Tomar is renowned throughout the country for its Festa dos Tabuleiros (literally, the Festival of the Trays). It can be traced back to Queen Isabel who founded the Brotherhood of the Holy Spirit in the fourteenth century, though some believe it to derive from an ancient fertility rite. Whatever its origins, it’s now a largely secular event, held at four-yearly intervals during the first week of July; the next event is in 2015.
The festival starts on the first Sunday with the Cortejo dos Rapazes or “Boys’ Procession” (for schoolchildren), with the Cortejo do Mordomo on the following Friday, when the costumed festival coordinators parade their carriages, carts and cattle (symbols of the sacrificial oxen that were once presented).
The main procession is on the final Sunday. The Cortejo dos Tabuleiros consists of several hundred young women wearing white, each escorted by a young man in a white shirt, red tie and black trousers. Each woman carries on her head a tray with thirty loaves threaded on vertical canes, intertwined with leaves and paper flowers, and crowned with a cross or a white dove – the symbol of the Holy Spirit. The resulting headdress weighs 15kg, and is roughly person-height – hence the need for an escort to lift and help balance it. There’s music and dancing in the flower-filled streets, traditional games, fireworks at dawn and dusk, and a bullfight the night before the procession.