“No”, said the people that were kind enough to make reservations for me at the end of my week traveling in the Douro area. “You need to change your schedule and not go back to Porto until Monday. On Sunday, we celebrate the feast of St. Anthony in Lisbon, and you don’t want to miss that.” So I did as I was told and ended up in Lisbon, more than thirty years after my first visit, on the day the Lisboetas celebrate their saint. You see, St. Anthony of Padua, as it turns out, wasn’t from Padua at all: he started his life in Lisbon as Fernando Martins de Bulhões, and after a stint as an Augustinian, he became a Franciscan when he heard about the martyrdom of five Franciscans in Morocco, an event depicted in all its gruesome detail in the church of St. Francis in Porto. He did eventually make his way to Italy and he did die in the city he has become associated with.
Saint Anthony is a big deal in Lisbon. The saint of lost articles is believed to help Portuguese men and women find their mate, and Sílvia Monteiro, the woman who took me around pointed to a motorcade of oldtimers, each with a bride in them, on the way to the church of St. Anthony. That’s where the couples get a blessing, before they walk to the cathedral of Lisbon, right next door, to get hitched. Apparently, the city pays for the dresses of the stars of this parade – they tend to be picked based on their wealth, or rather lack thereof.
In the narthex of the Church of Santo Antônio, people were selling bread. You are to take a piece of bread, wrap a little note with a prayer with it and stick it in the frame of a picture of the saint. It goes back to the legend of a woman whose son was brought back from the dead by our intrepid saint: in gratitude, she donated her son’s weight in wheat to feed the poor.
If you do not yet have a girl to take to the altar, help can be had by buying a terra cotta pot with a green globe of basil (manjerico), often with a (paper) carnation pinned to it: add a little poem for your loved one and hand it to her with a flourish: guaranteed to work (I think).
Of course the best of all the Saint Anthony stories is where he’s walking along the beach in Rimini, thoroughly disgusted with his inability to reach people. As he is muttering to himself the fishes from the sea begin listening to him, lining up to hear him preach: success! And that’s all you need, in Lisbon, to start grilling sardines on pretty much every street corner of Alfama, the old quarter under the cathedral, on the Feast of St. Anthony. Sardines, Sangria, a salad with grilled green peppers: eat it and you will feel that melancholy in your soul that says: if only for a little while, I am now Portuguese.
But wait, there is more in the way of food and religion here: there are the Pastéis de Bélem, the small egg-yolk custard pastries originally created by the monks of the Jerónimos Monastery in Bélem, a suburb of Lisbon and today sold all over the country. The egg whites were used to starch the monks habits, hence the yolk surplus. There is the venerable institution of the Fábrica de Pastéis de Belém, not far from the actual monastery itself, which is a stunning example of the typical Portuguese version of Gothic architecture, the Manueline style. They serve them warm there, and they are spectacular, even if the size of the place and the number of patrons inside do give you the sense of being in a fábrica, a factory. Sure, these things probably make your cholesterol go through the roof, but honestly, they are worth taking a few months off your life.
And finally, a food with a dark religious side: in 1497, King Manuel I of Portugal, the same ruler after whom the architectural style was named, followed his neighbors, Spanish King and Queen Ferdinand and Isabella, as he expelled all Jews from the country. Those remaining had to convert and give up their sinful ways, and one way to demonstrate that they were now part of the team was by eating sausage – pork, that is. So along came the Alheira, a sausage made with a lot of garlic, chicken or game, and bread – a pork-imposter as it were. (Paella, laced with shellfish and sausage, is said to have the same mean-spirited roots.)
With Sílvia, I walked the streets, sipped coffee at Café A Brasileira, bought a drawing showing famous Portuguese author Fernando Pessoa on a donkey at the Livraria Sá da Costa Editora, and a felt St. Anthony from a friendly lady who had set up under a leafy tree on the edge of Alfama. She dropped me after several educational and entertaining hours at the Mercado da Ribeira, a hip, modern market with a plethora of eateries, a cheese and meats shop where I got my Portuguese cheese and giant screens to follow the European Championship soccer games. I enjoyed some delicious cod (I believe it is actually illegal to spend more than 3 days in Portugal without eating the national fish) and a glass of wine before I walked on, in the relentless heat, and made my way to Alfama where, as the afternoon slid into the early evening, I used a few Spanish words, my hands and some creative facial expressions to order my sardines. As the square where I sat, sharing a table with a friendly Portuguese woman and her mom (“your Portuguese is very good – not really”) was getting increasingly crowded, my soul began to feel heavy with each bite of a sardine. The vague sadness that stems from the loss of empire, the notion that centuries past may have been the best of times and the certainty that even with Cristiano Ronaldo on the team, the European Championship was a very, very long shot. For a fleeting moment, on the Calçadinha de São Miguel, I too, was Portuguese.
As I strolled back to my hotel in the early evening, with shadows lengthening but the sun still sizzling, Fado music from speakers tumbling out of sidewalk cafes, I realized it had all been a dream. I was not Portuguese at all, I had to pack for a long drive to Porto the next morning, and the saint of lost articles was a fraud: somewhere in the city of St. Anthony, I had not found, but lost my sunglasses. Maldição! As if I needed a reason to return to Lisbon.