The paper flower festival of Campo Maior

Campo Maior is not exactly Portugal’s prettiest border town. It has the regulation castle-fort on its highest point, the usual cathedral, squat white-washed houses with the blue or ochre-outlined windowpanes typical of the southern region, and cobbled streets. The village sits in one of the driest and hottest parts of the country. Around it, stretching into the distance, are olive tree plantations. In spitting distance is the vastness of Spain’s Extremadura region, brown, dry, harsh, where fugitives and bandits hid from the long arm of the law — this was the original wild West. Nothing seems very noteworthy, except for the fact that Portugal’s biggest coffee factory, Delta, is based here, legacy of the civil war on the other side of the border. There are a few Roman ruins nearby, but very few people seem to know that. When tourists come this side, it is to visit nearby Elvas, recently named UNESCO Heritage Site, or simply to speed through on their way to Madrid, or in the other direction, to Évora or Lisbon.

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But for a few days every so many years, at the height of summer, when  the air sizzles at 42 degrees Celsius or thereabouts, when the Alentejo countryside has long drifted into a state of somnolence, Campo Maior stirs and like magic, transforms itself into a veritable floral spectacle, an oasis of colour in the barren vastness of the plains.

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Paper flowers, thousands of them, of all kinds and sizes cover the town. They are strung together in garlands and form arches that stretch from one end of the street to the other, gathered into wreaths, fill giant vases, decorate entrances and door frames, and form mock fences and hedgerows. Every street and alley is canopied with leaves, buds, blooms. A small square fringed by houses on all sides, becomes a flower park with benches for those needing to stretch their weary legs. Flower frames and carpets depicting religious motifs or rustic scenes dot the outer walls of houses in one street. Another street opens onto a harvest season theme, another onto an autumn theme. A corner has a mock stall selling oranges. In paper, of course. Huge baskets, bouquets and arrangements of the more regal flowers like tiger lilies make their way to the more conspicuous spaces, in street corners, in raised areas, on the large windows of the patrician buildings now mostly for civic use. It’s a wonderful, exhilarating riot of colour and creativity every which way one turns.

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The official name of this festival is Festas do Povo de Campo Maior, more popularly known as as Festas das Flores.

The festival goes back a long way. The original festival was a celebration of the  town’s patron, St. John the Baptist. In 1921, it was renamed Festas do Povo de Campo Maior. Paper decorations started to adorn the streets, and the new electric lamp posts made it possible for the festivities to last well through the night. The last Festas was held in 2015 and before that, in 2011. So far, 20 editions of this festival have taken place. Nobody knows exactly when the next festival is going to be — the town residents decide.

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We can only imagine the number of hours lovingly spent on the creation of this veritable flower garden — each petal that had to be turned perfectly, curled this way or that, folded or bent slightly to resemble the real one being blown gently by the breeze. The tiniest details are not overlooked — each filament, anther, bright spot on the the petals of the pretty azalea are minutely reconstructed. The same care and attention can be seen in the making of each flower  — whether of the simpler or the more intricate kind.

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With floral displays becoming more elaborate, and with more sophistication in the details and nuance in shape and colour, as well as more streets participating, the resources involved have increased too. This means the amount of paper, the length of thin wires, sticks, glue that had to be used also increased each time. In 2015, 30 tonnes of paper were used to adorn 104 streets. This is equivalent to 20 kilometers of decorated streets. The amount of labour, naturally, has increased too. In the last Festas, 7,500 volunteers were involved.

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Work begins many months before, in February, until the night before opening which is towards the end of August. That’s half a year’s work, at least. Each gathering around the family TV, chat between neighbours is accompanied by hands busy twisting, curling, cutting, or gluing paper into the needed shapes. From months upon months of this seemingly tedious work emerge daisies, irises, sunflowers, tulips, lilies, carnations, forget-me-nots, delicate lady’s eardrops, gladioli, roses, lady’s trumpets, and many more. Every festival, an official flower is chosen. In 2015, the honor went to the rose.

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The street theme and design are kept in absolute secret between neighbours and friends until the night before opening. This is the night of “enramação.” At an appointed hour, everyone goes out and begins to decorate their respective streets, revealing the product of hundreds of hours of  work. All hands are on deck, and it is easy to imagine the level of anticipation. Exhausted after a long night’s labour but with what pride each one must feel when the first visitors arrive not long after, gaping and gawking with cameras and phones clicking away.

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The festival has grown in fame. In 2015, 1.2 million visitors came to see this stunning display.Walking the streets, one can hear as much Castilian spoken as Portuguese.

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There is a move to have the Festas recognised as a UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage.

Where in Portugal: Campo Maior, 100 km east of Évora, about 230 km from Lisbon, 22 km from Elvas, 19 km from Badajoz (Spain). Accessible by car (there are designated parking places close to the entrance), and by bus from Elvas, Line 8083.

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