Festival of the Trays: Your Complete Tomar Festival Guide

Every four years, the serene town of Tomar in Central Portugal bursts into a vibrant spectacle of color and tradition with the Festa dos Tabuleiros, or Festival of the Trays.

Rooted in deep-seated cultural and religious beliefs, the Festa dos Tabuleiros is an unforgettable blend of cultural heritage, communal unity, and jubilant celebration.

But what makes the Festival of the Trays truly special, where did it all begin and what some tips and tricks for anyone looking to survive the festivities? If you asking those questions, you’re in the right place.

⭐️ The last Festa of Tabuleiros happened in July 2023. With the next scheduled for 2027. For more information, visit the official website here.

Ready to uncover the incredible details of the Festival of the Trays, an event that embodies the allure of Portuguese tradition? Let’s dive in.

Festival of the Trays, Tomar

A Brief History

Even though the exact beginnings of the festival are not clearly known, there are two main ideas about how this grand event may have started. Some researchers believe that the festival evolved from ancient pagan festivals dedicated to Ceres, the goddess of agriculture and fertility, reflecting a deep connection to the cycles of nature.

However, others believe that the Festa dos Tabuleiros has strong links to cult the Holy Spirit, religious doctrine and series of traditions that have been practiced in the Azores and some parts of mainland Portugal for many centuries.

The festival is thought to have been initiated by Queen Saint Isabel of Portugal in the 13th century, who was a devout follower of the cult of the Holy Spirit. Given that Tomar was also the base for both the Orders of the Temple and the Order of Christ, the worship of the Holy Spirit is a significant part of its unique spiritual and historical identity.

Without going too in-depth into the history of the Festival of the Trays, there are three important periods that have defined the festival’s transformation.

The end of the 19th century saw the end of annual celebrations, with the last event recorded in 1895. The mid-20th century marked a renaissance for the Festa dos Tabuleiros. The festival was revitalized in 1950, embracing broader community participation and reinvigorating the Cortejo dos Tabuleiros procession, which forms the ❤️ heart of the festival.

A woman carrying a tabuleiro during the Cortejo dos Tabuleiros
The paper decorations were introduced after 1950

Finally, since 1950, there has been an increased incorporation of local customs, including diverse elements from dances to decorations. These additions became key components of the festival, reinforcing its significance in the collective memory and identity of the people of Tomar.

Festival of the Trays, Tomar

Preparations of the Festival

The Festa dos Tabuleiros is a testament to the spirit of community and shared effort. Preparations kick off a year in advance, illustrating the immense dedication of the residents of Tomar. The funding, often a blend of public and private contributions, is carefully allocated for various aspects of the festival.

Along with things like funding, marketing, and logistics, another important part of the preparations involves creating beautiful paper decorations. Some of the decorations will be used to cover the streets of Tomar, while the others will be attached to wire rods that will later be added to the canes of the famous tabuleiros.

Along with 30 loaves of bread tabuleiros are decorated with paper flowers.

Months before the festival, you’ll be able to spot girls walking down the streets with trays on their heads, practicing for the event. At the same time, bakers, artisans, seamstresses, and others are hard at work putting the final touches on the 600+ trays that will participate in the main event.

This collaborative effort not only results in the vibrant spectacle that the festival is known for but also strengthens the bonds within the community, making the event a true labor of love.

Festival of the Trays, Tomar

The Festival Of The Trays

The Festa dos Tabuleiros, a 10-day event, is packed with diverse festivities. Events and parades include the Cortejo dos Rapazes (The Children’s Parade), a parade of the trays featuring children, Jogos Populares, and the Cortejo do Mordomo (The Mordomo’s Parade), a procession with ox-drawn carts, horses, and carriages.

In the past, these oxen were slaughtered, and their meat was handed out to the community. Although this doesn’t happen anymore, there still exists a procession called Distribuição do Bodo aos Pobres (The Distribution of Alms), where food is distributed to the needy on the final day of the festival.

An ox-herd, in front of two oxes pulling the triumphal cart in the Cortejo dos Tabuleiros

Another exciting event is the Abertura das Ruas Populares Ornamentadas (Popular Ornate Streets), marking the official opening of the beautifully decorated streets.

However, the festival’s pinnacle is the Cortejo dos Tabuleiros on Sunday, the grand parade where women carry the ornate tabuleiros on their heads, a sight to behold and the highlight of the festival.

The Ornate Streets

Although many people come for the parade of the trays, the ornate streets in and around the old town of Tomar are also a sight to behold.

Since this event was introduced in 1953, the number of participating streets has significantly increased. In 1991, nine streets participated, and in 2023, thirty-eight did. Imagine over 1,200 kilometers of paper used to build flowers and panels.

So how does it work exactly? The residents of each street come together and pick a specific theme. They then spend thousands of hours over a span of around 6 months transforming that idea into a reality.

The theme and decorations are kept a secret until the night of the official opening. Each street is then judged and rewarded for their efforts.

The Parade of the Trays (Cortejo dos Tabuleiros)

The main event is held on a Sunday afternoon, at 4 pm to be exact. After a fanfare introduction, the parade leaves the Mata dos Sete Montes, heading down the Avenida Cândido Maduerira to the Praça da República.

The tabuleiros (or trays) are carried by women. Each woman is accompanied by a man — their partner who helps them in case the tray falls or if they need a rest. The tabuleiro is the same height as the woman and is made up of 30 loaves threaded onto five or six canes.

⭐️ As the women walk the parade route, the crowd not only applauds their efforts, but you will hear people shout things to encourage the women, as well as words admiring how strong and resilient they are.

A woman standing new to her tablueiro (tray)

The canes start at a wicker basket and then are topped by a crown. The tray is also decorated with paper flowers, vegetables, and, sometimes, ears of wheat. The crown either has a dove that symbolizes the Holy Spirit or the Tomar Cross of Christ.

Each pair are dressed in traditional garb, with the women dressed all in white except for a colored sash that is representative of the parish the woman is from. The men don a white shirt, dark pants, a cap on their shoulder, and a tie that matches the color of the woman’s sash.

Once the 600 trays arrive at the Praça da República. Once they arrive the women are allowed to rest — removing the trays from their heads. They are greated by a religious representative that bless their trays with holy water.

The dove symbolizes the Holy Spirit
The blessings of the tabuleiros

Then a truly magical thing happens. The church bell rings three times, and on the third ring, all 600 trays are lifted up at the same time.

On the third ring, 600 trays are instantly picked up

Although most bystanders probably leave at this point, this doesn’t mean the parade is over — far from it. Now the parade will explore the whole city (around 5km) before ending at Avenida General Bernardo Faria.

⭐️ Fun fact: The tabuleiros themselves weigh around 15 kilograms.

The women have to carry around 15kg (33lb) for over 5km in the scourching heat.
Festival of the Trays, Tomar

5 Tips for Surviving the Festival of The Trays

Something you should know before you go. Tomar is a city of 20,000 people. On Sunday, the day of the main parade, the city sees an influx of around 700,000-800,000 people. It’s crazy.

I personally was able to go to the 2023 Festival of The Trays, on two separate days, including the famous Sunday parade. Here are a couple of things that I would recommend if you do end up coming to this incredible event:

1. Leave the Car At Home

On Sunday, it is almost impossible to find a parking spot, so I recommend taking the train.

We ended up coming twice, once on Friday and then again on Sunday. On Friday, we came by car and had no issues finding a parking spot. The day was hot, but there weren’t many people around, so this was the perfect time to take photos of the beautiful Tomar streets.

However, for Sunday, I knew we needed to plan ahead. We opted not to drive, and instead, we went to Entrocamento, where we took a train to Tomar. The train was coming from Lisbon, and it came packed. There were only 3 trains leaving Entrocamento to Tomar before the parade. At some of the later stations, people were not able to enter the train.

The train ticket prices depend from where you depart — we paid €10 for two people there and back. Make sure to check train times, as no additional trains are added for the festival. The train station is just a 5 minute walk from the center of Tomar.

2. It’s HOT — So Come Prepared

The crowds are pretty thick and you’ll be standing a lot, so come prepared for the heat.

Central Portugal is scorching in the summertime, and it rarely rains. The temperature during the daytime averages around 87°F (31°C) — but that doesn’t mean it can’t be hotter. There might be a light breeze, but the sun rarely is covered by the clouds, and it bears down on you with its full might.

It’s humid, hot, and borderline unbderable. Bring lots (and I mean lots) of water, sunscreen, sunglasses, and a hat.

3. Bring The Necessities, including a Foldable Chair

Umbrelas, food, water and a chair are necessities as you’ll probably be waiting a while.

Sunday in Tomar is crazy. Restaurants have been booked solid for weeks, and although some bars/cafes are selling things like bifanas and pregos, many run out. On top of all that, people are already starting to claim their spot on the parade route as early as 3 to 4 hours before it even begins.

As we explored Tomar, we noticed that a lot of people brought coolers full of food with them. They choose a spot (preferably underneath the shade) along the route and enjoyed a hearty lunch — paired perfectly with a cold beer or some wine. A lot of people also brought their own umbrellas (for shade) and foldable chairs/stools.

We brought two giant bottles of water that we finished before the parade even ended. We also stood in line for 30 minutes at a cafe only to be informed that they sold out of bifanas. If I were to do it over again, I would have packed more water and more snacks. Also, make sure bring cash.

4. Choose Your Spot Early

One of the main reasons to come prepared with all the essentials is the parade viewing. People secure their spots early — by the time we arrived at noon, people had already claimed their spot right next to the partition. If you want a front-row view, plan to arrive early and stay put.

5. Watch the Parade After It Leaves Praça da República

The tabulerios in the Praça da República

The parade officially starts at 4 pm. The tabulieros make their way to the Praça da República to get the official blessing from church representatives. Once the blessing is done (around 5:30 – 6 pm), the parade is not over.

However, at this point, most of the crowds have completely dissipated, and everyone has chosen to go home or do something else. This is the best time to see the parade if you hate crowds. There are fewer people around, and it isn’t as hot.

You can linger around the streets and wait for the tabuleiros to walk by — make sure to check the official parade route so you don’t miss it. This is also perfect for anyone who wants to take some up-close shots.

Festival of the Trays, Tomar

Remember — the Event is 10 Days Long

If you are not a fan of crowds, there are other ways of enjoying the magic of the Festa dos Tabuleiros without attending the main Sunday event. For example, there is the Cortejo dos Rapazes, or the Children’s Parade, which has the same structure as the main parade but with children carrying the trays.

On Saturday, which is still busy, but not as busy as Sunday, you’ll be able to experience the Cortejos Parciais dos Tablueiros or partial processions. It is the same idea as the main event but with fewer tabuleiros. Right after the event, all of the trays are returned to the Mata Nacional dos Sete Montes park, where you can get an up-close look at each one — this is all free.

Many people come and take pictures of the beautiful decorations, or they visit Tomar in evening to enjoy the music and partake in some partying. If you don’t like crowds, there are still plenty of things to do during the festival.

Festival of the Trays, Tomar

Staying in Tomar: Booking a Hotel

Staying on the Rua Serpa Pinto is ideal as the parade route runs down this street to get to the Praça da República

Another option is to stay in the city of Tomar during the festival to fully enjoy its festivities. If you do plan on booking a hotel or an Airbnb, be aware that you need to book several months in advance.

There are a couple of hotels that are located right on the parade route. If you are willing to pay a little extra, you can request a room overlooking the street, allowing you to enjoy the parade without having to push through the crowds. Here are some accommodations I recommend:

Hotel República is a 5-star hotel located right in the Praça da República, which is where all the tabuleiros stop to receive the blessing. Along with luxury amenities, including a continental breakfast, you can also book a deluxe room overlooking the square. This is the perfect spot to enjoy the parade. ➥ BOOK IT HERE

Templar Spot is a two-bedroom apartment-style accomodation that offers everything you need, including a private balcony overlooking the parade route. ➥ BOOK IT HERE

Varandas do Nabão is an apartment-style accommodation that comes with amenities like a fully-equipped kitchen, dishwasher, and a terrace that overlooks the parade as it passes by. ➥ BOOK IT HERE

Residencial União is a quaint little guest house located right on Rua Serpa Pinto. The hotel offers guests rooms with balconies that overlook the parade as it passes down the street. ➥ BOOK IT HERE

These are just a couple of hotels within the area, but if you do decide to book a stay, remember to book in advance.

The Festival of the Trays, Is it Worth it?

Absolutely! The Festa dos Tabuleiros is more than just a festival. It’s a remarkable blend of history, culture, community spirit, and vibrant celebrations that leaves an indelible mark on every visitor. It’s an experience steeped in centuries-old traditions, wrapped up in the warmth and camaraderie of the people of Tomar. The vivacious parades, colorful decorations, and festive atmosphere create an unforgettable spectacle.

So, if you’re wondering whether to attend, my advice is: don’t hesitate! This is a unique and mesmerizing cultural experience that’s well worth any effort. In the end, the Festival of the Trays is not just an event, it’s a journey into the heart of Portugal’s rich cultural heritage.

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