The beautiful village of Várzea Grande used in the past to be known as Várzea de Além (‘field over there’), while Várzea de Aquém (‘field on this side’) was the name for the village of Várzea Pequena - ‘this side’ and ‘over there’ referring to the villages being on different sides of the river Ceira. ‘Vila Nova do Ceira’ is the name of the freguesia of which Várzea Grande is the principle village, although people do currently use it to refer to the village of Várzea Grande itself.
At the heart of the village is the beautiful church of São Pedro, that sits in a large square and strikes the half hour. Here linden trees offer welcome shade, and people gather to play cards, chat with each other, or just watch the activities of the village. Around the square are the shops: a grocer, a pharmacy, two butchers, a hairdresser, clothes shop and gift shop, and three cafés. There is a well-stocked mini-supermarket in the village, and the agricultural co-operative society, that also operates a petrol station, and a wood-yard. The village has its own newspaper - ‘The Varzeense’ - that is produced here, as well as a Philharmonic Band, two folkloric dance groups and a modern dance group.
Várzea Grande has more large houses and quintas than any other village in the concelho. Its wealth originated from the fertile agricultural land in the valley, and the landowners received generous profits from their land. Várzea Pequena, on the other side of the river, is actually the older of the villages, and Várzea Grande grew up largely during the 19th century. Today it merges with several of the smaller hamlets that are situated on its outskirts.
The village of Várzea Grande sits between four hills and was effectively isolated from the outside world - at the beginning of the 20th century, the news of the end of the monarchy and the beginning of the Republic (5th October 1910) only arrived seven days later on 12th of October. This isolation meant that the inhabitants of this area preserved their traditions and customs until quite recently.
One curious custom was that when a women in the village was in labour, and things were not going very well, they would send a young girl to the Chapel of Mártir, and she would climb a ladder on to the roof and turn over one of the roof tiles. This had the effect (supposedly) of shifting the energy, and often when the girl came back the baby had been born.
The religious festivals of the year were marked with activities that do not always have an obvious connection with Christianity, but often reflect a much older way of life.
In the middle of the 40 days between Carnival (Shrove Tuesday) and Easter, the custom of “Serração da Velha” (‘Sawing of the Old Woman’) took place. Only men took part in this tradition. At night, they made a puppet by filling clothes with straw. This puppet was supposed to represent the oldest women in the village. Together they went with the puppet to the old woman’s house, then in front of her house they sawed the puppet in half, using a big two-person saw, pretending all the while to cry at her death. When the deed was done it was time to read her ‘will’ to the assembled crowd: the old woman’s clothes and accessories were given away to different people, according to some relevant satirical criteria -.e.g. “I donate my shoes to the priest because his are worn-out; my underwear I donate to … because I saw him yesterday without clothes in my neighbour’s house..!” This was a way of voicing social criticism, usually aimed at the authorities or wealthy people of the area.
The feast of São João is the midsummer festival still held on 24th of June, and in Várzea Grande it used to be celebrated in style. A pavilion was erected in the centre of the village, in the middle of which was placed a 4m high pole, decorated with myrtle and river ferns, that everybody would dance around. Also at the festival of São João every year, the villagers built a big balloon made of wire and covered with silky paper. It was held over a fire in the square to heat the air inside, then a piece of cloth soaked with resin and oil was fixed on the bottom of the balloon and lit. When the church clock struck midnight, the villagers let the balloon fly. Sometimes it travelled as far as Arganil or Lousã. Sadly, in the 1960’s this tradition was outlawed because of the danger of fires.
On the day of São Pedro (29th June) the water of the river was considered to be holy. It was the custom for the women of the village to get up before sunrise on this day, and go to bathe themselves in the river to purify their bodies and souls, dressed only in their ‘combinações’(undergarments). Of course the menfolk knew that the women did this, and some of them would hide to watch the women bathing! At night they danced around the tree of the pavilion that was still standing from the festa of São João, held five days previously.