7.8 miles, according to my iPhone.
Not bad for a completely jetlagged traveler.
Travel is full of surprises! What are some that you’ve encountered on your journeys? I’d love to read about your experiences in the comments section!