The pretty Portuguese town of Tomar is transformed once in every 4 years by the Festa dos Tabuleiros. Festival of what, you may ask? Well, if I said trays or breadbaskets, you might get a clue. I doubt, though, if you could imagine this spectacular feast of bread and flowers. It’s a sight you need to see to understand why it only takes place every 4 years.
Melting in the heat of the crowded street, I began to seriously wonder if this was going to be worthwhile. Down in the Algarve the gentle breezes had made 35C seem desirable, even pleasurable. Here, in Central Portugal in July, a breeze was an unknown quantity. Scrunched into a minute patch of shade, with still an hour to go till the promised spectacle, young and elderly alike were bonded together in a peculiarly Portuguese version of the game of Sardines.
Early on a glorious morning, we had been diverted by well-meaning policemen again and again around the outskirts of Tomar– a city we knew only by reputation. A smile glued in place, I reassured my driving husband that all would be well. Sceptical would barely do justice to his look in response. Yet he gamely abandoned the car, with dozens of others, in an unknown field, and set off to limp in the downhill direction pursued by those in the know (we hoped!)
The limp had been acquired the previous day, and was wholely inappropriate to a day I had been anticipating for 6 years, and which was to be spent largely…you’ve guessed it…on foot! I’d like to say he thrives on adversity, but that wouldn’t be strictly true. On this occasion though, like so many others, he didn’t let me down.
In fact, the foot was almost forgotten, as we absorbed the splendour that is Tomar during the Festa dos Tabuleiros.
I had a plan– of course I did, though they regularly unravel on me. Even for me it was simple enough to find the Tourist Information Office, on Avenida Dr. Candido Madureira, though Portuguese street names are rarely simple. In this case it was the first main street we came to. A bright and smiling young lady issued me with some historical details, together with a map of the route for the procession, in the most beautiful old TI building.
Already wilting in the heat, we were dismayed to find that said procession was not till 4pm. Dismay soon turned to delight, and then astonished wonderment, as we stepped into the riot of paper flowers festooning the streets of the old town. I was no stranger to paper flowers, liberally used at small local festivals in the Algarve. Still I found myself enchanted by the depth and variety of colour, and the imagination that had transformed these narrow streets. Our cameras clicked, clicked and clicked again.
Floral pictures decorated most of the shops and balconies as we headed for the bridge over the River Nabao to the green shade of the Parque do Mouchao. Needless to say we were not alone, and we collapsed onto the first available bench, clutching beer and water, to get our bearings. It would have been an idyllic spot on most sunny days, with bright canoes moored by a tumbling weir.
Temporarily refreshed, we resumed our exploration of the old town, exclaiming and pointing as we made our way beneath petals, softly fluttering on the occasional blessed breeze. Rua da Serpa Pinto is the main, pedestrianized shopping street, with views to the lofty Knights Templar castle. This is dominated by the 16-sided Convento do Cristo. We had gazed in awe the previous afternoon at the elaborate Charola where the Templars had arrogantly attended mass on horseback.
Praca da Republica is the main square, a vast open space currently decked out with seating for town officials to watch the parade. It’s overlooked by Igreja da Sao Joao Batista; cool and serene inside with a huge wedding cake of an altar. We saunter down adjacent Rua de Sao Joao, and Michael spots a tiny sandwich bar. We sit beneath the white and yellow flowers, with much needed water and substantial baguettes for just a few euros, watching the lady owner patiently threading fresh flowers into the door grill.
Time to find a good viewing point along the route. We look at and discard many options- some in full sun, some too busy. My ever practical husband thinks we should be in a position to make a quick getaway. It all becomes too much, so we retreat into a bar for shade.
We finally decide on a spot. Elderly ladies perch on folding stools and smile wearily at me as they edge up to make room. The endless but good natured wait begins. I try to make light hearted conversation in my sparse Portuguese. As the heat builds and the press of people increases, helicopters buzz overhead and ambulance sirens wail.
At last we hear the drums and trumpets heralding the approach, and finally see the tabuleiros rounding the corner. A small miracle of endurance, 400 couples or more parade the streets. The lady carries the 4ft high bread basket, adorned with flowers, on her head, while her partner keeps a watchful eye. Endlessly they stream past us, the crowd quick to praise and sometimes recognise their own.
And then, it’s all over. A quick getaway? No, you thought not! The intention was there, but our way was barred by cars parked end to end on the main thoroughfare. So we joined the collective shuffling, back uphill, in the direction of our lonely field.
Was it all worthwhile? Undoubtedly! But maybe we’d do it differently another time. We had opted to stay in the nearby village of Constancia, a quiet and lovely place at the junction of two rivers. My first choice of hotel, Estalagem de Santa Iria in Tomar, had been fully booked. It might have been better staying in Tomar, for the fireworks and night time atmosphere, and to look more closely at the Tabuleiros. But then we would have missed meeting our genial and hard-working host at Casa Joao Chagas, and the lovely American lady we talked to at breakfast. Not forgetting my delicious quejinhos do ceu, almond confectionry special to the area.
Maybe we’ll go back someday. Tomar is beautiful in its own right. But we’ll certainly never, ever forget the Festa dos Tabuleiros.