Judging by the number of craft fairs in Portugal, handmade arts and crafts are popular here. Most reasonably sized towns hold at least one dedicated arts and crafts fair, and there are usually a liberal sprinkling of handicrafts for sale at foodie fairs if you’re on the lookout for Portuguese gifts or souvenirs.
Some of the creations may not be my cup of tea but I’m usually impressed and inspired by the ingenuity and craftsmanship on display. Ceramics, wood, stone, leather, glass, metal and fabric are converted into ornaments or utensils. Flower petals, fish scales, pencil shavings and egg shells all get put to imaginative uses as jewellery or artistic decorations.
Some craft fairs, like Poiartes in Vila Nova de Poiares (2nd weekend of September), only last a few days and there isn’t always much advance warning, sorry, publicity. Still, if you keep your ears to the ground, an eye on Facebook, and look out for posters on lampposts and roundabouts, there’s a chance of finding out about them before it’s too late.
Others, like the national arts and craft fair in Vila do Conde, just north of Porto, go on for a couple of weeks, filling the gardens of Avenida Julio Graça with stalls and live entertainment at various points during the day and evening.
You can actually see the artisans at work at most of these craft fairs.
Watch the wooden spoon man flick wood shavings onto an ever-increasing pile on the floor beneath his stool as he whittles away at lumps of wood.
Marvel at the dexterity involved in twisting and moving around to make the lace that Vila do Conde is famous for. The wooden bobbins make a nice clacking sound, too.
Learn how fish scales can be used to make pictures or be fascinated by the amazing things that women from Penacova and Vila Nova de Poiares can do with willow wood.
All that observing is likely to make you hungry but what better excuse do you need to check out some of the regional delicacies on sale? As well as the ubiquitous Serra da Estrela cheese and layers of presunto, you should be able to track down some traditional cakes to snack on or sit yourself down for a full regional meal, depending on the venue.
Whilst every artisan fair is unique, and attracts a different line-up of vendors, I’ve been to several now and I’ve noticed that a few familiar faces, like the wooden spoon man, crop up at different fairs around the country.
I realised this quite recently as I was ambling along the handicraft stalls in Coimbra’s pretty riverside park.
After recognising some woollen capes from Serra da Estrela and the fish scale art, I got quite excited about the possibility of finding the man from São João da Madeira who makes sculptures of animals and flowers from metal and stones.
I’d seen his work the year before, in Vila do Conde, but didn’t have my car or husband with me so I didn’t buy anything as the pieces are too heavy to cart around. Luckily for me, this time I had both Mike and the car with me and we soon found the stall I was looking for.
We are now proud owners of a couple of those stone flowers, which look fantastic in their new stand, a piece of rust-coloured schist from our garden.
If you’re interested in checking out what Portuguese artisans have to offer, here are a selection of fairs in Portugal:
For a mega dose of handicrafts, head to the Park of Nations in Lisbon for the annual International Handicraft Exhibition at the end of June/beginning of July.
Coimbra combines its annual craft fair with a book fair in the park by the river. It’s on for about a week at the end of May or in June. There is also a monthly Urban Craft fair in Rua Quebra Costa.
The National Artisan Fair in Vila do Conde usually runs from late July to early August.
In Estoril, the handicraft fair lasts all summer and can be found just outside the congress centre.
Poiartes in Vila Nova de Poiares is the second weekend of September. Check the municipal website nearer the time for details. The first Saturday of the month sees the municipal market filled with local crafts and second hand goods for sale.