In my village, most people just hang plastic sacks or old clothes on sticks in a bid to keep pesky birds off their crops. However, even scarecrows have to dress to impress at a festival, which explains the party clothes and elaborate faces of the exhibits in Coimbra’s 8th annual scarecrow festival.
Some are even wearing crowns, posing as merry kings, queens and princesses. The 42 schools, folkloric groups, charities and other organisations who contributed to the festival let their imaginations run wild.
The royal scarecrows are joined by a black-caped student, a knight, a ballerina, a ladybird and a bee keeper Even the traditional scarecrows with straw beards and maize leaves for hands and feet have been made with care and attention to detail.
One of them even flies! The Passaro (Bird) flaps its great green wings over the foot of the steps that lead from Coimbra’s old shopping street, Rua Visconde Luz, down the side of crumbly little St Tiago’s church and into Praça Comerçio, home of the festival.
Whereas most scarecrows are created to scare birds away from crops, this bird is supposed to frighten humans. It isn’t particularly scary but it’s an interesting twist, if not entirely original; the Our Lady of Fátima crèche and infant school in neighbouring Pedrulha have made a giant crow with strips of black plastic.
Not content with making the Passaro and the student, Coimbra’s Prison Establishment have decided to provide visitors with a bit of history. The year 2011 marks Coimbra’s 900th year as a city following years of battles between the Moors and the Christians. Over the years of Muslim rule before that, Iberian Christians absorbed aspects of Muslim culture, traces of which remain to this day in Portuguese language art and food, and they became known as Mozarabs.
To celebrate Coimbra’s anniversary and the fact that there are always elements of culture that survive war and domination, a Mozarab scarecrow stands poised, ready to receive the city charter from Count Dom Henrique, the father of the first king of Portugal.
There’s more hands-on history to be had in the form of traditional games. I watch as a young boy throws an oversized coin into an angled wooden tray, hoping that it will disappear down one of the three round holes. He misses and his granddad takes the next shot to show him how it’s done. He looks pleased with himself as the wooden coin clatters through the hole into the box below.
Other kids stagger jerkily on primary coloured stilts, the more confident ones manage two or more steps before losing their balance and reaching for the comfort of the ground with their feet.
In the shade of the tall buildings that border the square, donkeys flick away the flies as children dare each other to stroke them. Ordinarily, these beasts would be busy dragging carts through villages but today they’re here to carry excited children on their backs.
Meanwhile, women wearing head scarves and layer upon layer of skirts try to ignore the unseasonably hot weather in their bid to keep country traditions alive. Their home made cakes still taste good, even in the heat.
The festival usually takes place mid-October so keep your eyes open if you’re in Coimbra around that time of year.