The last thing I expected to see in the grid of shopping streets in Lisbon’s Baixa district was a couple of men in hessian suits wearing blood red devil masks. They weren’t alone, either. A very odd couple with distorted, bubble gum pink faces danced past me and the other bemused onlookers to the beat of the drums of a marching band. We had unwittingly stumbled across the annual Iberian Mask Festival, one of many weird and wonderful events in Portugal.
As the booming and banging of the drums began to fade away, the jangling and clanging of bells became louder and louder as the people who were wearing them around their waists came into view. I can honestly say I’ve never seen more ridiculous costumes; as if the white bobbly tights, and white skirts with rows of fluffy pom poms weren’t silly enough, the hats depicting an Iberian animal took the biscuit.
Once it seemed that the flow of bizarre costumes and masks had dried up, what else could we do but follow them, like the Pied Piper, to find out what they were up to. Praça do Comércio was teeming with colour and sound as groups of people, mainly from north and central Portugal mixed with a smattering from Spain, gathered at the end of the procession.
The reason? A festival to celebrate and show off the wonderfully weird masks from around Iberia. The festival lasts for several days, with traditional dance displays and regional food, arts and crafts on offer. And why not?
The street parade was certainly an unexpected highlight of our trip to Lisbon. If you can get there for the first weekend in May, you could be in for a similar treat.
If not, there are other opportunities to see these traditional Portuguese costumes, such as the Mask Museum in Bragança. If you’re in the north of Portugal at Lent, look out for the cavorting Caretos of Podence or head to the village of Lazarim for some spectacular carved wooden masks.
Practicalities for attending the Iberian Mask festival
The stalls and stages will be set up in Praça do Império in Belém from 4th to 7th May and the full procession will brighten the streets from 16.30 on Saturday, 6th May. Have fun, and don’t forget your camera!
Here’s a link to the programme for the 2017 Iberian Mask Festival.