Carnival is one of the most expected annual festivities in Portugal! Portuguese towns such as Ovar, Loulé, Nazaré or Torres Vedras are known for being the epicentre of the most extravagant Carnival parades in Portugal, attracting thousands of visitors from all over the country. But there are several other famous carnival celebrations in Portugal, many of which are deeply rooted in century-old traditions, offering a mix of pagan and religious rituals that Portugal honours with pride.
Among the oldest Portuguese Carnival traditions, one of the most original is in the village of Podence, in Macedo de Cavaleiros, where the famous "Carnival of Podence" takes place every year with its characteristic masked "Caretos" and four days of celebrating.
Caretos of Podence - "Portugal's Most Genuine Carnival"
Considered "Portugal's Most Genuine Carnival", the Caretos of Podence celebration was one of the many ancestral Portuguese winter solstice festivities that took place in the northeastern Trás-os-Montes region.
The rituals performed during the Podence festivities were associated with the celebration of the end of winter and the arrival of Spring, but also a rite of passage for single men from the village.
However, customs and habits have changed with time, and today the Podence Carnival is a festive moment for Portugal to share with the world.
The Caretos' traditional costume and symbolism
Considered "devilish" characters, the Caretos' colourful costumes and mischievous behaviour represent the euphoria and joy after the cold winter months and the beginning of the coming Spring, a symbol of fertility and rebirth.
As in the past, the Caretos hide their identity by wearing a mask with a protruding nose, made of leather, brass or wood, and painted red, yellow or black. Their costume is made from quilts and adorned with long bangs of wool or other fabric, mostly coloured in red, yellow and green.
The traditional Careto costume also includes rattles and small cowbells, usually worn on the waist, and a hand-held long stick made of wood.
During the three days of Carnival, which include several celebrations that start on Saturday and last until Carnival Tuesday, the Caretos roam the streets, taking part in fake weddings, plays, parades and visiting the town's taverns and traditional markets.
The anonymous Caretos do all sorts of pranks, while dancing to the sound of traditional Trás-os-Montes music. From jumping around the crowds while ringing their bells to invading taverns and stealing wine.
One of the most peculiar traditions involves the Caretos banging their cowbells against women while rhythmically moving their hips. Linked to old fertility rites, the Caretos do this as a blessing to grant women fertility.
Although their "naughty" behaviour may seem intimidating to an outsider, the locals embrace it as part of the Carnival fun! Portuguese people rarely take them too seriously and don't mind their pranks.
Nowadays, men are no longer the only ones allowed to wear the Caretos costume. Women and children as young as five also dress up and participate in this festivity with friends and family members. The association Grupo de Caretos de Podence considerably boosts opportunities for this ancient tradition to continue!
During the year, only a few restaurants are open in Podence and there is not much to do around the area. However, the small village comes alive during Carnival, attracting people from all over Portugal to witness this unique tradition.
If you'd like to visit Podence during this special time of the year, don’t worry about finding a place to eat! Local restaurants and bars are open, serving delicious regional dishes such as the "alheira" (a traditional Portuguese sausage made with bread) and "posta mirandesa" (a delicious steak made only with the authentic Miranda do Douro cattle breed).
You can also discover the Podence gastronomical festivals that usually take place during this time of the year.
Other things to do in Podence during Carnival include:
Visiting "Museu do Careto", a museum dedicated to the Caretos of Podence;
Walking around village to see its fabulous murals;
Enjoying the tourist attractions that the Municipality of Macedo de Cavaleiros organizes every year during Carnival, such as the "Baloiço do Careto" swing, exhibitions, etc.;
Discovering the protected landscape of Azibo, including Praia da Pegada and Praia da Ribeira.
And don't forget the famous Portuguese saying: "Esta vida são dois dias e o Carnaval são três" — meaning "we only live for two days but Carnaval lasts three!" so enjoy it while you can!