Several Portuguese towns and villages celebrate Carnaval, or Mardi Gras, in the week before Lent. Whilst the celebrations usually include decorated floats and samba dancers, perhaps the most intriguing of them all is the Celtic tradition of Caretos, still practiced in the small village of Podence. The tradition involves masked men, dressed in colourful costumes, who run around the village, accosting women and ‘rattling’ them. It is a part of the local culture that we had to see for ourselves.
Podence is a small village located near Bragança, and a 1 hour and 40 minutes drive from Porto, along the A4 motorway. A check of the Caretos de Podence website showed us that the caretos would be doing their thing on Shrove Sunday and Shrove Tuesday, starting at 3.00pm. We decided to visit on the Sunday, and rode our motorcycle there. The fields surrounding the village had been turned into temporary car-parks and were already filling up when we arrived, around 12.45pm. The road into the village was closed and blocked by barriers, but I was able to find a nearby spot to park the bike.
For the period of Carnaval, the entire village is taken over for the celebrations. Buildings are decorated, temporary bars and cafes are set-up, and stalls are erected to sell a variety of products. One of the first sights to greet us was a large model of a careto, set up in a road-side field.
We needed to eat lunch before the caretos appeared, so we decided to eat in a large restaurant tent that had been set-up for the event. The menu featured some local dishes and it looked promising. Unfortunately, it turned out to be a bad choice! The service was painfully slow and poorly organised. We were served an appetiser after about 45 minutes – a nice board of ham and cheese. But we had been seated for over 1 hour and 15 minutes before we got our main courses. I’d ordered the javali (wild boar) cooked with chestnuts. I’ve had this dish elsewhere on a couple of occasions and really enjoyed it. Unfortunately, on this occasion it was over-cooked to the point of being very dry. And there were no chestnuts in sight – just (a lot of) dry meat and some cold, boiled potatoes. Bev had ordered the veal chop. It was huge! It was not over-cooked (medium-rare). But it contained a lot of gristle and was difficult to cut. The accompanying vegetables were also cold. Somehow, our soup course was missed entirely and we couldn’t wait around for dessert. Overall, it was very disappointing. I think we would have had a better experience at one of the smaller cafes further into the village.
With lunch behind us, we joined the crowds that were lining the road, in anticipation of the arrival of the caretos. It wasn’t long before we heard drums and music heading our way, from the direction of the centre of the village. The first to appear through the crowd were some drummers and a bag-piper, wearing masks and costumes with plaid/tartan backgrounds. I hadn’t expected to see bag-pipes but this particular version of the pipes is the gaita transmontana, and it has been part of the local culture since the 18th century. Despite the tartan-like costume, the presence of the gaita is not due to any Scottish influence. Bag-pipes were fairly widespread through western Europe, particularly in Celtic regions of the Iberian peninsula. The sound from the gaita is very different to that of Scottish pipes. It also has less pipes attached to the bag.
Behind the pipe and drums came the caretos, in their brightly coloured costumes. As they came down the road, they approached women and ‘rattled’ them. This entails putting their arm around a woman’s shoulders and then jumping up and down whilst twisting their hips. The hip movement causes the ‘rattles’ (similar to cow bells) on their belts to swing from side to side, making noise. As Bev discovered, those rattles are heavy and hard, so when they hit you, they hurt! But it is all done in good humour. The following two video clips show caretos moving along the road and a careto ‘rattling’ a couple of ladies.
The caretos wear masks that are made of either leather, wood or tin and can be painted red, black, yellow or green. The masks usually have pointed noses. The outfit includes a jacket and trousers that are made from a heavy ‘bedspread’ material with bands of red, green and yellow fringes. The hat (garrucha) also has red, green and yellow fringes and has a tail that extends down the back, below waist level. On top of the clothing is a leather bandolier that has a bell attached. There is also a belt that holds the metal rattles, worn at the rear. The careto also caries a wooden stick.
The caretos made their way up and down the main road of the village a few times. So, wherever spectators stood, they were sure to see them as they passed. After they passed us near the museum, we followed them up the hill and then back down again. After following the caretos for a while, we wandered through the village, looking at the various stalls and the produce that they were selling. This included regional produce, liquers, snacks, masks and toy caretos.
We also paid a visit to Casa do Careto, the small museum at the entrance to the village. Amongst the exhibits was a nice variety of masks – some traditional and some decidedly modern.
We had a nice visit to Podence and enjoyed our experience with the caretos. It was certainly a very different Carnaval experience when compared with the big parade in Ovar, that we attended last year. The Podence experience seemed more traditional and exposed us more to local culture.