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Past Masters

While at one of Europe’s biggest medieval fairs, don’t you dare pull out your iPhone

Author Jessica Benavides Canepa Photography Courtesy of Medieval Journey

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PORTUGAL – Deep in a misty forest in northern Portugal, a burly young man wearing tights, a tunic, and a cape bustles through a crowd assembled at the base of an 11th-century castle. “Hurry!” he shouts. “The king is about to introduce his bride!” 

This scene has played itself out every year for two decades, ever since the city of Santa Maria da Feira began hosting its Medieval Journey, an annual fair in which locals reenact scenes from Portugal’s storied past. The tradition started out low-key but has since taken on the scale of a Hollywood blockbuster.

The 12-day event includes bloody battles and jousting tournaments.  Taverns serve wild game, farmer’s broth, and beer; period-inappropriate foods like burgers and pizza are a no-no, and heaven help the serf who checks his iPhone. “We are careful not to employ products that came to Europe after the Age of Discovery,” says festival coordinator Paulo Sérgio Pais. “That would be disastrous.”

Having attracted about 10,000 visitors in its first year, Medieval Journey now gets upward of 600,000 and operates on a budget of more than  $1 million. Costumes worn by participants comprise 8,500 individual items, each meticulously vetted for historical accuracy. “We also have hundreds of weapons, such as swords, spears, crossbows, and catapults,” Pais says. “Our arsenal grows every year.”

This unwavering attention to detail does have its drawbacks. One taverngoer, having endured a lunch of salty meat served with no utensils, regards a pile of berries that’s been put in front of her and asks, not unreasonably, if she might get something more chocolaty instead. “Sorry my dear,” says the server. “Chocolate hasn’t been invented yet.” 

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