The smell and the smoke attract us like a magnet. We can’t see them, but there are sardines being grilled over charcoal somewhere nearby. We are in Largo do Chafariz de Dentro, where the Fado Museum is, and the strong smell of the popular deep-fried farturas (a big churro) goes unnoticed due to the overwhelming – and delicious! – smell of grilled sardines everywhere.
During the month of June, all over Lisbon, but especially in Alfama, the city’s oldest neighborhood, popular festivals honoring saints attract many locals, even those who, during the rest of year, never set a foot in the area.
This is the month of Santo António, and the city celebrates its most beloved saint everywhere. Yes, he died in Padua, but he was born near the Cathedral in Lisbon in 1191, and he is the unofficial saint of Lisbon (the official patron saint being São Vicente, who was born in Spain). It’s probably one of the best times to visit Lisbon: The city is vibrant with life, merriment – and sardines.
Beyond the mix of pagan and religious festivities, there are also art, exhibitions and concerts, but most popular are the arraiais, especially in Alfama. These festive, highly decorated parties have pop-up kiosks that serve sardines grilled over charcoal (as well as snails, pork sandwiches or bread with chouriço, the ubiquitous Portuguese sausage). The venues are crammed all over the medieval and narrow streets and tiny squares of Alfama. People of all ages come. In recent years, some kiosks have tried to attract young people by offering drinks beyond the usual beer, wine and sangria – such as caipirinhas, the Brazilian cocktail that the Portuguese have wholeheartedly embraced.
As Teresa Torres, 50, born and raised near Castelo de São Jorge, recalls, “There were always people of all ages in the arraiais, but, unlike now, where there’s partying during all of June, it used be just on the evening and the day of the saint.” The biggest event, though, takes place the night of June 12, the Eve of Santo António (June 13 is a holiday in Lisbon), when Alfama sees huge crowds converging onto its tiny streets. It’s a massive human jam and very difficult to get a sardine – or anything really. It’s as packed as a sardine tin.
“I’ve always preferred the night of São João, on June 23,” Torres says. “Living here, near the castle, the night of the 12th was a bit too much.” She contributes to the traditional children’s “crowdfunding”: asking for a coin from adults in honor of Santo António. “We weren’t shy about asking for coins from grown-ups so we could go and buy some sweets or ice cream. I started when I was about 6, setting up a throne using a chair, with a saint image on it, a towel, flowers and a box, and only stopped at 11!”
This whole festival in memory of Santo António hasn’t lost its religious side and you’ll see the “thrones” honoring him everywhere, in a competition promoted by the city hall. The iconography of the saint is in most kiosks too, as well as in the traditional songs that can be heard live or in loud recordings. Dancing to old tunes like “Cheira Bem, Cheira a Lisboa” happens in the most unexpected places.
“It’s like a Portuguese Mardi Gras!” describes a tourist from Louisiana. And like Brazil’s Carnival, there’s also a competition among the city’s neighborhoods, with different songs and costumes every year. There is less effort put into the choreography here, which makes the big parade of the Marchas de Lisboa on the Eve of Santo António, in central Avenida da Liberdade, less interesting to watch than those of Carnival or Mardi Gras.
Manuela, 60, selling sardines, says, “Marchas are for the young ones. I used to be there with my husband when I was young.” Torres says she started marching as a teenager and kept doing it for many years. She still feels the intense rivalry between Castelo and Alfama.
To experience the whole party it is better to go before or after the craziness that is June 12. Even better would be to go toward the end of June, when the sardines (€1.50 each) are closer to being in peak season and at full size. There’s a popular saying that “in São João is when they soak the bread,” meaning they get fat and succulent later in the month. These little fish became the star of the festival because they were abundant along Portugal’s coast and thus cheap. While no longer as abundant, they are still a favorite summer ingredient.
If you don’t like sardines, there are bifanas (pork sandwiches), entremeada and febras (grilled pork belly and steaks), caldo verde (vegetable soup), grilled chouriço and, for dessert, traditional arroz doce (rice pudding). New this year are more cake and savory kiosks, including Tia Beatriz, which, like many of these small, spontaneous kiosks, sells simple and homemade food. Tia Beatriz sells fatias paridas, similar to a French toast, covered in sugar and cinnamon.
Some arraiais are organized by local associations, but as Torres points out, in this economically depressed area – whose situation has worsened since the crisis and the austerity cuts – this is the time of the year when many families can make some money.
In addition to all the sardines in Alfama, we recommend a few restaurants:
Museu do Fado
The restaurant has a charming terrace where you can enjoy fado singing and Portuguese cooking.
Take the ferry to Cacilhas and walk on the right pier until you get to the restaurant, which offers a lovely setting for grilled sardines and other fish. In the evening, go to Almada and take the elevator Boca do Vento.
This restaurant offers Portuguese cuisine and being in the square is a good location before partying up the hill in Alfama.
Solar dos Bicos
Just a few minutes from Largo do Chafariz de Dentro, this eatery has a terrace where customers can dine on fresh sardines.
A Cabana do Pescador
For a beach location and fresh grilled sardines head to Costa da Caparica. Take the ferry from Belém to Trafaria, then the bus to Caparica. From Caparica get on the small train that connects all the beaches and hop off at Cabana do Pescador.
The full program for the Lisbon festivals can be found at www.festasdelisboa.com/en/