Vila Nova do Ceira is geographically the smallest freguesia in the concelho of Góis, but is the most densely populated. It benefits from the extremely fertile land in the valley of the River Ceira, that broadens out below the town of Góis where it is joined by the River Sótão at Várzea Grande.
The geology of the area shows the mighty upheavals caused by the activity of glaciation millions of years ago- there are places where you can see how the rock was folded by the immense pressure of the glaciers, and the area is full of huge round boulders and cannon-ball sized stones, that have been put to good use in the local buildings.
The landscape is of gently sloping fields alongside the rivers, where maize, grapevines and olives are still grown in abundance. The sides of the valley rise steeply, planted with a mixture of pine and eucalyptus trees that are grown for the forestry industry. To the south-east, many villages look towards the spectacular peak of the Peneda de Góis, and to the west down the Cerro de Candosa – the dramatic gorge carved by the River Ceira through the rock.
In the 17th century, the name of the freguesia was São Pedro da Várzea. Later it changed into Várzea de Góis, and in 1927 the ‘comissão de moradores’ (residents’ association) asked to change the name into Vila Nova do Ceira, as it is known today.
(The name ‘Várzea’ means ‘tilled plain’, and São Pedro is St. Peter, the patron saint of the capital village of the freguesia, Várzea Grande). The name of Vila Nova do Ceira is often used to refer to Várzea Grande itself. Very much the heart of the freguesia, Várzea Grande is a beautiful village with a strong sense of identity.
The little villages of Vila Nova do Ceira are still well-populated and retain lively communities. It is still possible to see donkeys and oxen at work in the streets and fields, pulling carts laden with produce, and agricultural activity is still the mainstay of the region.
The link between the people and the land has always been very strong throughout this part of the country, and this is reflected in customs and traditions that were held within living memory, some of which survive today. For example, on the 3rd of May, the day of ‘Bela Cruz’ (beautiful cross), people used to go at sunrise to make crosses from reeds and decorate them with flowers picked from the fields. One of these crosses was placed in every field as a gift to the earth so that there would be a good harvest. Another custom was that when a young olive tree produced olives for the first time, only a virgin was allowed to pick them – this supposedly ensured that the tree would grow healthily and always be fertile. The man who told us about these customs remembers that his grandfather always rose while it still was dark and went out to his fields - when the sun came up he would take off his hat, look towards the sun and say a prayer.
People were also very close to each other, and we have been told time and again during our researches how everyone in this area always helped each other. It was customary for all the people of the village to work together on the fields ‘a day for this person and another day for another one.’ By all accounts, there was always a lot of joking and laughter and the famous Portuguese ‘conviviality’ that included sharing food and drink despite times being very hard in the past. Dances were also very popular throughout the region, and held regularly in private homes, as well as at the annual ‘festas’. The area around Várzea Grande was particularly well-known for the presence at dances of a talented blind accordion-player from Sacões. The younger sister of this popular musician, Maria Adelina, still lives in the freguesia of Vila Nova do Ceira, and has generously shared with us her recollections of family and village life from their youth. You can read these here.
During the first half of the 20th century, many men from this region went annually to Alentejo in southern Portugal to harvest the rye. These men were called ‘ratinhos’ (little rats or mice). When they returned, they brought back a bit of the Alentejo culture with them – their folk songs, customs and food, just as they left some of their culture in Alentejo. This is why it is possible to hear the same folk song in Várzea Grande as in a village in the Alentejo.
One of the most significant annual events in this region is the maize harvest, when everyone in the village used to gather together to peel the maize. In the past they would play a popular game known as the ‘chi’ in which anyone finding a dark cob - known variously as the ‘espiga rainha’ ( ‘queen cob’), ‘espiga rei’ (‘king cob’) or ‘espiga mulatta’ (‘dark cob’) would have to give a kiss to everyone else in the group.
Another popular custom in many villages was the ‘Cantar as Pulhas’ ( ‘to sing the misdeeds’) performed at Carnival time, when someone in the village would hide himself at night, and call out through an improvised megaphone all the gossip, rumours and secrets of the village from the past year. This may derive from the medieval tradition of ‘cantigas de escárnio e maldizer’ (‘songs of mockery and slander’) in which satire was used as a popular form of social expression and entertainment.
The closeness and liveliness demonstrated by customs such as these, and many others, is still evident in the community of this region, and there are many occasions throughout the year when people of the villages gather together for ‘conviviality’ and sharing.