On summer Sundays and paper suits

It’s a summer Sunday in Porto. A logical move – going for a stroll along the oceanfront. Living in a city by the sea, one can hardly think of nicer way to spend a sunny weekend morning! So, here I am in the neighbourhood of Foz, where the river meets the ocean, and which, within the city, has a distinct cultural identity. Foz is among the most desirable locations to live in Porto, and those of us whose residences are elsewhere love coming here over and over again, for strolls, festivals, gastronomy or nightlife.

This Sunday, it seems all the city strollers decided to unite: the streets of Foz are turning into rivers of people! And it seems the strollers have taken over the roadway, too, as cars cannot pass.

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Hmmm, what might this be all about?

People line up in the shade along the sidewalk, and the music starts. I approach, too, with my camera ready to register this curious event I stumbled upon. And here they come: dozens of ladies and gentlemen, bishops and kings, children, maids, fishermen and their wives, in a parade that revives local traditions, ways of life, monuments, and reminds of prominent people that marked the history of Foz.

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As if we have gone back in time: they are all dressed in beautiful, elaborate, colourful, sometimes even theatrical clothes from the epochs long gone.

The parade doesn’t seem to be very disciplined: here and there, participants step out to wish a good day to a friend or to take a photo or two for their family albums. Quite a few approach to greet an elderly lady who has chosen a nice, shady spot right next to me. Being the participants just steps away, I realize: those wonderful dresses and suits, all the equipment and details, even their shoes, are all made of paper!

I find out that I am in the middle of the celebrations of St. Bartholomew, traditional of Foz, and that the paper suit parade happens to be their highlight. Some claim the tradition is over a 150 years old, others say that it goes just 50 years back, and that it became constant from the early 1990s. I won’t be investigating much into the dispute: maybe it is for the best not letting the truth get in the way of a very nice story!

The parade ends in the sea, but not all the participants dare to have a swim. Despite it is late summer, the ocean is unpleasantly chilly. The bravest ones dip in the ocean in their paper suits until they fall apart.

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This summer day in Porto remains so unique and memorable: the parade theme and the paper suits will be reinvented over and over in the years to come, yet in my mind there is nothing ephemeral about this Sunday.

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The Light of Lisbon

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There is something special about the light of Lisbon, something magical and inexplicable that has always enchanted artists, writers, poets, ordinary Lisboetas … as well as the rest of us who have been visiting the city. But how to explore, grasp and understand that magic (without killing the charm), how to explain and present such a complex, subtle, intangible feature in a museum?

An excellent (and still ongoing) exhibition, “The Light of Lisbon”, was created this summer, based on love for Lisbon and an combined artistic and scientific approach to the phenomenon of light. As such an unusual exhibition theme requires unusual collaborators, one of the curators was a physics professor, while another came from the area of film and cinema. The space: western tower of Terreiro de Paço, recently acquired from the military authorities and converted for cultural purposes, overlooking the Tagus river and the main city square.

The exhibition cannot be put neither in a scientific nor in an artistic box: actually, the secret might be in the fact that the rational, emotional and the experiential side to the exhibition worked so well together. All my senses were captivated! Pieces of art from the Museum of Lisbon collection (some of them have never been displayed before), poetry that could be listened to, the museum space with windows wide open, letting the view gaze towards the cityscape at times and the very light in question pour in, all that acted in a synergy. Light is a dynamic and changing phenomenon – wonderful timelapses from the very museum roof and the films displayed capture that very well.

And so, it is proven: the materials Lisbon is built of, the colours of its façades, frequent winds that clear out the air, the number of sunny hours, topography, reflections from the water surface, and the interplay of so many other factors have their role in enabling the particular Lisbon light. There are many complex but measurable features to it! Still, for science there always remains an inexplicable bit. As “The Light of Lisbon” shows, its magic and its sense can only be grasped and transmitted completely by bringing art, intuition and experience into play.

Photo credit: Nuno Cera, 2008

“Porto Desconhecido”

What’s heritage without the actual people it is meaningful to? What’s tradition if it isn’t a living thing reinforcing one’s sense of identity and belonging?

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These were the questions that came to me naturally after the “Porto Desconhecido” exhibition and conversation some weeks ago in the Soares dos Reis museum. “The unknown Porto” made public some local stories, memories and customs thanks to a number of caring stakeholders – common people, young and old, who worked together in representing their traditions (celebration of the day of Saint Rita in São Nicolau neighbourhood in Porto) in an animated film, as much as the people from cultural institutions who came up with the idea, gathered the stories at various points in Porto and organized the logistics.

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The conversation was meant to contextualize the activities done and inform on the work, gathering museum experts and other participants at the stage: acknowledging that both parties were equally important for the success of the project! After the short film projection, it was endearing to see the exhibition, with pieces of scenography created with love and care for the city and its traditions by São Nicolau social center users.

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Bonding the people between each other and with their city, as well as unpretentiously reminding us, the observers, of what living heritage values are, that was the message of “Porto Desconhecido”.

The Almalagues experience

A little while ago I undertook a study trip to Almalagues, a village near Coimbra. The journey was wonderfully organized by my colleague, Antonio João, who has a special interest in this place: his research is dedicated to the Almalagues weavers.

For me, this trip was an exciting encounter with living intangible heritage, since Almalagues has been an important weaving center for centuries and the tradition has still been maintained, even if on a much smaller scale. The museum in the center of the village is more of a meeting place for local craftsmen and other inhabitants. It’s principally their home, with the door open for the rare visitors aside. A guest like me not only could pass by freely, but also could touch and try everything, taste a few local drinks and ask questions on “how it once was”. Or how it still is for some! A home is more proper word to describe this place than a museum, as their target group are the hosts rather than visitors, as we were received just as we would be at someone’s home, and as… it looked like one! Someone’s grandparents’ home, to be precise.

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The weaving room was that one particularity of an Almalagues home that made their everyday life so special.

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A number of beautiful, thick, textured pieces displayed are for sale – they come with a price tag, though. But hey, doesn’t our consumerist world need to rethink the matters of quality, duration and meaningfulness? Don’t those Almalagues pieces also have a whole collective memory woven in?

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If anyone has a doubt about those rhetoric questions, I’d recommend to experience the weaving process themselves, to feel the level of patience, creativity and physical force needed for this job. I was lucky to try it, and from that moment my respect for these wonderful makers grew exponentially.

So, best of luck, Antonio João! Your mission is bigger than Almalagues and touches more general contemporary values (or lack thereof). And I am sure that the weavers are here to stay!

The Portuguese Life

What to bring home as a remembrance of a trip to Portugal? When it comes to souvenirs, a proper cultural tourist would, of course, aim at finding items of genuine Portuguese origin, typical and informative of local tradition and cultural identity. But where to look?

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In the heart of Porto, there is a very, very special shop, or more than that: A Vida Portuguesa (“The Portuguese Life”). Thanks to the effort of Catarina Portas (1969), a journalist and entrepreneur from Lisbon, A Vida Portuguesa offers to the public a carefully selected collection of objects of importance for understanding Portuguese spirit, thus playing, in a certain way, a role of a museum beyond museum walls. It is interesting to mention that Catarina Portas is a daughter of a well-known architect Nuno Portas (1934), who has had a significant role in promotion of Portuguese architecture abroad. A Vida Portuguesa even has a manifesto – their main goal is to “reveal the soul of the country”, based on enabling future for old Portuguese products. The first shop was opened in 2007 in Lisbon, and the one in Porto is of more recent date.

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A great thing that they do in A Vida Portuguesa is establishing partnerships with a number of factories from all around the country, to revive ancient and beloved brands that were once part of local everyday. Many of them come from Porto and its vicinity, ranging from the finest soaps produced by “Ach Brito”, hygiene and cleaning products by “Couto” or pencils by “Viarco”, to a vast array of local foods and wines.

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Not only is the collection found in this distinctive souvenir shop informative for tourists who wish to learn about the past and the contemporary Portugal  – it is also valuable for the Portuguese themselves, to refresh memories of “the good old times” or to return, at least for a moment, to beautiful, carefree worlds of their childhoods. An untranslatable term saudade immediately comes to mind as one of the well-known keywords to understanding this country: a nostalgic feeling of longing and endearing remembrance of something or someone being missed (may it be a person, object, experience or epoch), that might never come back.

Some might suspect this initiative is just a consequence of the global trend – idealization of the past and its values in the turbulent and globalizing epoch of ours. A market niche that has emerged inspired a commercial response in form of “selling nostalgia”. However, my impression is that past and nostalgia are still truly embedded in everyday life of the Portuguese. And that can be felt strongly throughout Porto. Not only the immense number of antiquity shops, velharias (vintage item shops) or alfarrabistas (antiquarian bookshops), but also all the many lively shop windows, nameplates and interiors of cafés that didn’t change a bit over past decades, convince me I am right.

The Portuguese Life Manifesto and the photos come from: www.avidaportuguesa.com

Sivan Askayo’s trips

Recently I discovered an amazing, artful travel blog of Sivan Askayo, a photographer from New York/Tel Aviv. She has a dream job – traveling and photographing for the world’s most renowned magazines. But traveling is more than that for her: it is “a state of mind”, she says. From Portugal, there are photos and impressions from Aveiro, Coimbra, Lisbon (a lot) and, of course, from Porto.

She also pursues some personal projects, like this, named “Intimacy under the wires”. None of these photos are from the streets of Porto or Lisbon, but they could easily be depicting everyday life of the Portuguese cities!

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Here is the link to her blog: http://sivanaskayoblog.com/?s=portugal

Now I have the photo-guides to Aveiro and Coimbra!

 

A hat tip to a hat factory. And what do hats have to do with pencils?

São João da Madeira is the smallest of 308 municipalities of Portugal by area. However, it’s great in terms of industrial tourism and also quality of life, according to the latest studies conducted here. As for the industrial tourism, I checked that myself!

The town has a number of industrial facilities, and in 2011 the municipal authorities decided to share that with the world by creating the industrial tourism routes and creating an interpretation center in a former metal factory.

My visit included the Hat museum and three active factories: Fepsa (that produces hat felts), Viarco (the only pencil factory in Portugal) and Helsar (women shoe factory). Despite being a woman and loving shoes as all of us do, the strongest impressions I got from Helsar are linked to the working conditions: endlessly repeating operations, being exposed to noise, heat and smell of rubber and glue.

The Hat museum, Fepsa and Viarco brought about similar impressions, but also the spirit of (good) old times.

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An incredibly complex set of operations is necessary to produce a hat, and the demand for hat felts decreased nowadays as much as just about 10 companies can fulfill it in the whole world. And Fepsa is exactly one of them. I could juxtapose the old ways of production seen in the Hat museum with the contemporary ones I got to know in the factory. Not too many employees produce around 2800 hat felts a day, if I remember correctly. Some other companies then mold them and give final touches, when the majority of the work is already done… Just for the matter of prestige, Fepsa still produces and finalizes hats for the English police.

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Once upon a time (or more precisely, in 1931), Manuel Vieira Araújo, the hat factory owner in São João da Madeira, also bought a pencil factory that already existed since 1907. This is how hats and pencils are connected here 🙂

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In 1936, Viarco brand was registered, and the production goes on until the present day. As I realized, Viarco pencils awaken childhood memories to many Portuguese. However, the factory is very small: just a few workers are in charge of entire production.

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Besides pencils, I noticed another great product – their watercolour graphite. Miracles could be done with it!

Photo credits: 1 – photo of a museum photo, no further data available; 2 – Fepsa website; 3 – mine; 4 – Viarco online shop.