Every four years, the pretty town of Tomar in Central Portugal hosts a unique festival. Festa dos Tabuleiros means Tray Festival but it’s what’s on top of the trays that matters. Local women support the weight of several feet of bread and flowers on their heads as they parade through the streets of Tomar in the July heat.
It’s no mean feat judging by the look of concentration and sheer determination on these ladies’ faces yet they still manage to wear a smile.
Read on to find out what to expect if you’re planning to visit the Tomar Tray Festival.
Or check out other festivals in Portugal in this post.
Origins of the bread and flowers tray parade in Tomar
This bizarre and colourful festival dates back to the reign of Dinis, King of Portugal in the late 13th and early 14th centuries. He and his Queen, Saint Isabel, established the celebration as a way of showing their devotion to the Holy Spirit.
Those involved in the preparations for the festival integrate symbolic elements into the towers of paper flowers and bread, called coroas (crowns). Look out for ears of corn or wheat, Templar crosses and doves.
Some of these elements can also be linked to the veneration of Ceres, the goddess of flowering plants and fertility.
Traditionally, a tray is as tall as the woman who carries it. This often entails around 30 loaves of bread, weighing around 400 grams each, i.e. 12 kilos, not to mention the basket and the items needed to hold the tower of bread and flowers in place.
I can’t see me volunteering for this task any time soon, not that I’m likely to have such an honour bestowed upon me.
Nevertheless, I saw girls and women of all ages proudly carrying their coroas.
When do the Tomar tray festival activities start?
Given the amount of work involved in decorating the trays and the streets of Tomar, it’s not that surprising that this festival only takes place every 4 years, with 2023 being the next event (July 2nd to July 10th).
Once Tomar is in full festival mode, the streets of the historical centre are adorned with handmade paper flowers and brightly coloured blankets draped over balconies. If you happen to live in the Tomar area, you may like to volunteer to make some of these decorations – ask around to find out how.
During the festival itself, there are various processions, including one for the boys (Cortejo dos Rapazes) and another that I understand involves ox-drawn carts, horses and carriages (Cortejo do Mordomo).
Until 1966, this Cortejo do Mordomo used to be a procession of bulls and cows which would then be slaughtered and their meat shared out among the local community.
These days, their inclusion is merely symbolic, although local butchers’ shops contribute to the traditional distribution of food to the needy which takes place on the very last day of the festival (Distribuição do Bodo ou Pêza).
You can be pretty certain that there will be live music in public squares in the evenings and a general air of jollity.
The main parade of the Festa dos Tabuleiros in Tomar
The main event takes place on the Sunday afternoon, usually at 4 pm. The trays are on display in the park behind Praça Infante Dom Henrique the day before and throughout the Sunday morning.
I had hoped to get into the park to take some photos but by the time Mike and I arrived in Tomar (about 3 pm), the gates were already shut so that the final preparations, i.e. heaving the trays onto the women’s heads, could be made without disruption.
The streets were also cordoned off and people had nabbed their place on the pavement, steps and roundabouts long before we arrived. This festival attracts coachloads of people from all over Portugal so expect crowds, and people picnicking in car parks.
Tip: If you want to be sure of a good viewing position, you’ll need to show up several hours before the scheduled time, armed with a portable stool, sun protection and supplies of refreshments.
I managed to edge my way towards the front of the railings and, wholly unprepared for standing around in the hot sun, used my scarf to cover my head and face while the crowd waited for things to get moving.
As is usual in Portugal, 4 pm came and went with no sign of flowery trays but eventually, the gates opened and the brave, strong women, each accompanied by a male partner to make sure their tray didn’t fall off if they wobbled or got too tired, filed out to form two lines.
After posing for photos, they were then able to begin their journey down the main avenue and through the streets, accompanied by a marching band and standard bearers.
Once we lost sight of the procession, Mike and I made our way back to the car in order to get a head start on the exodus since we had stopped in Tomar just to see the parade on our way back from a longer trip.
I imagine that the festivities continue for the rest of the day and evening so you might want to consider staying overnight if you can get a room (see below).
Other reasons to visit Tomar
Even if you can’t get to Tomar for the tray festival, there are plenty of other reasons for visiting. The UNESCO World Heritage Convent of Christ is the main one.
This hilltop monument was built in the 13th century as the headquarters of the Knights Templar, Portugal’s Christian warriors. King Manuel added his own Gothic embellishments in the 16th century and it is a wonderful place to spend a couple of hours.
Tomar’s historical centre is small and attractive, especially between the river and Praça da República. There are a few other notable sights, including the quirky matchbox museum and the Jewish synagogue, and it is a great place in which to wander or sit in a street café and watch the world go by at a very leisurely pace.
If you plan to spend the night in Tomar during the festival, you should book something as soon as possible. See what’s still available on Booking.com
Getting to Tomar
Tomar is served by trains and buses if you don’t have your own transport.