It’s hard not to think of sequined push-up bras and feathered cod-pieces when you hear the word “Carnival” — hell, now it’s hard NOT to think of those things — but you’ve got to remember that Portugal and Brazil are two very different countries.
The boisterous version of Carnaval, as it’s spelled in Brazil and Portugal, has certainly caught on in Lisbon these days as well — here’s a big list of parties this year. But while our friends in Brazil are shaking their hips and shimmying their shoulders drinking icy-cold Brahma beer, the Portuguese in the know are drinking mulled wine and the traditionalists are either running away from crazed wooly caretos from Podence or being shadowed by the more silent wooden mask-wearing caretos in Lazarim. These pagan mascots of fertility are very different, but they come from more or less the same ancient practice. And the best time to catch these characters is on Shrove Tuesday — which falls on March 5 in 2019 — and the Sunday before.
Dating back to the Celts, the caretos are perhaps the oldest tradition alive today in Portugal though for many years the practice became nearly extinct. This ancestral pagan tradition only survived in the mountains and remote regions because it was harder for the Catholic church to get to them once the practice was banned— hard access helped preserve it. After nearly dying out completely, the caretos restarted in the ’90s, thanks to new interest from younger generations, and it has been growing ever since— and now these characters are reclaiming their rightful place at the helm of the Portuguese carnaval.
But what is a careto? Well, in Podence, it’s a masked man wearing a funky handmade suit and a mask made of brass, wood, or leather (usually handed down through the generations). Their costumes are accessorized with a leather belt with at least one bell on it so you can hear them coming before you actually see them. This feature comes in handy if you are a young woman in Podence because you’ll need to know when they are rushing toward you. Those red, yellow, and green caretos will catch you, dance with you, and give you quite a whack to the backside with their cowbells if you get caught.
In Lazarim, the caretos are better behaved and… well, shorter. They’ve forgone the bell-bashing and they’ve opted for the slightly more poetic Venetian approach to carnevale. You can find these miniature mischief makers slowly appearing on the square one by one: posing in front of cobbled stone walls as visitors click away on their cameras, and greeting each other with their oversized, intricately carved wooden masks. Their costumes are made from more agricultural material like burlap, straw, and fabric remnants.
If you visit either site, prepare yourself for a weird and wonderful time. In Podence, you’ll see an effigy of the careto burned to the delight of the public as pagan chants and drum beats sound against the crackle. Afterward, there’s usually a feast you’ll need to attend featuring cozido a portuguesa, a traditional boiled dish of sausage, tripe, cabbage, carrots, and other veggies. In Lazarim, the celebration is more of a daytime affair. A procession of drummers marks both the beginning and the end. In between, you’ll be standing on the main square listening to a funny, inappropriate, and long poetry reading after having chased your last woodland careto away. Don’t miss the CIMI Museum in the center of town dedicated to the carnaval tradition with special attention paid to the craftsmanship of these iconic wooden masks around the Iberian Peninsula.
Our advice? Don’t miss this Tras-os-Montes’ celebration if you can help it. The region itself is chock-full of amazing scenery with hiking trails scattered throughout, and hearty meals to keep you well-fed and energized. Don’t forget to dress warmly, as the temperature can get downright brisk up there. Luckily, the area is known for its beautiful handmade mantas (blankets) with geometric patterns woven in with bright-colored yarn— more often than not, old mantas are used as the base of the careto costume. If you’re looking for a more packable souvenir to bring home, the handmade knives with wooden handles favored by the caretos are pretty awesome as well, so be on the lookout. Several locals in Lazarim line the streets selling crafts that are inspired by the forest and the mythical creatures in it, sometimes to wonderful effect and sometimes a bit creepy. And the CIMI Museum’s gift shop may be small, but it has a great collection of handmade wooden masks — a dependable way to spook any guest sleeping on your couch. Just saying.