Aldeia da Cortelha (Loulé) lives Christmas traditions with a nativity scene and Christmas wood

Nativity scene can be visited in the Largo da Associação dos Amigos da Cortelha until Twelfth Night

Photos: Rúben Bento | Sul Informação

On the edge of the mythical Estrada Nacional 2, wet with the rain that does not stop falling, a donkey and its owner indicate the direction to follow. It is cork that gives shape to them, as well as to the traditional figures of the Cortelha Nativity Scene, but it was the people of the village who set to work in the construction of what is already an attraction in the region.

The rainy day in the Serra do Caldeirão does not invite visits to the crib, neither for those who pass by the road, nor for those who might come on purpose, even more so with night falling and a cold fog forming , on this day marked by the winter solstice.

Built essentially with cork, wood, reeds, moss and river stones, this crib, located in the Largo of the Associação dos Amigos da Cortelha, a small mountain village in Loulé with just over a hundred inhabitants, is «a true work of art ». Who says so is Rui Marcos, president of the association, in an interview with Sul Informação, stressing that “the construction of this crib is a source of pride for our population”.

After "four weeks of hard work collecting all the necessary materials", about two dozen villagers, from children to "some elderly people with staff in hand", set to work. In this representation of the birth of Jesus, cork has "a fundamental role", as it is "our main source of wealth".

The idea arose in 2004 through a challenge by the Algarve's Regional Coordination and Development Commission (CCDR) to «build a crib using raw materials from the region. We ended up winning first place and, from then on, it has been done every year».

«Some mold the cork and lend the tools, others use their muscular strength. Some have greater aptitude for flower arrangements, others for the construction of figures. We know in which part of the crib each one is better, and so, by doing these specific jobs, we are together. That's what matters», stresses Rui Marcos, while repairing the damage caused by the rain.


Cortelha Nativity Scene - Photo: Rúben Bento | Sul Informação


In the Cortelha Crib, there is no lack of traditional figures, such as the Child Jesus in the manger, Mary and Joseph, the Angel, the donkey and the cow.

The three Reis Magos, who are still on their way to the hut, do not take the well-known offerings (gold, incense and myrrh), but local and regional products, such as brandy, arbutus, figs, almonds, bread, olive oil, oranges, lemons and pumpkins. «We put here the best that is made in the village and in the region», explains Rui Marcos.

The nativity scene can be visited until the King's Day, 6 January, in the Largo da Associação dos Amigos da Cortelha, in the municipality of Loulé.

And if this is a tradition that the Association tries to preserve, carrying out it annually, the Madeira Christmas, which is lit on December 24, began to be made three years ago, «inspired by the traditional woods that are made throughout the country. », but which «has already become a tradition in our village as well».

Before being lit, the Madeiro de Natal «gives a lot of work» to Carlos Costa, a member of the association. Together with some inhabitants of the village, for a day or two, "we arrange and collect a few tons of firewood and then burn them in two weeks". In recent years, «we have burned about 20 tons of firewood», but, to maintain the tradition and pass it on to future generations, «it pays to have all this work».

This community bonfire, which is usually lit until Twelfth Night, «has an important symbolism for the villagers, as it ends up becoming a place for socializing. It is interesting to see that people who used to stay cozy in their homes go out into the street, come to the wood and end up having a good time here».

While the wood is lit, the inhabitants of Cortelha usually, between conversations, «roast some sausages, make some toast over charcoal, drink a few glasses of wine and brandy».

“But this is also a place where we gather after dinner on Christmas Eve and New Year's Eve. One brings the accordion, the other sings and this becomes an entertainment,” says Carlos Costa.


Donkey and its owner, made of cork, on the edge of the mythical Estrada Nacional 2 – Photo: Rúben Bento | Sul Informação


The construction of the nativity scene and the visit to Madeiro are two traditions rooted in the inhabitants of Cortelha. For Rui Marcos, Christmas in this village «is lived in a special way».

«In the Algarve mountains, cod is the center of attention, as, in the past, it was only eaten during the Christmas season. There was no money to buy that type of fish at other times of the year», he says.

“This season is also for pig slaughtering and, therefore, there is always a lot of new meat at the table, sausages and greaves, characteristic of the mountains during Christmas dinner. Then, we make the traditional “filhós” yeast, made from bread dough, which are fluffy and are eaten while still hot».

With the “interior becoming more and more desert”, Rui Marcos guarantees that “the work we do to keep these traditions alive is really important, because if we don't make them known to the youngest, they will end up disappearing”.

The association's president also invites “all of you to come and see our crib and visit the village of Cortelha”.


Photos: Rúben Bento | Sul Informação