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Sardines
09 June 2016

Saints & Sardines

I travelled hundreds of miles to Lisbon, to sit on a wooden bench and eat a very humble meal: a sardine in a bread roll. And once a year, like me, thousands travel to the capital of Portugal – just for the sake of this small, commonplace fish. That’s because, for two days a year, the city goes sardine crazy – and it’s a certainly a spectacle worth travelling to see.

When Simon Heptinstall captained the British travelwriters team on BBC TV’s Only Connect quiz show he humiliatingly scored no points at all. It was yet another memorable milestone in an award-winning writing career that has included being described by Private Eye as “a miserable little squirt”, repeatedly spelling ‘kangaroo’ wrong in a book for Australians and enthusiastically driving a high-speed dog-sled into a tree. In between Simon has become the only person to have worked for both BBC Countryfile… and BBC Top Gear.

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I found families lining the streets in the historic heart of Lisbon, cooking sardines on makeshift grills to sell to all-night revellers. The atmosphere was wonderful as the cobbled alleyways, grand squares and narrow streets of Lisbon were teeming with crowds. If you visit Lisbon at the end of the second week of June, you too can see how locals celebrate the Feast of St Anthony in such a unique and colourful way. It means that the days of June 12 and 13 are one of the best times to stay in the city.

Feast of St Anthony, Lisbon

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Unlike some intimidating street events around the world, you don’t just stand at the back taking photos. At the Feast of St Anthony, it’s easy to join in too. Help yourself to barbecued sardines; they are usually just 1.50 Euro each. Plenty of stalls serve drinks, usually pouring from a big jug of sangria. You’ll find processions across the city centre, amid bunting, lanterns and drapes. Locals dress in traditional costumes alongside illuminated floats. Central districts compete to be the most spectacular and everywhere is the lingering smell of freshly grilled fish.

Around 10pm, the main parade trundles along the main Avenida da Liberdade boulevard towards the Baixa lower town. Afterwards, it’s a great time to wander up from the Baixa by the river, up into the hills either side. On one side are the winding alleyways of the ancient Alfama district topped by the castle walls; on the other are the more stylish streets of the Chiado and Barrio Alto, reached via an elegant 100-year-old wrought iron elevator.

Stylish streets in Chiado, Lisbon

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Up in Chiado, I found most bars and restaurants shut. They can’t compete with the street sellers at festival time. Instead, I stumbled upon impromptu musical performances in the street. You’ll find either the mournful classic Portuguese fado music or the more poppy songs of ‘pimba’. On some streets, people danced; in others they were too busy eating sardines.

The Festival of St Anthony on June 12th and 13th is one of Europe’s liveliest street parties. The night of the 12th is the very best time but the 13th is always a public holiday in Portugal. Locals joke that it’s a holiday because they need a day to recover from the festivities of the night before. I found much of the partying carried on well into the early hours.

Festival of St Anthony

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For someone from the UK, however, sardines are considered a budget fish usually found squashed into tins. How have they gained their semi-religious status in Lisbon? It’s all thanks to centuries of celebrating an obscure legend to do with St Anthony. He is once supposed to have summoned an audience of sardines who poked their heads out of the sea to hear him preach.

A simple grilled sardine with salad and bread is one of the most common meals in this country with a strong fishing tradition. Over time, the Lisbon festival has grown to become a celebration of this typical Portuguese dish.

Time has allowed the festival to branch out in other directions too. Everywhere, decorated chairs are turned into ‘thrones’ for St Anthony. It has also become a celebration of match-making. Single women turn small statues of St Anthony upside down and scribble men’s names on scraps of paper as part of an elaborate mysterious way to help select eligible partners. Men must meanwhile give potential partners a basil plant in a pot. That’s why, in June, you’ll see Lisbon’s shops are full of them.

Wedding in Lisbon

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It sounds nonsense but, strangely, it seems to work. During St Anthony’s Festival you can spot young couples gathering for a multiple wedding ceremony at the cathedral. Couples from poorer backgrounds are allowed to marry for free. For a day they all become minor celebrities and appear on national TV.

Even if you are not a Catholic, it’s fascinating to attend the special Mass on June 13 at St Anthony’s church, built on the site of his 12th century birth, very close to Lisbon cathedral. You may see the prized relic of a bone from the saint’s right forearm kept in an ornate display case. Some worshippers keep another tradition: offering St Anthony’s bread. In practice this means pressing little lumps of bread against a portrait of the saint. Religious families also give special bread to the oldest woman in each family. But if she felt like I did, after a night eating sardines in bread rolls, it’s probably the last thing the poor old lady wants.

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