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Welcome to Cabeça, the Christmas capital of Portugal | Travel

José Galvão doesn’t look very like an elf. At 79, he has the weather-burned face and robust labourer’s palms of a person born in the mountains of central Portugal. But, for months he’s been beavering away behind the scenes to convey to life what have to be one of the world’s friendliest and least showy Christmas celebrations.

Each Christmas for the previous eight years, the 170 or so residents of Cabeça in the Serra de Estrel mountain vary remodel their distant village into a country winter wonderland. The concept sprang from a contest run in 2013 by the native council, however has since taken on a life of its personal, attracting a rising stream of guests from throughout Portugal yearly.

Sitting simply off the central plaza with some of his old-boy pals, José breaks off his chinwag to present me the three-inch folding knife in his pocket. “I’m no skilled, however I do a bit of carving,” he chortles via a gap-toothed smile. “We’ve all received to muck in, certo? Cabeça is the Christmas Village in spite of everything.”

Christmas lights flow higgledy-piggledy between houses.
Christmas lights stream higgledy-piggledy between homes. {Photograph}: Pedro Ribeiro/Centro de Portugal

He’s proper on each rely. Following his instructions, I stroll 100 metres or so down one of Cabeça’s slim streets. Pop-up shops and market stalls line the route, which is busy with Portuguese day-trippers on the hunt for festive enjoyable.

I briefly cease at Loripão, a bakery from the next-door village, which has rented a villager’s entrance room for the fortnight’s celebrations. It’s a paradise of all issues candy and sugary, and its greatest vendor by far is the bolo rei (king cake) – the rounded sugary bread topped with crystalised fruits that adorns each Portuguese sideboard at Christmas.

Outdoors, ornament are strung between the sq. granite homes that characterise the native structure. All the things is selfmade, from the heart-shaped frames swaddled in ferns to the moss-covered stars studded with crimson berries.

The one exception is the skinny string of tiny, white Christmas lights that flows higgledy-piggledy between the homes, over the parish church, and round Café Dias – the solely enterprise in Cabeça that’s open year-round.

When the solar units and the change is flicked, the hilltop village – hemmed in as it’s by steep forested slopes and blanketed in mid-winter darkness – lights up like the Star of Bethlehem.

By the steps up to an historical stone home, I discover José’s yuletide contribution. It’s a loving try at creating the nativity household, with every determine, carved roughly from a skinny tree trunk, about waist peak.

Villagers create decorations.
All the things is selfmade … villagers create decorations. {Photograph}: Pedro Ribeiro

Pine-tree straight, they don’t have arms or legs, however every has a beatific countenance, graced with crossed eyes, wonky noses and winsome whittled smiles. Joseph even has a flowing, pine-leaf wig, whereas the child Jesus is topped with a nest of autumn leaves.

Leaving the joyful household, I head up the stairs into what an etched picket signal describes as the Oficina de Natal (Christmas workshop). The one-room house is sort of totally different from the tat-filled, depot-style emporiums which are the widespread picture of Santa’s office. There’s no shiny tinsel or cheesy garlands, nor any plastic packaging or – reward the Lord and the Angel Gabriel – Christmas jingles or mawkish piped carols.

As an alternative, as with the decorations that deck the village, the merchandise on the market are resolutely artisanal. All are made out of supplies obtainable in the hills round: painted pine cones and woollen baubles, picket angels and bracken wreaths.

It doesn’t take lengthy for Portugal’s solely “Christmas Village” to work its magic. Inside minutes, the stresses of last-minute buying and current wrapping dissipate.

A lovingly crafted nativity scene.
A lovingly crafted nativity scene

With a mean age of about 68 and solely three kids beneath 15, Cabeça is aware of every little thing there may be to learn about taking issues gradual. I get into the groove with a delicate hike down into the valley. The steep, round route takes me over terraces of crooked-armed olive timber and down to an ice-cold river. Deserted stone settlements dot the path, a reminder of the centuries that this secluded neighborhood has lived via.

The stroll leaves me hungry. On Christmas Eve, tens of millions of Portuguese sit down to a night feast of bacalhau (salt cod) and boiled potatoes, adopted by aletria (an egg-noodle dessert). However in landlocked Cabeça, hearty mountain fare dominates; caldo verde (vegetable broth), morcela (black pudding), alheira (a garlicky sausage filled with breadcrumbs), and pica pau (seasoned fried beef).

Christmas lanterns on a step
{Photograph}: Pedro Ribeiro/Centro de Portugal

I seize a rickety desk in a pop-up restaurant in the basement of a two-storey home. Not so way back, the low-roofed eatery would have been a house for cattle and sheep. The straw and manure are gone, however the stable-like environment feels acceptable.

Portugal’s Christmas Village could also be steeped in back-to-basics nostalgia, nevertheless it’s removed from staid. In addition to absorbing the environment (and the native aguardente liquors), guests can take pleasure in a collection of programmed occasions all through the two-week season. Highlights embrace choral concert events, cooking courses and craft workshops.

However Cabeça isn’t the solely rural hideaway in Serra da Estrela that throws open its doorways to guests. The 42-strong Mountain Villages community arranges cultural celebrations all through the 12 months, corresponding to a folks competition in Lapa dos Dinheiros in June, and summer season sheep-blessings in Foldosa da Madalena.

“It’s a approach of not simply holding the traditions alive in these distant villages, however celebrating them,” says Célia Gonçalves, director of the Mountain Villages community and coordinator of the unique competitors that gave life to Portugal’s Christmas Village. “The pleasure the villagers get from displaying off their tradition like that is wonderful.”

With the evening now lengthy drawn in, it’s time to take my go away. Earlier than going, I return one final time to pay my respects at Senhor Galvão’s nativity scene. The child Messiah continues to be grinning gayly, his mountain residence evidently glad tidings of nice pleasure.

The Christmas Village runs till 2 January. The journey was offered by the Center of Portugal Tourism Board (guided by Madomis Tours). Cabeça is a 20-minute taxi trip from Seia, which is effectively served by buses (Lisbon 4 hours, Porto 3.5 hours). Lodge Casa de Baixo, half an hour away in Alvoco das Várzeas, has doubles from €100 B&B

5 extra Christmas-y locations in Europe

Christmas tree in Cathedral Square in Vilnius.
Christmas tree in Cathedral Sq. in Vilnius. {Photograph}: Mindaugas Kulbis/AP

Vilnius, Lithuania
Lisbon’s Praça do Comércio, New York’s Rockefeller Heart, Strasbourg’s Place Kléber and Rio de Janeiro’s Rodrigo de Freitas Lagoon are all famed for his or her annual Christmas tree extravaganzas. However vying to outdo them is the Cathedral Sq. in Vilnius, which since 2015 has performed host to more and more discombobulating arboreal creations. That includes big snowflakes, this 12 months’s gorgeous exhibit includes a 27-metre, icicle-white cone topped by an enormous shining star. Previous themes have included fairytales, chess and the color purple.


Tallinn, Estonia
Each neighbourhood has that one home that’s totally decked out with twinkly lights and illuminated reindeer. Properly, in Tallinn, make that each home. And park. And sq.. And road. Estonia’s walled capital defies the seasonal darkness by drenching its medieval centre with greater than 300 mild installations. Particularly luminescent is Vabaduse Sq., the place mild fountains shoot upwards into the winter sky.

Bruges, Belgium
A favorite Christmas vacation spot for many years, the canal-crossed Belgian metropolis is pushing the boat out much more than standard this 12 months with its city-wide Winter Glow competition. Take a stroll alongside the glittering “Mild Path” because it winds via the metropolis’s cobbled, Christmas tree-lined streets. Take your decide from three Christmas markets: Market Sq., Simon Steven Sq. and Zand Sq..

Colmar, France
Don’t go to Disneyland Paris for a fairytale Christmas; the historical Alsatian city of Colmar gives the actual factor. With 5 separate markets, the city embraces the yuletide spirit with elfish gusto. In addition to an 800 square-metre ice rink and an old-school carousel, take a look at the Christmas-themed wine cellars and gondola-riding kids’s choir. Look out for the evening watchman who walks the ramparts each evening, as his predecessors have finished since the center ages.

Prague, Czech Republic
Many Christmases in the past, Good King Wenceslas seemed out over Prague and – so the carol goes – noticed the snow mendacity “deep and crisp and even”. Right this moment, few locations are extra full of life than the Czech capital at yuletide, with the streets thronging with partygoers, buyers and vacationers all through December. The town’s well-known Christmas market is formally postponed this 12 months, however pop-up Christmas stalls nonetheless abound and stuck venues corresponding to Havel’s Market are tinselled up to the nines. One custom not to miss is the lighting of Charles Bridge’s gasoline lamps at nightfall (round 4pm) every day.

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