Hip hooray and happy day! An opportunity has arisen for me to fill a gap in my much neglected Personal A-Z of Portugal. You’d forgotten I was doing one, hadn’t you? Me too, almost! So today I have Frizz to thank for getting around to ‘K’ in his A- Z challenge.
First, a question for you. How many kings do you see? Three, or more?
I had arrived in the Algarve just after the New Year but in time for Epiphany, and was curious to see what kind of celebrations, if any, this might entail. I knew that in Spain the 6th January was dedicated to the Three Kings, and was hopeful that this might spill over the border into Portugal. I thought there was every chance, especially in my eastern corner of the Algarve. The shops were full of Bolos Reis – the cake of kings- with their extravagant and colourful toppings.
The tradition of this cake dates back to Roman times, when a King was chosen at Roman feasts if he got the piece of cake containing a fava bean. I rather like the legend about the Three Kings of the Orient disputing who should be the first to give baby Jesus his gift. The decision was finally made in the same way- with a cake inside which the local baker had hidden a bean.
I was very happy to discover that there was to be a procession in Vila Real de S. Antonio, a small town on the very edge of the Algarve, with its toes in the River Guadiana. Better still, the kings were to ferry across the Guadiana to Ayamonte, in neighbouring Spain.
Sure enough, a carnival atmosphere prevailed in Vila Real on Sunday, 6th January. A Christmas market and ice rink were set up in the main square, Marques de Pombal, with jars of honey and every variety of cake adorning the stalls. Trying to avert my eyes, I made my way to the Cultural Centre, where I knew there was a Nativity display. It was enchanting. As I emerged I was delighted to hear the ‘oompah’ sounds of a band.
Ambling along the street, with caskets of bonbons and flashing smiles, came a procession of kings. Cordially they distributed sweets and paused to chat or have their photo taken. It was all very casual and laidback, rather than kingly, but no less charming for that. A dais was set up awaiting them in the square, and soon they were enthroned, hurling the last of their sweets to the cheering crowd.
Thinking that I might manage two processions ‘for the price of one’, and wondering how it would be on the Spanish side of the border, I craftily caught the 12.30 ferry across to Ayamonte. In January there is a 2 hour time difference between the two countries, so my arrival, 10 minutes later, was at 14.40. A time at which all self respecting Spaniards are eating. There was no sign of an impending celebration so, after a leisurely stroll and a delicious ‘biscuit’ flavoured icecream, I returned to the ferry terminal.
Sitting on board, gazing at the river, I became aware of a party of excited children boarding the ferry. As we left the shore, the adults in the party proceeded to dish out sizeable portions of bolo rei, oozing with cream. I had high hopes, but was obviously too tall to be regarded as one of their charges. Nearing the Portuguese shore, I realised just what was happening. The Kings, minus their band (who had presumably gone to lunch at Portuguese time), were strolling to the terminal, to meet the ferry. As the gangway came down, whistles and cheers and waving of flags greeted the sovereigns. Smiling amiably, they were destined for Spain, their caskets newly filled.
I never did fathom out who were the genuine kings and who were the ‘imposters’, but they were a handsome bunch, don’t you think? I hope you enjoyed my entry for ‘K’.