Lazarim and its alder masks
A village in the mountains of northern Portugal and its old Carnival made of alder masks.
There’s one thing in common in many places at the North of Portugal and Spain: the strong traditions around masks and those who wear it. Each of these celebrations has its own symbolism and calendar, often are fitted around Winter Solstice or Shrovetide, and the origins are very similar and go as far as pagan, pre-christian, mostly Celtic origins. These are rituals where anonymity makes possible what’s not tolerated in the rest of the year, the rich and the poor can switch places, issues that have been kept inside throughout the year can be now said or even avenged and settled under the cloak a costume or a mask worn by the “caretos” (the masked figures common to many). And what makes Lazarim known is the intricate and elaborate alder masks, crafted wooden pieces that, in its traditional form, take the shape of gentlemen, ladies and the most popular of all: demons.
Lazarim is tucked in a small valley near Lamego, to reach it you get a chance to pass to the top of the Montemuro mountains, one of the highest places of Portugal that holds that harsh beauty that a mountain range can give you. In a brief stop there’s even the chance to behold the curvy road downhill, in a distance the human presence becomes more frequent, leading the way to the destination. Driving downhill the village slowly appears, first with the more isolated settlements, even the empty football field, to then appear suddenly after a curve, protected and hidden at the bottom of a valley. The masks are obvious and ubiquitous once getting there, not only because this was Carnival time (or Entrudo, Portuguese for Shrovetide, the more traditional and common name), but also because it’s hard not to miss the iconic “mask demons” in posters in bus stops, in small engravings in stone fountains. It makes perfect sense to have the newly built Iberian Mask Centre here.
“Carnival has born with us”, Amândio Lourenço told me in one of the few times we met in the street, when we chatted about the village and the masks, in between the tales of his lates hunting trip, and he knows what he’s talking: he’s one of the responsible for keeping the tradition alive and adapted it to the late XX century. Like the other Shrovetide traditions, its pagan nature combined with authority defying rituals meant it wasn’t a tradition fondly accepted by the very conservative and catholic-driven regime of the mid XX century. “Often the organizers were summoned to go to court at Lamego, when that happened the whole village would appear!”, he added before we part ways.
With the Carnation revolution, the defiant side of this tradition, that actually fueled it for decades, was gone, and with that tradition has evolved. The traditional masks, the public shaming and the stew cooked in the main square on Shrove Tuesday (which I missed…) were joined by new elements: now groups of caretos from other regions join the party, as the different Iberian mask traditions form tighter bonds; and an anual contest among all the mask craftsmen was created and it has built some real competition between them. Some new designs appeared, built with newer tools and with motifs related to the public figures and current affairs (which may fit elsewhere but are strange in a timeless tradition like Lazarim Shrovetide), but others kept the traditional. I was able to find that while walking downhill, along the the road that turned into main street, when I reached Adão‘s workshop. There Eduardo, his son, worked on a solid block of wood, carving it piece by piece, with a very rough picture of a demon starting to become visible. “You don’t put a mask on a piece of wood, the mask is already inside it and you just need to find a way to reveal it” he said while hitting that block with a chisel, a very poetic way to way to tell that when you need to work with the wood to get a finished mask, try to force something else and it will fail.
The wanderings on the narrows streets of stone walls were becoming closer to the time of the Shrove Sunday parade, which was obvious with the last minute rehearsals or the crowd starting to gather in the main street, but there was still time for a glass of jeropiga inside a dark wine cellar (aren’t those always dark?), just before going to meet the caretos running down Lazarim.