Monday, January 02, 2006

Traditional Portuguese New Year.

This year I went to spend New Year’s Eve in the Northeast of Portugal, in the province known as Trás-os-Montes (Behind the Mountains). It started of in the best possible way, with the train ride from Porto to Pocinho. For you underprivileged people who have never done this journey, the train tracks go all the way along the river Douro, frequently so close that you can’t actually see the river bank and it seems the train is skimming on the river. Arrived in the village of Picote, where a huge meal awaited us. After that, there was dancing – bourrés, mazurkas, jigs, chôtisses (scottish waltz) – and four poems, two by António Gedeão and two by Miguel Torga. Midnight was in the village square, with huge fire burning in the middle (half a whole tree), and the chimes struck by the village church. Twelve, of course, as I don’t think the mechanism would cope with the thirteen that were supposed to happen this year. The next day, got up at an unearthly hour for the Festa das Velhas, which is at dawn on New Year’s day. In this, a few men dress up as old women and, with the help of bagpipe players, go around waking up the villagers. In true Portuguese style we arrived late at the village where this was taking place, which was not a problem, as the Velhas started of even later. It was great fun – the leader Velha has his face dirtied with soot and carries around a stick with three blown-up pigs' bladders. On arriving at each house, the bagpipe players wake up the people who live there and when they come to the door, the Velhas do a traditional dance, in which the household can join in. Fireworks are let off at each house, which contributes to the general aim of the tradition, which I believe is to frighten off bad spirits. We followed the Velhas around most of the village before collapsing in the coffee-shop. We still had time to go and see the arribas. These are the river banks of the Douro where it creates the border with Spain. They are very steep, mossy cliffs and unbelievably beautiful. They must be very good for climbing, and one of my friends who was there say that her workmates abseil down them for work to collect blood from some of the birds who nest on the cliffs. Which goes to show that there are also some unbelievable professions in Portugal as well, not just in the UK.
I thought I’d tell this as it requires some careful planning to go and see all this, and combining all that we did again is impossible. Also, who knows how long these traditions, or even parts of the landscape will last!
An online photo-album is being created, will put the link as soon as it comes up.

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