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A Local Artist’s Guide to the Crafts and Culture of Northern Portugal

Updated: May 18, 2023

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Portugal is a country renowned for its rich culture and artistic heritage, from the ceramics of the north to the ornate lacework on the island of Madeira. Join us to take an introductory dive into the crafts and culture of Northern Portugal with artist and local expert Luísa Barbosa.

In Portugal’s northern Minho region, the colours are stronger, the costumes are more detailed, and the people celebrate life by performing The Vira, a local whirling dance accompanied by singing. The Folklore here screams diversity and beauty as boys and girls transmit their stories, love and values of generations.

It is with these expressions, their practices and craftsmanship that the North of Portugal is defined as an undeniable community full of authenticity and creativity. Here are five regional practices which will add another cultural layer to any trip through this region.

Lenço dos Namorados, Vila Verde

It is not just in the modern world that we feel the need to express our emotions and feelings for those we love.

Throughout history, whether using digital media or through other releases of more uncomfortable words since the beginnings of Humanity, many traditions have been born from through intrinsic eagerness of ours.

Lenço of lovers is an example of this expression. Initially made with black and red thread on white fabric, the women of the locale people resignified the function of scarves that were originally present in their clothing and other decorative adornments in everyday life.

Young women of marriageable age began to see the scarf as a way of “flirting” with their loved ones. Statement phrases with recurrent spelling errors and childish handwriting were presented with botanical symbols in a naive style; if the boy used the scarf on his body, a relationship would spring up.

A form of expression of affection, love and a lot of Saudade* for those who spent long hours with the thread and needle. These colourful scarves are the extension of our feeling – a representation of the passionate souls of Northern Portugal.

*Saudade is a Portuguese expression of the feeling caused by the absence of something/someone (physical or not) because we can miss a friendship or a relationship that ended, for example, with loneliness, nostalgia, or a black hole in the heart. 

 L: Barcelos R: Embroidery is a Minho tradition / Canva
L: Barcelos R: Embroidery is a Minho tradition / Canva

Figurado, Barcelos

We all know the Galo de Barcelos, but what about devils, big-headed musicians, goats and whistling birds? These are some of the ambiguous figures that the popular art of Figurado offers us.

With festive themes and representations of everyday activities, these primarily small creatures express the craftsman’s experiences and his surroundings through saturated primary colours, thus attracting the attention of any eye.

The sacred and the profane come together in an invigorating way. With this solid religious influence and popular tradition, the people of North Portugal are seen and self-recognised in each figure.

Genuine souls with both strong and delicate hands, these craftsmen make Barcelos the ideal place to dive into the knowledge and work of Minho ceramics. On a  visit to one of the region’s 89 parishes, you’ll certainly encounter some of these works.

R: Northern Portugal town L: The country's cock symbol / Canva
L: Ponte de Lima R: Galo de Barcelos, / Canva

Jugo or Canga, Ponte de Lima

Everyday objects constantly have their function resignified with the passing of generations. The jugos or cangas are wooden structures where two protrusions support the head of two oxen.

This instrument was essential in the care of the land and the domestication of cattle, and it is in this submission that the very term of the word was created – “jugo” means obedience and dominion.

Merely functional, it later becomes a decorative piece when the artisans decide to include the carving, thus becoming the most sublime feature of the whole work. With a chisel, the craftsman subtracts light splinters from the wood, emphasising symbols that represent the daily experiences of the time. Crosses, the sun, the moon and monstrances are the most common representations because the farmers believed that good harvests would come with their presence.

Nowadays, Jugos decorate the walls of Portuguese houses where their history, detail and rustic content stand out. If you are looking for an original souvenir, then this is a good choice – wouldn’t it be more interesting to have a hand-carved wood piece in your home than just another fridge magnet?

L: Viana do Castelo R: Example of / Canva
L: Viana do Castelo R: Example of Filigree / Canva

Filigree (Heart of Viana), Viana do Castelo

A delicate artistic jewellery item rich in heavenly detail, this work has been taking place on earth for over three centuries. Passed from generation to generation through family connections, it carries stories, legacies and values ​​that only a jewel can hold.

At the request of Queen Maria I, this relic was created out of gratitude for the birth of her son. With the heart of Jesus as a tribute, the small upper crown symbolises the flames characterised by the religious aspect. However, over the years, the Heart of Viana has been increasingly understood for its more profane and romantic meaning.

Nowadays, this tradition continues to adorn Minho costumes, where several kilos of gold hang around the necks of Portuguese women, but it is also present in jewellery and contemporary art.

Gold threads and heat manipulated in curves and counter-curves are necessary elements to create this emblematic, sublime and timeless piece. It carries history, values ​​and hidden symbols of that time most connected with Nature – from generation to generation – to become a symbol of affection, union and love.

Black Pottery of Bisalhães

And what about black ceramics where neither the clay is black nor are the pieces painted black? Yes, these incredible compositions exist and are made in the small town of Bisalhães in the North of Portugal.

A tradition over 300 years old, it is currently practised by only five people (three of them over 75 years old), which makes this ancient practice an urgent safeguard. In 2016 it was declared an Intangible Heritage of Humanity in Portugal by UNESCO, which has helped this artisanal technique to survive longer due to support and visibility.

And what about the Bisalhães technique for itself?

First, the dry clay is manually crushed with a wooden hammer on a stone base, where it is then carefully sieved until obtaining a homogeneous powder. The final result is already in the craftsman’s mind at the beginning of the process because depending on whether he wants to make “Louça churra” or “Louça fina” (utilitarian pottery or decorative pottery) the clay will have to be kneaded in different ways and using different tools. 

After structuring the shape and adding all the final details, the piece is finally ready to be baked, and this is where the magic of generations happens.

A hole in the ground is dug, the pieces are placed organically, and then everything is covered with dark earth and tree leaves. The smoke created is the secret to these spectacular pieces turning black after the objects are carefully removed from the hole, and old fabrics are used to shake off all the dust.

This is a village that is worth knowing about. If you’re lucky, perhaps your visit will coincide with the cooking day of these authentic black bowls and pots.

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