Festas de Lisboa – The Santo António Sardine Festival

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This weekend, the historic streets of Lisbon come alive with music, parades, and the smell of grilled sardines. Festas de Lisboa culminates on the eve of St. Anthony’s Day. Anthony is Lisbon’s patron saint born around 1190 where the Sé now stands. On his feast day, downtown becomes a huge outdoor party and everyone is invited! Colorful garlands and streamers criss-cross overhead and potted basil decorations hang from balconies and store fronts as crowds climb and snake their way through the narrow cobblestone streets of the Alfama.

The soulful melancholy sounds of fado mix with lively folk music. Tables and chairs cluster next to smoking grills outside restaurants or beside food truck vendors. Everywhere people eat sardines served on traditional bread. Super Bock taps flow and vats of sangria and wine are consumed as people eat, drink, and make merry.

Some revelers get into the spirit of the festival by wearing green curly basil plant wigs. Basil is a symbol of affection and little potted basil plants with poems attached are delivered to loved ones during this time. The Marchas Populares (popular marches) parade down Avenida da Liberdade and spectators squeeze close together to see the ornate and colorful costumed dancers and bands. Each neighborhood tries to out do the others in costume, float, and song. Finally, the Brides of St Anthony with their grooms in tow beam as they promenade in their wedding gowns down the avenue. St Anthony is the saint of lost and found as well as an esteemed matchmaker. Free mass marriages take place on this feast day.

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You may be thinking this all sounds like great fun but why are thousands upon thousands of sardines consumed on this day?

Legend says that one day St. Anthony was preaching in an Italian coastal town. His sermon was falling on deaf ears and in annoyance he announced that he would preach to the fish instead. Lo and behold the fish came close to shore to listen. People celebrate this miracle by eating fish 🙂

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