Imagine it’s the 4th of July, Mardi Gras, or New Year’s Eve … only bigger. Because the festivities continue day after day–typically for four days or so.
There’s food and drink, people dancing in the streets. Musicians and merriment. DJ disco. Friends and family who now live elsewhere returning to their homeland and birthplaces to celebrate with drink, games of chance, special lottery tickets and prizes. Often, even a Mass (or two). Albeit in the village’s streets, backyards, taverns, cafés, and church yards, it’s loud, begins late (10:00 PM), and continues through the hours most people otherwise are sleeping soundly..
What are they celebrating?
Perhaps they’re paying homage to a particular saint. Remembering a day from their particular history. Or momentarily singing the praises of Portuguese life.
It’s that time of the year when we see — and hear — a different side of our Portuguese neighbors … as saudade takes a break in the back seat, giving way to saúde.
No matter how small the village — our little Lousa (not Lousã) has fewer than 500 residents — these summer festivals are big events. So big, that the population surges four-fold with people staying with relatives, at their family’s original dwellings despite their delipidated condition, at lodging facilities, even commuting between nearby villages not hosting their shindigs at the moment. It’s nearly impossible to find a parking spot, as vehicles of all vintages, shapes, and sizes double (and triple) park … or are simply left wherever.
Broken beer bottles, plastic cups, and cigarette butts awaken the mornings after to the garish light of another day too hot to deal with overflowing trash bins, as streets become sticky–drunk by grit, gristle, grease, and grime fried by the day’s scorching sun.
Yet these annual festivities are good for the soul and give evidence of a spirit eager to be freed. While it may seem as though we’ve wandered into the midst of a circus or carnival, other days and times are set aside for such events.
Of course, people need time and space to recuperate and regain their wits about them; so late mornings and afternoons are set aside for life’s more mundane tasks. Including sleep. Half-hearted attempts are made to clean up the public areas littered beyond the local bins’ capacity. But much of the time is traditionally spent with family.
In some Portuguese towns and villages — including ours! — the highlight of the doings is saved for near the end: running of the bull(s), an event that involves people running in front of a bull (or small group of bulls) that have been set loose on sectioned-off streets.
Ours is that sectioned off street in Vila Boim, our home in the Alentejo, as the usually dormant bull ring is located at the end of our road.
I guess, like most everyone else on our street, we will need to move our cars.
And stay inside, watching the wild frenzy through our windows.
Portugal has a vibrant bullfighting tradition, but killing a bull is deemed tantamount to murder by some and was outlawed in 1928. The vast majority of Portugal’s population doesn’t watch, go to, or support bull fights. But bull runs are something else entirely. Especially in Sabugal and Terceira in the Azores Islands. I’m told that in Portugal, after the running, the bulls aren’t killed but get a few weeks off because of their bravery. Maybe that’s pure … errrr … bullsh*t, said to appease this American’s loathing of animal abuse.
“It’s not a show! It’s life, it’s partying, it’s adrenaline, it’s conviviality, they are roots that hold us tight to the land that saw us born and to which we return,” insists President Victor Proenca of the Municipality of Sabugal. “The gallantry of the riders, the courage of those who face the ‘proof bull,’ the public’s expectations with each new bull that comes out, the scoundrel who calls to the calf, the nostalgia of the party that ends in the unwinding… this is Capeia, land of passions, strong emotions and feelings that are repeated year after year.”
Bull runs are also the highlight of summer street festivals held in villages throughout Terceira, where the island is big on its bulls since they literally defended the Portuguese island from a Spanish invasion during the 16th century. When King Philip sent the Pedro Valdes to Terceira for a diplomatic takeover, its crew was met by 600 angry bulls and subsequently wiped out.
Here’s how writer Robin Esrock describes the bull running experience:
“For a moment, the huge Bull stops to weigh its options. There are people everywhere, taunting him, laughing, showing no respect whatsoever. There are rock walls, and wooden barricades, and more people on those walls and barricades, exuding a cacophony of celebration. Around the Bull’s neck is a thick rope, held many yards back to several men dressed in white. They’re supposed to condition his movement, but the Bull knows, and they know, it’s more of a nuisance than anything else. A nuisance like the young men who dare to step forward, threaten him with movement from jackets or blankets or hypnotically twirling red umbrellas. The impetuousness! To dare challenge such a beast, so strong and muscled that cows shudder their udders at the sight of him. A young man crosses the imaginary line and the Bull springs forward, horns primed, an unstoppable tank of nature. But the man sidesteps, deftly turning in a circle. Although the Bull is big and fast, it does not have power steering. They play this dangerous game, closely bonded, man and beast, until the man skips away safely to the applause of the crowd. The Bull pauses. He has choices. Should he charge into the crowd to send everyone scattering? Should he trample the man holding a notebook, with his baseball T-shirt and distinctly un-Portuguese appearance? Should he make an unexpected leap over a low wall where many others stand in mistaken safety? Should he turn back down the street toward the pen from which he came? The Bull turns its thick neck toward me, and I am frozen stiff. Reflected in the black orbs of its eyes, I see him weighing his options.”
Back in Vila Boim, as the annual festival wends its way to the end, one final event is scheduled. It’s the closing church service.
I contemplate the irony of bulls running down my street followed by a holy Mass–a communion commemorating the martyred body and blood of their Savior, Christ Jesus.
The next national holiday is the Assumption of Mary, marking the the Virgin Mary’s (supposed) bodily ascent to heaven at the end of her life. Assumption celebrations are accompanied by festivals, colorful street processions, fireworks, and pageantry. “Feasts” aren’t actually required, yet there is a longstanding tradition of blessing the summer harvest.
In 2022, Mary’s assumption is famously celebrated on 15 August.
Bruce Joffe is the publisher and creative director of Portugal Living Magazine, the magazine for people everywhere with Portugal on their minds. Read our current issue and subscribe — FREE of charge — to future ones at: https://portugallivingmagazine.com/our-current-issue