A batateira

António was a quiet and gentle soul. He liked nothing better than to wander the roads between the village and the lagoon, searching the hedgerows and fields for small treasures or natural bounties. He knew the best places to find berries and mushrooms, and he could point out all the edible plants in the region. He was also known to occasionally jump into the orchards on the road to Óbidos and pull an apple or a pear, or, if it was the season, oranges or lemons. The local farmers either did not know or, if they did, did not care. It was a price of business.


I first came across António skulking, apparently suspiciously, in the garden of a house on the Arelho side of the border with Carregal. I say apparently suspicious, but I soon realised that this was just his normal manner, unnecessarily deferential and somewhat reticent. I got the impression that he had not had a conversation with anyone for some time, and that he was eager to speak to the foreigner who spoke Portuguese with a strange accent. He asked me where I came from and what I was doing there and if I liked Portugal, then he asked me what I liked about it and why I was in that part of Portugal. We eventually started speaking about him and what he did and how he ended up where he was doing what he does.

The road leading from Arelho to Carregal.

He told me his days were always busy, and that he had a small house about two miles away close to the lagoon. The house, which from his description was little more than a one-room shack, had been in his family for generations, he said. His family once owned the farm cottage and some land, but over the years, with their declining fortunes, they eventually moved and now he lives where he lives. He said his childhood home had been bought by some foreigners who had it knocked down and replaced with a bigger house with three floors and a swimming pool. The land was taken by the bank and bought by the people who now run the spa centre. Things had changed a lot since he was a boy, he said.

Things had not always been so terrible, he said. He remembered his mother and father as hard-working people. His mother ran the farm and looked after some old people in the village as a way to make a bit extra money. His father was an industrious man who worked as a clerk in an office in a nearby town. Unusually for men of his age at that time, he was tee-total. António obviously had fond memories of his parents who, he said, had no vices. His father’s only weakness, he said, was that he was generous to a fault and not a little gullible. That is what proved to be his downfall, and it is what eventually led to them losing the farm and moving into a flat in the town. When the property was sold, he was able to keep the small building that António now called home. It was out of sight of the cottage and the minuscule plot of land was too small and infertile to be of any use. He supposed his father decided to keep it just to retain some connection to the property. He couldn’t say for sure, only that neither of his parents ever returned.

The first home in Carregal.

He then told me that the money his parents had left over after selling the house and land and paying off their debts was enough to pay for him to go to university. I was surprised and somewhat dubious about this revelation, but he insisted it was true and that he wasn’t always the way he was now. He said he always got top marks at school and that his teachers told him he should go to college or university. He enjoyed maths and arithmetic and had hoped one day to become an accountant. He had a place at university and was ready to start after the summer holidays had ended. But, he paused, that was when things went dark; when his world changed forever.

He explained. It was the summer of 1974. The country was in the middle of a revolution and the people in this part of the country were divided between those who welcomed the changes and those who wanted things to stay the way they were. The newspapers were full of stories about demonstrations and protests in Lisbon, and this feeling of excitement and anxiety reached this part of the world. One thing he did remember was that it was not just the politics in Lisbon that had changed: attitudes were changing everywhere. He was a young man and all of a sudden many of the young people were losing their fear of socialising and their inhibitions. He claimed there was no such thing as free love in this part of the world, but the teenage boys and teenage girls were now unafraid to be seen together on their own. They were now much less wary of being seen holding hands. That was the young people, he said: the older people remained very conservative and frowned upon these modern, revolutionary ideals.

The site of the Batateira, with the villages now separated by a metalled road. Arelho to the right.

Now, António’s family, who were originally from Arelho, had lived in the small flat in Caldas for about 18 months, but all António’s friends were in the village, so that’s where he spent his summer, sleeping in the hut and going back to Caldas for meals and clean clothes. While he was out he got quite friendly with a girl he knew from Carregal, the neighbouring village. Her name was Maria, but she liked to be called Lola. At that time there was a rivalry between the two villages. For reasons no one clearly recalled people in Carregal only had dealings with those from Arelho if it was a matter of life or death. Things had got so bad between the villages that they created two separate roads between them and Caldas. Folk from Arelho went east via Trás do Outeiro, while those from Carregal went south via Paimoga. Over the years it had become a habit: the rivalry continued as bitterly as ever, although no one really understood why. And now we had an Arelho boy walking hand-in-hand with a Carregal girl during a revolution. For many in both villages, it was too much to bear. A stand had to be made and a stop had to be put.

The women in both villages gathered over baskets of cabbages to devise a plan; the men gathered over bottles of beer in the cafés to plot a resolution. The only course of action open to them, all four groups realised, was to resurrect the Batateira. Only by this traditional contest could the honour of both villages be satisfied.

The shrine dates from the mid-1970s and was erected as a form of reconciliation.

The Batateira? I asked. What is that? He told me that back in the days of the monarchy, each year the men of both settlements would gather on their own side of the field facing each other across the track separating the villages. Each man would come armed with no more than 10 potatoes – batatas. At a predetermined signal, the two groups of men would throw the potatoes at the men opposite with all the force they could muster. This battle, the Batateira, would continue until all the men were exhausted and all the potatoes destroyed. Over time the contest continued and each year it became increasingly ceremonial and less intense. At some point in time, he said, probably about the time of the visions at Fátima, the church got involved in the event, with the local priest insisting that the potatoes be boiled first, to make sure they did not injure people. And so it was, António said, until the time of the dictatorship when the police were ordered to put a stop to the Batateira. That is how it remained until that fateful summer of 1974. Now, with no authorities ready to stop them, the Batateira was to be held for the first time in 40 years.

He recalled that Lola and he were separated: he by the men of Arelho, who thrust a bottle of Super Bock in one hand and a bucket of 10 potatoes in the other. Lola was dragged away by the women of Carregal, who were all standing a safe distance behind their men, shouting obscenities at the men and women of Arelho, who returned the compliment, and encouragement at their own men lined up before them. The local priest, who served both communities, tried to intervene, insisting that all the potatoes be boiled. He tested a few for softness before being unceremoniously dragged away by a group of women from Arelho who then returned to screaming obscenities at the women down the hill.

Arelho as seen from Carregal.

And so the first Batateira for 40 years began. Its immediate cause was the relationship between António and Lola, but the real reasons were far older and more ingrained. The revolution had released the tensions that had built up between the two rival communities. Now decades of scores could be settled in the traditional way: with soft-boiled potatoes. Lola’s father, Zê, was incandescent. The only thing he hated more than revolutionaries and democrats was men from Arelho, and a man from Arelho holding hands with his precious Maria was more than he could bear. While most of the men on both sides were armed with boiled potatoes, Zê’s bucket contained ten rocks painted to look like potatoes, and he had António in his sights.

All António remembers about that Batateira was waking up covered in blood and with a splitting headache as a group of Arelho women fussed over him with hot wet rags. He later discovered that no sooner had the Batateira began and the potatoes started flying than Lola’s father had taken careful aim at his head with one of the potato-painted rocks. The first rock hit him square on the chest, knocking the wind out of him. The people around him were too busy to notice, and the Batateira continued. A few of the Arelho men saw the rage in Zê’s eyes and turned their attention to him, but their boiled potatoes had no effect and Zê remained focused on António. He took another potato-painted rock, and took aim at António’s head. António threw a potato at Zê, the soft tuber striking him ineffectually on the arm. Zê’s second missile hit António on the forehead, right between his eyes. And that is all he remembers.

Picking potatoes in Carregal.

It soon became clear that the injury to António was more serious than first thought. He could no longer remember things and even the most basic of tasks became a challenge. There would be no university for him; instead, he was set on the course that led him to where he is today: a semi-vagrant and, like his father, generous and somewhat naïve. Lola’s family, fearing reprisals, moved away. Some said they moved north where Zê had a cousin with a large and unprofitable plot of land; others said they went to Paris. António never saw Lola again.

And the Batateira? Well, the events of that summer of 1974 forced the two communities to re-evaluate their relationship. The following summer a group of students from Coimbra came with some soldiers to help the villages come to terms with the new social and political situation in the country. These young and idealistic revolutionaries convinced the villagers that the Batateira if properly managed, could be a good way of relieving tensions, after which they could all get together and make a party of it, with lots of grilled meat and beer, and perhaps with some musicians and fireworks at the end of the night. The tradition of launching potatoes at each other should be continued, but it would be important to make sure the missiles were safe. They decided the best way to do that was for one person from each village to check the potatoes used by the men of the other village. That way only soft boiled potatoes would ever be used.

The villagers take enormous pride in their community.

And, I asked, what happened then? He told me that the Batateira continues to this day, that it is held on the second Saturday of August, and that he is always the guest of honour. It is now a fairly popular event with tourists, who come from far and wide to watch or even to take part.

I asked him if he missed Lola much. He said that he only went out with her for a couple of weeks and they never did more than hold hands, and for that he ended up like this, adding that if he ever saw her again it would be a day too soon.

Advertising the annual Batateira at Carregal bus stop.

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