21 . 09 . 17
Of Saints and Sardines – A Backpacker’s Food Directory of Sao Antonio, Lisbon
Shrines, street parties, sardines and homemade grills. Writing and images by Julia Georgallis.
I climbed up the cobbles of Alfama, brightly coloured paper strewn between the narrow streets, like washing lines of colour. Sound systems had been rigged to each house and doors were open whilst their owners sat outside selling booze. When I got into the middle of the knot of streets I found mismatched market stalls, covered in tinsel and homemade barbecues teetering precariously, ejecting grey plumes as dusk turned darker and people flooded through the walkways, until they were packed in like the sardinhas assadas (grilled sardines) on the open flames. It was a hotter-than-normal June evening, the air was thick with smoke and salty smells, the atmosphere heavy with expectation, like when you’re about to throw a party and you’re waiting for guests to arrive. I had booked an impromptu holiday to Lisbon on my own and as per usual thought I would stumble around and see what happened but I found I had arrived during the main festival of the year – the festival of Sao Antonio. There was something kind of emotional about it, it felt important to me somehow. Saint Antonio is not only the patron saint of the city but is also believed to be a matchmaker – the saint of marriages, protector of young brides and guardian of the lost and found. As a single, female, solo backpacker who sort of enjoys getting lost, I felt like I had found myself the perfect saint. That day in Lisbon, something like 50 couples had been granted marriage licenses by the mayor. Spirits on the streets were high, people were giddy – it felt just like a wedding. And I love a good wedding almost as much as I love a good street party – Notting Hill in the summer, Rio in the spring – and so it felt very much like I had found my place amongst the cobbles and the noise. This fishy marriage festival however (and indeed many like it in other Portuguese cities) remains under wraps, and possibly for good reason. Because I am loathed to share how much fun it was. Loathed to tell you that I danced well into the nights, shouting and dancing, eating lovely food with happy locals and loathed to tell you that you must do this too. And, for when you do visit, I have put together a brief guide of what I did during my 6 day visit. There are festivities and merriment all over the city throughout June with each neighbourhood competing for the biggest, brightest and best street party. I was staying at the foot of the Alfama district, so the smoke and the smells took me up the hill to party around those narrow streets and this was a pretty good place to be. If you fancy drinking and dancing somewhere else, especially once the festival is over, head up yet another hill to Bairro Alto, which is littered with drinking establishments at every turn. Because it is festival season, the touristic attractions may have weird opening hours, but there’s still so much to explore with the added bonus of a few good evenings of street partying. Enjoy!
- 1. Eats and treats on the streets
The biggest highlight of Sao Antonio was the street food. Sardines are the main attraction – they are enormous and grilled on homemade barbecues, served either piled up on a plate or on a thick slab of white bread. Try eating yours with a side of chourico (sausage) or morcela (blood sausage); the saltiness of both fish and meat makes for a lovely combination. I also really enjoyed caldo verde, a traditional soup eaten at celebrations and made with greens and potatoes. Head to one of the makeshift bars scattered on the streets or outside someone’s house and drink pale, light beers (for 75 cents if you buy them from the right person!), homemade sangria (which varies in tastiness, but who cares, you’ve just eaten all that salt), dessert wine (ginjinha is the most local, or you can try local ports) and vinho verde, which is a green tinged sparkling wine.
2. Beats on the streets
Fado is this kind of sad, traditional Portuguese music and the guide books all say head to one of these traditional music establishments if you can – but if you’re going at this time of year, it’s blaring from the sound systems instead, along with a mixture of Brazilian musical treats and Latin reggaeton hits, all for the purpose of encouraging people to dance. There are also live bands scattered round the festival, my favourites being an old man band who seemed to really like singing Rod Stewart songs.
Outside of festival time, I was averaging about two pasteis de nata (custard tarts) a day, buying them everywhere I could, all in the interest of finding the best one. Although it might be considered a bit predictable, my hands-down-favourite was from Manteigaria, an artisanal shop in Bairro Alto, which I am sure has plans for world domination. Their natas are usually served warm, the pastry was the perfect thickness and the custard creamy without being dense with the perfect amount of caramelisation on the top. Sprinkle some cocoa over and drink it with a coffee while you watch the staff pulling the little yellow armies out of the ovens. If you want to find some alternative Portuguese pastries that you may never have seen before, head to Casa Piriquita in Sintra and concoct your own selection box to eat on the train journey back to the city.
4. Balls of Joy
Between my free hostel meal, a million pastries per day and my street feasting at night, my main other forms of sustenance were dumplings, or bolinhos. Bolinhos de bacalhau, cod dumplings, are the most common and the oddest place to get them from is Casa Portuguesa do Pastel de Bacalhau – they come with their own passport, which is bizarre as the only place they were heading was straight into my stomach. The most delicious bolinhos that I came across though were carne suina, or suckling pig dumplings. I had a few of these at various establishments, even in train stations, and they were always a delight.
5. Cod is Great
I know that I essentially went to a sardine festival but I came back thoroughly believing in cod. I really enjoyed flat, fried cod fritters and many places serve their own version of bacalhau a bras, which is the Portuguese form of kedgeree, cooked with eggs and rice and sometimes served with matchstick fries. Head to Taberna da Rua das Flores for some really special cod dishes, like salt cod or cold cod salad with beans and chickpeas, all washed down with good house wine and traditional pao artesanal de centeio, a sweet rye bread.
6. A Day Out
Even if you’re only in Lisbon for a few days, I thoroughly recommend getting out of the city during the day and heading back in for the street parties, as it is such a well-connected place and the surrounding areas are ace. Spend an entire day in Sintra (make sure you visit the Masonic well) or try heading to one of the bijillion beaches around the city. Using the trains are a doddle.
Sao Antonio takes place in the week leading up to the 12th June every year. Sao Joao in Porto also takes place during the following week on the 22nd June and there are many other festivities around Portugal at this time – these dates were gleaned by locals, so do a bit of research before you go.