It’s not just honey and chestnuts that get a weekend-long festival devoted to them in Portugal. Mushrooms do too, and in November, the ancient hilltop village of Alcaide throws open its doors in creative celebration.
In the run up to the mushroom festival, garages are cleared out, storerooms swept and decorated and backyards tidied and transformed into makeshift bars, restaurants, shops and art galleries. If you’ve ever wondered what lies behind the locked doors and high metal gates in Portuguese villages, here’s your excuse to be nosy.
You can pull up a plastic garden chair to the trestle table in someone’s garage to tuck into a plate of pan-fried wild mushrooms while surrounded by sheaves of drying chillies and shelves of potatoes. Or take a seat on a wooden plank under ancient beams and stone walls to wrestle with a suckling pig and mushroom sandwich as you listen to melancholic Fado music.
If you’re not fussed about tasting míscaros, the wild mushroom that lends its name to the festival, or paying to eat in people’s cellars, just join the queue outside the granite church for a free bowl of mushroom risotto. Don’t worry if you’re not keen on mushrooms; there are plenty of other food options including traditional Portuguese snacks and dishes, and novelties such as black beer ice cream, which is rather tasty.
Culinary fans are free to join the workshops and watch live cooking sessions led by renowned chefs in the main square while adrenaline junkies abseil down the clock tower of the church. Little kids can go for a spin on the wooden, hand-operated merry-go-round.
Arrive early enough and you can go on a guided mushroom hunt. Otherwise, simply wander the streets of Alcaide to discover the ones that villagers have made from cloth, wood, plastic, silicone and umbrellas.
You can also watch José da Encarnação demonstrate the weaving skills he’s honed over a lifetime, whipping the matting around and deftly tucking in the strands of grass with surprising speed.
There are also plenty of drinks available, such as ginja (cherry liqueur) and my favourite, Licor Beirão. After tasting a few of the local tipples, you may get into the swing of things and join the locals in clapping and dancing along to some enthusiastic accordion players as they roam from bar to bar. Or join the crowds in the main square, the starting point for the variety of bands that wander the streets spreading their music throughout the village.
There’s something to suit a range of musical tastes: a brass ensemble, a very energetic one man band, a folkloric group touting square drums, long skirts and headscarves and a Dixieland jazz band who burst into song with “When the Saints go Marching in”.
I don’t know about the saints, but visitors certainly flocked to Alcaide last year, creating a festive atmosphere and appreciating the efforts that the villagers and organisers have put into creating a magical mushroom event. I’m looking forward to this year’s festival already.
Practicalities for visiting the Miscaros Mushroom Festival
The Miscaros Facebook page is the best place to get up to date information about this year’s festival, which usually takes places over the middle weekend of November.
Getting there: A train from Lisbon to Fundão will take just over 3 hours. During the Miscaros festival there are buses every 30 minutes between Fundão and Alcaide until around 1am. If you’re already in the area, there are 3 regional trains a day that will get you to Alcaide from Covilhã and Castelo Branco. Drivers should take exit 28 from the A23 and follow the signs for Alcaide.
Staying there: If you ask around, you’ll probably find someone who’s more than happy to rent you a room for the night in Alcaide but if you’d prefer the comforts of a hotel, Fundão is your best bet unless you’ve got your own transport.
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