In the 17th century, the Viseu region depended on the waters of the Pavia river to irrigate the farmland and power the watermills. In 1652, after a terrible drought, farmers built dykes that reduced the river flow to a trickle. As a result, the watermills in the village of Vildemoinhos stopped working. The millers clashed with the farmers over water rights until, in 1653, the royal court resolved the case with a verdict favorable to the millers.
To show their appreciation for this life-saving decision, the millers organized a cavalcade called Cavalhada through the city of Viseu. The Cavalhada was so successful that it became an annual event. It is held on June 24 (St. John’s day). Farmers sell pots of wild basil and children feast on Viriatos, a local sweet. There are marching bands, traditional dancing troupes, groups of drummers, and giant paper-machê dolls.
This Cavalhada is one of the many Summer feasts organized everywhere across the country. If you see a sign for Festa Popular (popular feast), be sure to stop by. They’re always fun events. And they celebrate the ancient traditions that make Portugal more than just a pretty landscape.
Farturas are similar to Spanish churros but they are larger and softer. A light dough made of eggs and flour is squeezed out of a pastry bag to form a large spiral shape. The dough is gently fried in oil and then cut into pieces with a pair of scissors. These pieces are sprinkled with sugar and cinnamon and served immediately. Eating a warm fartura makes you feel like a kid again: everything is simple and wondrous and the infinite future looks sweet. You can find farturas in many fairs. Our favorites are from the São Mateus fair in Viseu. This year the fair runs until September 23. So, you still have time to go and be a kid again.
Viriato was the first Portuguese hero. As a leader of the Lusitanos, he resisted the Roman invasion between 147 BC and 139 BC by waging a clever guerrilla war. He died in bed, assassinated by members of his tribe bribed by the Romans.
In the 1940s the city of Viseu erected an impressive monument to Viriato. But the most popular homage to the great warrior is not carved in marble or cast in bronze. It is made of eggs, coconut, and sugar. The V-shaped pastries called Viriatos are very popular in the Viseu region. And, thanks to them, all the little kids know the name of Portugal’s first hero.