The quiet, unassuming town of Sao Bras de Alportel is a true gem but one that would be easily overlooked for the more bustling spaces of Loule or Faro. This would be a huge mistake, as I discovered when I began delving into the rich history of the town and, in particular, its the famous Festival of Flower Torches.
Located in the hills further east of Loule, Sao Bras greets you with typical white houses adorned with stunning tile work and iron balconies, which give a glimpse into the importance of this area in days gone by. The town was hugely prosperous when the cork industry was booming, and Sao Bras was one of the largest producers in Portugal. A visit to Eco-Fábrica de Cortiça Francisco Carrusca (eco-corkfactory.com) is fascinating and the guided tour makes sure you know all there is to know on the subject.
The town boasts a remarkable history – it has been home to the Romans and all periods since then, and remnants from the earlest days have been discovered over the centuries. A visit to the parish church, Igreja Matriz de São Brás de Alportel, is a must. Inside you will find a marble altarpiece which is unusual in Algarvean churches and behind the building sits a small alleyway leading to the Calcadinha Romana, the ancient roman road which was discovered during an archaeological programme.
You could easily spend your day in the town exploring the fascinating Algarve Costume Museum or at one of the many events staged by the Amigos do Museu at the Museu do Traje – there are regular classes and workshops, art and photographic exhibitions and a full programme of concerts. This place is also home to the workshop of the famous Palmas Douradas, where Maria Maria João Gomes makes and sells the most stunning pieces made by hand from local palm leaves. The town boasts its fair share of coffee shops and pastelarias, weekend street markets, a great municipal market, and some shops that alone are worth the visit – a favourite is Ange Boutik for Portuguese goods including ceramaics, leather goods and a wonderful range of soap products.
However on Easter Sunday, Sao Bras is a very different place when it celebrates the annual Festival of Flower Torches. The usually calm streets are paved with breath-taking arrangements of flowers, exquisite carpets of petals that run through the centre of the town. This religious celebration is in honour of the Resurrection, and the procession is a distinctive show of faith and happiness. The balconies houses along the route are hung with bright bedspreads and blankets in order to catch good luck from the parade as it passes.
This type of procession was once a common site in the vilages of the Algarve when men would carry torches or lanterns, and choirs would sing to celebrate the return of the Lord. As the years have gone by, the festivities have changed format in many places, but Sao Bras de Alportel has kept the beauty replacing the burning torches (it is said due to the shortage of wax years ago) with elaborately-decorated hand-held flower displays, carried by the men of the town as part of the procession. There’s considerable competition here, with family-made flower-torches getting bigger and bolder every Easter.
Leave the church, the procession follows a fixed route. One man in each group shouts out ‘Ressuscitou como disse!’ ( “Risen, as he said). and the walkers halt, turn to face each other and raising their ‘torches high chsnt ‘Aleluia, Aleluia, Aleluia’.
The flower carpets which line the route of the procession are the work of over a hundred volunteers who pick pick and prepare three tonnes of flowers and begin their decoration construction in the early hours of the morning on Easter Sunday. The festival begins at 9:30am when the streets are opened for people to wander and take in the visual delight of the hours of hard work and dedication laid out before them. 11am sees the beginning of the procession, which begins and end at the Igreja Matriz.
The churchyard houses the Sounds and Flavours event for the afternoon which is a cultural dream for anyone wishing to learn more about the Algarve and its inhabitants. Local musicians play for the crowd, and this joyous social occasion carries on into the evening. Regional sweet treats are on offer all day from the street sellers gathered in the square, and this is the ideal opportunity to sample some typical items such as folares, almonds and carob sweets. Immerse yourself in the wonderful and inviting atmosphere that this special day creates and you will be desperate for the Festival of Flowers next year!
If you are interested in helping prepare for the Festival, contact the Associacao Cultural Sambrasense at firstname.lastname@example.org
Words: Laura Shea @laura_loves_travelling2021