9 Of the Weirdest Things You’ll See in Portugal

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Last updated on June 4, 2024 | Est. Reading Time: 11 minutes

When most people think of Portugal, they think of the sandy beaches, the grilled sardines, or the picturesque cobbled streets and colourful tiles. It can feel like quite a normal country, but that isn’t necessarily the case – there are plenty of things that are unusual and maybe even downright weird. 

Bone Chapels

A skeleton in Capela dos Ossos, evora
The bone chapel in Évora

Dotted around Portugal (and other parts of Europe) are chapels that are decorated almost entirely from people’s skeletons. The most famous of these “bone chapels” is located in Évora, but you’ll find “capelas dos ossos” throughout Portugal, including Faro in the Algarve. 

An altar at a bone chapel in Faro
An altar at a bone chapel in Faro

Évora’s haunting site, part of the Royal Church of St. Francis, was a creative solution by Franciscan monks in the 16th century to the problem of overflowing cemeteries. Instead of simply relocating the bones, the monks chose to display them, transforming the chapel into a macabre gallery of mortality.

The interior of the Chapel is both chilling and awe-inspiring. Upon entering, visitors are greeted by the remains of approximately 5,000 individuals. The walls, adorned with bones and skulls, remind us of the transitory nature of wealth and life, a message further underscored by the chilling inscription at the entrance. Among the many bones are the remains of the chapel’s founders in a modest white coffin, and more unsettlingly, two mummified corpses suspended from the walls.

Father Antonio da Ascencao’s poem, mounted on a pillar, urges visitors to ponder their mortality and the transient nature of human concerns. Yet, the chapel also offers a message of hope. Phrases above the altar in Latin translate to “I die in the light” and “The day that I die is better than the day that I was born,” suggesting a transcendence or liberation in death.

Visiting Lisbon? Take a day trip to Évora and see the bone chapels with this tour.

Vale de Salgueiro Festival

In the quaint village of Vale de Salgueiro in north-east Portugal, a peculiar Epiphany tradition has stirred both fascination and controversy. Each year, on January 6th, parents in this village permit their young children to smoke cigarettes as part of the celebrations for Epiphany, a Christian festival commemorating the visit of the Magi to the infant Jesus.

This tradition, unique to Vale de Salgueiro, has been defended by locals like Mayor Carlos Cadavez and resident Rui Sergio. They see it as a symbolic rite of passage, marking the emancipation and coming of age of the village’s youth. Historically, smoking a cigarette was seen as a step into manhood for boys reaching their mid-teens.

However, the custom has attracted criticism due to the well-known health risks associated with smoking. Despite this, the villagers maintain the practice, with some children eagerly participating. The practice, deeply ingrained in the village’s culture, seems to perplex even the locals regarding its origins or symbolic meaning.

José Ribeirinha, an author who has written about the village’s festivities, suggests that the village’s geographical isolation has helped preserve this and other old traditions.

The São João Festival

Plastic hammer for Saint John festival in Porto

During the summer months, Portugal hosts a number of festivals, typically tied to saints and other religious figures. Of these, the São João Festival in Porto is one of the most interesting. Here, it’s typical to hit other attendees over the head with an inflatable plastic hammer. That’s right: you can walk up to anyone and do it (although most people just hit each other with a polite tap). 

The origins of the St. John’s hammer can be credited to a local plastics factory owner in Porto. Initially, the plastic hammer was introduced as a novelty item at university graduation parties in Porto, where it gained significant popularity. Its success at these events was the catalyst for its integration into the São João Festival. Since then, the St. John’s hammer has become a quintessential prop for the festival, contributing greatly to the day’s festivities.

Some people don’t carry a plastic hammer, but a flowering garlic instead. Watch out as they’ll try to rub this in your face. 

Festas dos Rapazes

Museu Ibérico da Máscara e do Traje

Originating from early pagan times, the Festas dos Rapazes has evolved into a Christmas tradition in Bragança and surrounding areas. Central to this event are the ‘caretos,’ typically unmarried boys around 16 years old, marking their transition from adolescence to adulthood. 

Celebrated in Braganza and other towns like Vinhais, Macedo de Cavaleiros, and Podence, the festival begins on Christmas Eve, with these boys hosting an exuberant celebration that includes parades, music, dance, and praise. They gather at the Casa da Festa, specially chosen for the occasion, where they enjoy a grand feast prepared by their butlers, chosen the previous year.

Dressed in colorful costumes adorned with bells, tassels, and ornate masks, the caretos parade through the town, creating a festive, carnival-like environment. The careto masks, deeply rooted in Celtic pagan traditions, were historically seen as ritual tools with spiritual significance, linked to ancestor worship and believed to protect the fertility of fields, men, and animals, as well as uphold civic laws and morals.

The handmade costumes, consisting of a hooded jacket and trousers adorned with red, yellow, and green woollen tassels and fringes, are topped with bell-fitted collars and often accompanied by a belt of rattles. These rattles are used to playfully provoke female onlookers, a tradition with similarities to English morris dancing, which also has pagan origins.

A charitable aspect of the festival involves the boys visiting homes to fundraise for good causes before attending midnight mass at the main church. Here, they are the first to kiss the statue of the baby Jesus in the nativity scene. The celebration then continues in the town square with songs, stories, and the festive backdrop of Christmas lights and a tree, tracing its origins to early Germanic pagans.

The festival culminates with a series of tests to select the next year’s butlers for the grand feast. The transition of duties is symbolized by the exchange of hats adorned with a red ribbon. The festivities conclude with a dance, where girls join in, marking the end of the celebration on January 6th, the day of the Epiphany.

Promessas de cera

Wax offerings at a church in Portugal
Wax offerings at a church in Portugal

Visit certain churches in Portugal, as especially Fatima, and you’ll notice wax figures or moulds of body parts left at the church altar. These wax figures, ranging from hands and hearts to the torso of a pregnant woman or a sleeping baby, are not mere souvenirs. They are tokens of religious devotion known as ‘promessas de cera,’ or ‘wax promises.’ 

Typically, devotee’s purchase a max figurine of the body part that needs healing. For example, they would purchase a wax foot if they had a foot injury or illness in that area. In Fatima, where wax body parts cost between €3 and hundreds of euros, depending on the size, it’s typical to toss these into parts into roaring fire pits. As the wax figures dissolve into the fire, they transform into smoke, rising towards the heavens. 

Maios Dolls

A Maios doll from the Algarve
A Maios doll from the Algarve – © DepositPhotos

In the Azores, as well as other parts of Portugal, including Olhão in the Algarve, the arrival of May, particularly the first day of the month (also known as Labour Day), is marked by the distinctive tradition of the “Maios.” This custom, deeply ingrained in the Azorean culture, is believed to have been introduced by the islands’ early settlers. It signifies the onset of summer and is thought to bring luck in the upcoming harvests. Additionally, there’s a belief in some areas that the “Maios” appease the spirits.

The “Maios” are handcrafted dolls that depict various characters from everyday Azorean life. Created from old, disposable materials like rags, these figures are designed to mirror the daily activities and professions of the islanders, such as farmers, fishermen, shepherds, and washerwomen. They also represent other aspects of the Azorean cultural and ethnographic tapestry, including folklore and singers, and often feature in the traditional pilgrimages of the region.

These dolls, however, are more than just representations of daily life. They often serve as mediums for social commentary or satire, sometimes even depicting current societal figures. Once completed, the “Maios” are displayed in prominent places – at the doors, windows, balconies of homes, or in central squares of the parishes, drawing the attention of passersby.

The visibility of this tradition varies across the Azores, with it being particularly notable in the parishes of the islands of Santa Maria, São Miguel, São Jorge, Graciosa, and Terceira. The preservation and continuation of this custom are supported by local town halls, which organize contests, as well as schools and various associations and entities that participate by creating their own “Maio.”

Pimba Music

Pimba music is a lively and distinctive part of Portuguese culture, particularly cherished in rural areas and at festive occasions like summer festivals and weddings. This genre, a blend of pop and folk, embodies a spirit of fun and simplicity, often accompanied by playful and sometimes risqué lyrics. Risqué are not that unusual a custom in themselves, but are a surprising thing to find in a country with a very traditional and conservative Catholic focus. 

The essence of Pimba music lies in its catchy, dance-inducing beat, straightforward lyrics that frequently contain humorous and sexual undertones, and the characteristic sound of accordions and affordable synthesizers. This genre doesn’t aim for seriousness or profundity; instead, it celebrates a light-hearted and entertaining approach to music.

Tracing the origins of Pimba is somewhat challenging, but many attribute the genesis of the genre’s popularity to Portuguese singer Emanuel. His 1995 single “Pimba Pimba” is often cited as a turning point, although the style existed in forms like Quim Barreiros’ 1991 song “Bacalhau à Portuguesa,” which was also filled with double entendres. Emanuel’s song not only popularized the style but also gave the genre its name.

It has never been officially classified as a distinct musical genre, but in Portugal, the term ‘Pimba’ is widely recognised and understood in Portugal. 

Phallic Cakes

phallic cake from Caldas da Rainha
Phallic cake from Caldas da Rainha

As well as raunchy music, Portugal has raunchy cakes. You won’t find these everywhere, but they’re common in at least two places: Amarante and Caldas da Rainha.

doce falico from Amarante
Doce falico from Amarante

In fact, Caldas da Rainha has an entire local industry where they make phallic-shaped pottery.

Small, phallic-shaped pottery from Caldas da Rainha

It’s the kind of thing you would expect to see in Albufeira but not Central Portugal, which is what makes it particularly unusual.

Portuguese Foods

Burras assadas - before and after
Burras assadas – before and after

While most tourists will only ever eat piri-piri chicken and grilled fish, there are one or two unusual Portuguese dishes out there if you look hard enough. 

The most common is probably caracóis or snails. This isn’t that unusual given that other countries, like France, eat them as well. It is a little unusual that the sign indicating that a restaurant or snack bar has snails always has a picture of a happy snail on it. 

More unusual foods include omolete de mioleira, an omelette made from pig brains. Then there’s burras assadas, which isn’t actually roast donkey as the name suggests, but the jawbone of a pig. Tubaros, which are animal testicles, are eaten in the Alentejo and parts of the Algarve. 

Caneja de Infundice is another unusual dish where the fish, a type of shark, is wrapped in cloth and left in a dark, cool place, like a chest or drawer, for two weeks. Some even bury it. Today, only a few fishermen regularly prepare Caneja de Infundice, a dish believed to have originated from a fisherman who accidentally discovered this method of preparation.

Baba de camelo is actually a very simple dessert made from condensed milk and eggs but, weirdly, the name translates to “camel spit.” Don’t worry: the recipe doesn’t actually call for camel drool. 

Can’t get your hands on any of these foods but still want to eat something weird? In Portugal, people traditionally like to eat all of the animal. When eating grilled fish, for example, some people like to eat the eyes. 

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James Cave is the founder of Portugalist and the author of the bestselling book, Moving to Portugal Made Simple. He has visited just about every part of Portugal, including Madeira and all nine islands of the Azores, and lived in several parts of Portugal including Lisbon, the Algarve, and Northern Portugal.

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