I have this thing for markets. Crowded with tourists and locals alike, among stalls of what not and chickens, you can find treasure, not just in the things set neatly on tables, but in the people themselves – those sweet local vendors who often make their living on what they’ll take home today. The heart of a place, the pulse, the culture. It’s all here, tossed gently into an old woven basket, at the local market.
Barcelos is no exception, although it is exceptional. I felt more alive here than in most other markets I’ve been – more like I was seeing, smelling, and hearing Portugal. As if the air itself in Barcelos is actually infused with all that is inherently Portuguese. It’s one of those places that you breath deeply in so as not to lose it. One of those places I wanted so much to embrace… if only I could embrace each and every person there.
The people. So beautiful. Most of the vendors are old – 70’s, 80’s… may be older. They are small and wrinkled wearing layers and layers on a day that I felt warm in a light jacket. Simple shoes, wooly socks, skirts, sweaters, aprons, scarves around their heads, bright, animated eyes, laughter and smiles. The ladies look like a storybook nonna. Nothing modern, nothing frivolous, yet life in their eyes that implies an interesting story or a shrewd bit of wisdom.
We began near one of just a handful of tables selling cheeses, cured ham, and large brown breads stacked on top of each other. There wasn’t much of this in contrast to the markets of northern Europe. No fresh meat, very few cheeses, not much bread or pastry. The produce comes next under the protection of awnings to keep it cool in the hot sun. The Portuguese say they have “nine months of winter and three months of hell.”
To the left we found terra cotta pottery with simple traditional white designs: flowers, roosters, fish. Some had sayings I couldn’t understand. All pretty and very inexpensive, the weight and my limited cash kept me from going crazy.
A few stands sold the “Barcelos Cock,” a renown symbol of Portugal that originates here in Barcelos. One day, long ago, a pilgrim was on his way to Santiago de Compostela when he was accused of thievery. He protested claiming he was innocent, so the magistrate gave him one chance to prove his innocence. He said that if he was innocent, the rooster (cooked upon the magistrate’s plate) would crow. The rooster crowed (as we found they often do in Portugal), and the pilgrim was freed. Another version replaces the pilgrim with a guest a banquet given by a rich landowner. The cock that crowed for him was not cooked, but alive in a nearby basket (a more likely version?). This rooster is printed on the many linens sold at the market and depicted in the pottery as well.
Clothing, cattle bells, rope, wooden bowls, tools, baskets, toys… the immense Campo da República is alive each Thursday at Portugal’s largest weekly market. A chef’s paradise, walk the simple stalls of tarps and lawn chairs to find inspiration among neatly placed vegetables with roots still covered in the soil they called home, plucked just before their trip to the market. Choose your chicken, duck, or rabbit sitting unaware in a bucket or cardboard box, clucking, twitching noses, looking around with no attempt to fly or hop.
An old lady dressed in black sat under a black umbrella escaping the warming sun. Her vegetables neatly lined the tarp at her feet. A black plastic bucket was filled with eggs. Another woman laughed with a friend at her larger vegetable stand. Her eyes bright blue against her black attire. A man sat by his broken cardboard box with three chickens sitting quietly inside. He waved for me to take a photo. Lovely chickens, ready for a soup, I’m sure.
Choose your variety of chick or duckling and watch as the ladies push aside the large wire cages to uncover the crates of babies below. Hundreds of crated chicks stacked on top of each other in dark crates. Exotic birds are here as well – love birds, peacocks, parrots, macaws.
Exotic cut flowers.
The egg seller sat playing with her rosary beads. She was pale compared to her friends, her face slightly pink and her hair light and curly. She filled her egg crates from a small wicker basket that sat near her feet. She didn’t want her picture taken, holding up a magazine in front of her just after the shutter clicked.
Two ladies sold roasted chestnuts just feet away from each other their fingers black with soot from the charred chestnut skins. They smiled and talked to others walking by.
On one side of the Campo is old town and the Bon Jesus. Two young Gypsy girls dressed in red stood at the door of the church asking parishioners for money as they entered or exited. Two large roosters stood apart in the open plaza there, symbols of their city and country alike. The old buildings touched each other – tall structures with balconies and colorful tile facades. Everything was clean and bright.
We crossed the immaculately kept gardens to find a small cafe. A tiny woman walked by with her market bag balanced perfectly on her head.
There, we soaked up the sun at the outdoor seating where we could satisfy our hunger and watch the people. I had a delicious steak sandwich and the best french fries I’ve had outside of Belgium.
We stopped and got fruit before leaving. I got roosters for the girls – the metal ones labelled “unbreakable.” Got a few linens from a lady who kept rattling the prices over and over again – just 2 Euros, she’d say as if to imply that since they were so cheap, why walk away with just one. I should have listened. Kicking myself now I didn’t get just a couple more.
Before reaching our home in Felgueiras, we stopped at a local grocery store for some milk. I perused the bakery asking the young man who worked there (in Spanish) about the desserts in the bakery window. I took pictures. He talked – a lot. Animated and eager to talk to Americans, Kristi got him talking about American movies. Apparently he owns over 300.
I wandered towards the cheeses looking for one in particular. Not finding it, I turned and took a quick photo of the stacks of dry, salty bacaloa filling several tables in the fish department. Bakery boy didn’t care that I was taking pictures. Fish ladies didn’t seem happy. A minute later I was standing nose to nose with a grumpy young security kid who sternly told me that photos were absolutely prohibited, then proceded to stalk me from a distance peeking from behind the ends of the grocery aisles until I left. Strange. I don’t understand why photography isn’t allowed in a grocery store. Am pretty sure the fish don’t care.
Another beautiful day in Portugal. A pity the trip is almost over.