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A festival of bounty might not be what you would expect from Portugal at the moment. But the Festa dos Tabuleiros, or Festival of Trays – one of Portugal’s oldest and most colourful traditions – is exactly that. It has been held every four years since pre-Christian times, and the authorities decided it would not be cancelled for something as temporal as a national economic crisis (which, let’s face it, tends to happen once or twice each century). Indeed, this year, in the face of financial ruin, the festival was celebrated with extra vigour.
It all happened in the ancient town of Tomar, which can be found nestling in a fertile valley in the centre of Portugal. The place is something of a backwater, with a population of just 20,000 souls. On festival day, however, it was crammed with twenty times that number of visitors.
The locals had been preparing their town for months. Every street and alleyway had been decorated with millions of paper carnations, hand-made by pensioners, in a riotous variety of colours. They were slung in sagging canopies overhead, wound in spirals around lamp-posts, and hung in densely-packed tapestries against walls and doors. The town smelled extraordinary, too; fragrant eucalyptus leaves had been scattered over the cobbles.
By lunchtime it was heaving. I shoved my way into the municipal gardens, where 2,000 people, all dressed in red and white, were getting ready for the highlight of the day: the procession. Long lines of women were preparing to march through the streets with decorated trays of bread on their heads, each equal in height to its bearer. The trays weighed around forty pounds, and were to be carried for up to four hours in the sweltering heat. The menfolk were preparing, too. Their job was to walk beside the women, offering words of encouragement.
“Portuguese people are very resilient and resourceful,” said Nuno Garcia Lopes, a rather skeletal forty-something civil servant that I met in the crowd. “We are completely different to the Greeks. We do not want to ask for help from outside; we will solve our economic problems ourselves.” His father, he told me, lost his job some years ago, when the EU opened Portugal to competition from abroad and all Tomar’s factories went out of business. “But we survived it,” he said. “And we will survive again. In Portugal we are always surviving.”
The gates were opened, fireworks banged, and to a great roar from the crowd, the procession began. It was a spectacular sight; hundreds upon hundreds of women, all straining under the weight of loaves of bread, walking in single file into the town. As a demonstration of fertility and bounty – and, indeed, of defiance – it could not have been more vivid.
I fell into conversation with a 31-year-old volunteer by the name of Sérgio Bento, a likely lad sporting a spiky, wet-look haircut. “People are poorer now than at the last festival,” he told me. “I have four jobs – as a roadie, a barman, an administrator and a bouncer at a strip club. The price of living has gone up massively. We are working like crazy dogs.” When we talked about the procession, however, his mood brightened. “This festival shows we are confident,” he said. “We have worked to transform our town. In time, we can transform our economy.”
The procession ended in the main square, the Praça da República, outside the Church of St John the Baptist. The women assembled in a vast phalanx and downed their trays for an open-air Mass. Looking on was the new Prime Minister of Portugal, Pedro Passos Coelho, standing coiffed and sphinx-like amidst a mass of dignitaries. He enjoys widespread support in Tomar, a traditionally conservative town, particularly given his message that Portugal should roll up her sleeves and work her way out of the economic quagmire. Overshadowing him was a statue of the Templar Knight Gualdim Pais, who founded Tomar in 1160 as a garrison town in response to the Moorish threat. Would it have been fanciful to have seen a similar steeliness in the gaze of the Prime Minister?
Mass drew to a close. The church bell chimed once, then twice; on the third toll the women upped their trays and, to the sound of applause and cheers, processed out of the square. I spotted Nuno Anjos, a presenter for Tomar City Radio, who had just come off the air. “Businesses are closing in Tomar,” he told me, “and people are losing their jobs. But the parade gives us happiness. All the young people want to take part – there is a waiting list for the trays, because there aren’t enough to go round. We have no problem with that. It means that our future is guaranteed.”