Whenever I stand on ancient castle walls, I find myself trying to imagine what life was like when the castles housed royalty and their grounds contained thriving marketplaces buzzing with people, produce, livestock and flies.
When I visit Óbidos during its annual medieval fair, however, I don’t need to stretch my imagination very far at all. The sights, sounds and even some of the smells of days gone by are all around me, with a few welcome nods to the present such as deodorant.
As usual when there’s a festival on, Óbidos’ main cobbled street is a steadily flowing river of people heading to and from the castle, pausing occasionally at souvenir shops and ginja (cherry liqueur) stalls. Unlike at other festivals, a fair sprinking of these people are wearing long, flowing robes or tatty trousers and tunics made from sack cloth and animal skins.
Medieval wenches wear white cloth caps or sport garlands of dried flowers in their hair to set off the tight bodices and floor-length skirts of their costumes. Their cigarettes, trainers and sunglasses aren’t exactly in keeping with the image but I can appreciate the need for comfort.
I’m almost tempted to hire a gown myself but as there’s no one with me to share the silliness, I decide to save that experience for another year and head for the castle.
Once I’m past the caged skeleton that dangles above the stone archway and into the castle grounds, I’m impressed. The paths are lined with wooden market stalls, timber and adobe medieval houses, canvas tipis and piles of straw. An old man with weatherbeaten skin and few remaining teeth adds authenticity as he limps around, trying to tempt young children to ride his equally haggard looking donkey.
As well as some of the tourists, everyone working at the festival is in period costume and actors have been paid to mingle with the crowd, scaring the unsuspecting with their fake oozing wounds. Knights in chain mail and helmets mingle with monks, blacksmiths in leather and furs, lords and ladies and serving girls. I begin to regret not going for the gown. Those who are in fancy dress appear to be having a great time, especially one couple who take every photo opportunity going, posing on wooden racks and joining the kids in putting their heads through the stocks.
I console myself with a cup of sangria, which is super sweet thanks to the added ginja. For €2, I get to keep the ceramic cup, meaning I only have to pay €1 for refills. I find a space on the banks of concrete steps rising away from the stage to watch a sword fighting display.
The troupe perform chants and rituals before breaking into mock fights, complete with grunts and metallic clangs and scrapes. I lose interest when the only female swordfighter resorts to kneeing her opponent in the groin. Looking at my programme, I make a note to skip the falconry display but to try and make it back for the comedy and the band.
They’re both worth it. The comedy, although in Portuguese, is very visual and two travelling ‘healers’ drag a young man out of the audience, slice him up and pull all manner of strange things from his stomach. The audience is in stitches.
It’s getting quite chilly by the time the Celtic rock band, Albaluna, come on but the enthusiasm of the drummer and the head banging rock god lute player is enough to make me stay and shiver through their performance. The dancer makes balancing swords on her head appear effortless and the tiny bells around her ankles tinkle as she moves.
Here’s a video of Albaluna playing in the streets of Óbidos during the 2011 festival.
I spend a happy few hours strolling around in the sun watching people play until the smell of freshly barbeqeued meat beckons me to the food court. There’s plenty on offer, from hearty soups to hunks of spit-roasted pork stuffed into bread rolls.
My attention is caught by a team of women making pão com chouriço (bread with sausage). One woman mixes flour, water and salt into a dough, the next kneeds it for a while before passing it on to be torn into bun-sized lumps. Meanwhile, another woman slices the paprika flavoured sausage. The next woman places a few circles of meat inside the dough, folds it up and places the rolls on a baking tray which another woman slides into one of the wood burning ovens behind them.
I join the rather long queue to buy my first ever pão com chouriço and am soon tucking into hot, freshly baked bread which is stained orange in places from the melted fat of the sausage and tastes delicious.
Even if it isn’t authentic medieval fare, this alone would be enough to make me come back to Óbidos for more and I fully intend to do that. Next time, I’ll bring my husband, get dressed up and maybe even sign up for the special medieval banquet.
To find out for yourself what the medieval fair is like in Óbidos, check out the official website for more details.
See how Óbidos could form part of a self-drive itinerary to discover Central Portugal.
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