Night of the Witches in Montalegre.

“The Castle of Montalegre will be demolished this night” promised the website for “Sextafeira 13” (Friday 13th ). We were invited to dine at the table of the Roman Catholic priest who has popularised this event over the last two decades, and as this was the only one in 2011 it would be special.

Having driven 200km to Vila Real we met our host Alberto as he finished work. We drove to his house to collect his wife Ceu (Sky) and left Harry the dog with his hound, Luna. He took us a further 100km north to Montalegre, isolated in the mountains, then on to a little village with a manor-house converted to a hotel. This is owned by Padre Fontes , a good friend of Alberto. He is an expert in local traditions and lore, and is trying to keep them and local herbalism alive.

Dinner was excellent, starting with the presunto (thinly-sliced air-dried leg of ham) for which the town is famed, followed with very tender roast pork and delicious local vegetables, accompanied by specially bottled “Wine of the Dead”.

During dessert we were treated to the attentions of three zombies (?!) wandering to the accompaniment of a couple of Celtic bagpipes – Montalegre is a pocket of Celtic culture right on the southern border of Galicia. A digestif liqueur, an extract of herbs made by the priest, rounded off the meal before we returned to town.

It was nearly midnight and the way up through the narrow cobbled streets to the castle was lit by flaming torches. It towered over us, and clearly a Spectacle was about to happen, judging from the subtle light-show, the high-quality ambient music and the thousands of spectators gathering, many wearing pointy hats and witchy make-up.

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The music became heavier and a male “witch” arrived on the stage in front of the castle. He poured forty litres of aguardente into his cauldron and set fire to it.

For half an hour he stirred and ladled it, adding lemons, sugar and herbs to ensure his spell worked. Against the black sky the blue and yellow flames were enchanting.

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A troupe of dancers performed beside and around him, frenetic loud music from bagpipes and drums, a startlingly vivid and explosive firework display above the castle as the spell took hold, and then . . . the lightshow of the castle walls collapsing, complete with intense rumblings and crashing – WILD !!!

The night continued with drinking the “witches brew” and dancing for many. We four headed for home, boggled by the spectacle.

En route we stopped at the hot springs (constant 78°C) in Chaves, where we took turns drinking the hot volcanic water from a “witches drinking horn” given to Janet by one of our party of 13 guests; by now it was 3am on Saturday 14th !

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