Every two years the city of Coimbra holds a massive celebration honoring their patron saint, Queen Isabel (Rainha Santa Isabel) that goes on over the course of several weeks in July. Being in honor of a saint, this is a religious festival, but like all festas in Portugal it has its secular side. Street food and drink carts line the streets where the parades march, and every restaurant and pastelaria has its doors flung open to the street. Girls everywhere - from those barely able to walk to the university aged - appear dressed as Rainha Santa Isabel. Folks who live in town lean down off their balconies to watch, while sharing a bottle of wine with friends. There are mimes, balloon sellers, buskers, and if we're lucky enough someone will be selling farturas.
Rainha Santa Isabel's statue is brought forth from the Igreja da Santa Clara across the Ponte de Santa Clara, through Portagem and down the white calçada street to Santa Cruz Cathedral on Praça 8 de Maio. The religious hold candles and silently listen to the bishop's benediction, while others munch on a bag of pipocas. Fireworks fill the sky as friends and families, smushed together in the massive crowd, turn their faces and cameras to the sky.
The legends surrounding Rainha Santa Isabel are numerous. What is known for sure about her is that she was a very kind and pious woman and frequently helped the poor and sick. Some tales tell of her healing injuries and illnesses or stopping wars, but the most well-known in Portugal is the story of the roses.
Isabel was forced to marry the King of Portugal, Dom Denis, when she was very young, and apparently he was a monumental douche. It angered him to see her spending so much time helping the poor, so one day he attempted to catch her stealing bread from his kitchens to give to the hungry. When he cornered her and demanded to see what she had been hiding in her cape, Isabel told Denis it was just some flowers. When she let her cape fall to show him, instead of the bread she had taken, a pile of roses fell to the ground. This happened about 700 years ago and is still remembered today during all even numbered years in Coimbra.