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Enterro Da Gata' 98

Do not ask for gateau in a Portuguese café. You will be served with cat.

I have just realised, whilst thinking about this linguistic caution, that the cat buried by Portuguese students to mark the end of the academic year is a female cat — "gata" and not a tomcat — "gato".

Some explanation may be needed. I've just returned from Portugal, where I was studying at the University of Minho in Braga. I saw a lot of computers, which is what the Portuguese government gave me a grant for. I also saw some peculiar ceremonies, including "Enterro da Gata' 98", or the Burial of the Cat. We all know the Oxford traditions — May Morning, the All Souls centennial mallard hunt, the OUSU President's annual announcement that this will be the year we finally get a Central Student Union — so let me demonstrate that other places have traditions too, and tell you about Braga, the Minho, and that unfortunate cat.

The University of Minho is named for Portugal's north-western province, in turn named after the river that separates it from Galicia. Very green, very agricultural — terraced hills, tiny smallholdings with grapevines trained across their entrances, and local markets with fat tomatoes, baskets of live chickens, and excellent smoked sausages — and in winter very wet, with more rain than the UK, and a rainfall graph that goes exponential every October but drops back down again in spring. Except that this year it didn't, and I spent much electricity drying out rain-sodden clothes and shoes over the heater in my room in the University residence. Better than Oxford though, from the tales I heard of people canoing down the cycle path to Marston and rowing up the railway line to Banbury.

Braga, the province's main town, is an hour's train-ride inland from Oporto; it was founded by the Romans, and is the country's religious centre. One tourist brochure calls it the Portuguese Rome. This is clearly over the top — as the Rough Guide points out, the Portuguese Canterbury would be more appropriate. The Guide du Routard, in a typical misapplication of French romanticism, calls Braga "a drop of Rome, a dash of Prague, and very Minho". This is also over the top, except for the Minho bit.

A quick description: historic city centre of twisty little cobbled streets surrounding the cathedral; white-painted palaces and churches with wide stone frames surrounding the doors and windows, giving them a disproportionately heavy look to English eyes; tall, thin shabby houses squashed together like strangers in a crowded Tube, arms pressed to sides in order to avoid body contact; house walls covered in flaking white plaster or dusty blue, green and red azulejo tiles; a central square with fountains and two excellent 19th century cafes hidden away behind a row of arches. No parks — the Portuguese don't like green space in cities, except for formal gardens in front of palaces.

At random intervals throughout the city centre, pieces of street sculpture appear: a concrete guitar, an angel on a cameraman's scaffold, a giant inverted chicken foot sticking out of the ground. This last stands at the bottom of a road named Chaos Street, after its traffic. (Actually, I made that up. Portuguese drivers being what they are, you'd need to give the name to every street in the country. The name has a tilde over the a, means "pavement", and is derived from the Latin word "plano" meaning "plain". I don't know what possible linguistic perversion could convert "plano" into "chãos", but it does demonstrate something about the clarity with which the language is pronounced. Or not.)

In a square not far from Chaos Street, the Campo da Vinha, you discover the second worst idea ever in town planning: underground fountains. These look like manhole covers, except that each regularly emits a powerful jet of water, providing passing pedestrians with an unsuspected anal wash. The worst idea ever in town planning was telling the Portuguese about concrete. This has allowed them to build some truly hideous buildings, such as the Pizza Hut also in the Campo da Vinha, carefully sited so as to obstruct every possible view of the pretty old buildings surrounding the square. But it's good to live in Braga — as the seven-segment displays erected by the Council on every street corner will tell you. With equal accuracy, they will also inform you that the temperature is -1 degrees, and that the time is ||:|| o'clock, since all but one of the segments is invariably out of action.

All this is ringed by a rapidly-expanding shell of plain concrete apartment blocks and half-built access roads that lead past clusters of cement mixers and JCBs before terminating unexpectedly to deposit you in a gravel pit, partly-excavated drainage ditch, or river bed. The river is the Este, a mud-coloured stream that smells of rotting cabbages and runs — or oozes, when it's not raining — through the town. At intervals along its banks and elsewhere, are old stone cottages with tiny farm gardens — forty cabbages growing behind the back door, or two cows staring out from the gloom of a corrugated-iron shelter. The cottages are cramped between the river, the roads, the factories, and the new apartment blocks: ferns sprout from their walls, grapevines are trained over the gardens, from which rise dull-grey electricity pylons, and they rest against the back walls of modern shopping centres and gymnasiums. In parts of Braga, everything seems to be built on everything else.

Braga's sights include Bom Jesus, a monumental stone stairway built up the side of the hill 3km outside town. You climb past twelve chapels containing mouldering tableaux that commemorate events in the Crucifixion, and on to the church of Bom Jesus itself, near which is a little park and cafe. It's half an hour's walk from the University of Minho, and a lovely place to sit and watch the sun go down whilst sipping beer and munching an accompanying snack of tremoços, or pickled lupin seeds. It's even more lovely if you can avoid worrying about the thoroughness of the pickling, lupin seeds being toxic when raw.

Another sight is the Carrefour hypermarket, which has one hundred checkouts (ninety-seven permanently closed), sells bicycles, books, stereo systems and smoked pigs' heads, and is so large that the shelf-stackers wear roller-blades. Can you imagine their training courses? It must be more fun than Sainsbury's, where the only thing they teach the assistants is how to flap their hands in the air and ding a bell when the till roll runs out.

The Carrefour pig heads are not just there for show. A lot of Minho cuisine is pig-based. Never before have I eaten pigs' ears, pigs' toenails, pigs' intestines, or tripe. One popular regional recipe, described in the Rough Guide as "the unspeakable Papas do Sarrabulho, worth paying good money to avoid eating", is a mince and bread stew flavoured with cumin, in which float chunks of blood pudding, crispy-fried intestine, and other less identifiable organs. There's also Cozida a Portuguesa, a thick soup which contains boiled cabbage and olives, bacon, more blood pudding, smoked sausage, and — at the better restaurants — a pig's ear and a pig's toenail. (Toenail is like hair — not nutritious. You gnaw the meat around it, like we did with our own toenails when babies.)

Still, the pig parts are tasty, at least as long as you don't think about how well the intestines were washed. And it's interesting to be put in the role of naive outsider adapting to local customs. One Saturday lunchtime, I ordered Feijoada a Brasileira, or Brazilian bean stew. This arrived as: one large pot of bean and pork stew; a plate of orange segments; a small pot of boiled green seaweedy-looking stuff; and another pot of white powder. In what order was I to eat these? Should the orange be reserved to the end, to cleanse the mouth after the heavy meats? Was the white powder a seasoning like salt (you wouldn't tip an entire salt-celler into your plate, would you?), or should I mix it all with the stew? For all I knew, given that the papers had just reported the arrest of a local café-owner for heroin-dealing, I was supposed to stuff it up my nose. Matters were made worse by the fact that I was the only customer, and the restaurant's entire staff — chef, two waiters, and a sullen-looking waitress — had nothing to do but stand in front of their counter and stare at me as I ate. This eventually grew quite unnerving, and I was starting to imagine myself as in a David Lynch film, bundled into the kitchen before making an involuntary appearence in the evening's batch of Feijoada. Luckily, some more customers came in just then and broke the spell.

Anyway, that's Braga. What about the University? This is only twenty years old, but in its student traditions, tries to mimic Portugal's oldest university, Coimbra. These apparently go back to a dog-Latin text called the Código da Praxe. The academic year starts in September with the "latada" or baptism, where the freshers have their hair chopped and their faces daubed with paint, are forced to do press-ups and other indignities, and are paraded around town with toilet rolls tied to them. Last September, I saw the Computing Science freshers outside their department with floppy discs on ribbons round their necks, bowing in a group to one of the second years; another group of students in the central square near the fountains, cleaning the municipal band-stand one by one with a toothbrush; and two students shuffling through the Economics Department with feet tied together three-legged-race style, searching for the computer room.

At the other end of the year, in May, is the Queima das Fitas, when penultimate-year students burn a ribbon in a cauldron. Apparently, this entitles them to decorate their traditional black folders with ribbons in their department's colours. This is only one event in an entire week of celebrations, including pop concerts, an academic parade, and lots of beer-drinking.

In Braga, the Queima has become Semana do Enterro da Gata — the Week of the Burial of the Cat. This opens with a truly odd occasion which commences on May 8th in the railway station. The week's programme announces that the Burial will begin at 21:00, so I go down to the station five minutes early. No-one is there apart from three teenagers in army uniform — probably conscripts returning from leave — and two students. I can tell they're students because they're both wearing the traditional long black cloak and tricorn hat — likely bought from "Loja Tricornia", the Tricorn Shop in the University's student union building. Unlike in Oxford, these people actually enjoy wearing their academic dress.

Students come and go, climbing out of cars and making last-minute arrangements via mobile phones, until by 21:40 there are about twenty milling around the station forecourt, all in their cloaks. Just before ten, a whole lot more pour in. One carries a stack of booklets and meanders around the station, handing out copies to anyone looking sufficiently academic. I pass this test — perhaps because of the Universidade do Minho T-shirt, bought yesterday from Loja Tricornia. Wearing such a thing is probably as naff here as wearing a Shepherd and Woodward Oxford University sweatshirt in Oxford. However, as an ignorant foreigner, I can get away without understanding such subtleties.

The booklets are entitled "Testamento da Gata" — the Cat's Will — and contain fifty-seven verses of doggerel. Many concern events of which I've never heard — who is the ex-president Jeronimus mentioned in the first verse, and of what was he president? However, I've been reading the local papers, and I do recognise some references. The overall theme is "Oceanos" — the Oceans — after that chosen for Expo 98 in Lisbon. One verse refers to a recent increase in student fees, comparing the government's low spending on education with the sums it lavished on Expo 98. We'd feel the same about the Millenium Dome, but at least the Expo rebuilding will leave Lisbon with another metro line, a new station that some compare to a glass cathedral, and a refurbished waterfront in one of its most run-down areas.

Another verse talks about Cabril. It seems that last year, the goat farmers in this mountain village started buying brucelosis-infected goats to add to their herds, on the theory that if they were later to "discover" these and report them to the government, they'd get lots of money in compensation. This might have been a better idea had they not managed also to infect a fair proportion of the local human population. Cue TV news shots of hospital patients wheezing into an interviwer's microphone as they explain how they became infected.

The Oporto train arrives on Line 3, and out step six bearers, dressed in white fright wigs and long red cloaks, reverently carrying the cat in its bier. A fanfare sounds, and they walk across Lines 2 and 1 onto the station concourse, and out into the forecourt. By the door, there's a stack of thin brown candles in little paper cups, supplied by one of the many "Artigos Religiosos" shops that appear throughout the centre of town. As we emerge, we each take and light a candle, positioning the cup around it to shield the flame from the wind.

We parade the 400 metres from the station to the town gate, stopping at intervals to kneel, howl at the moon, and chant something that I don't understand and wouldn't even if I knew more Portuguese than I do. Several times, we do this in the middle of a main road, which given the queue of angry motorists backed up behind us, does not seem wise.

It takes an hour to reach the gate. There are now over a thousand people in the parade — candles still lit — and crowds lining the streets. Braga loves parades, and sees a lot of them. There were six religious processions during Holy Week, and will be more to commemorate the Festival of the City on its Saint's Day, St John's on June 24th. That Festival, incidentally, finishes with an all-night party in one of the central streets where everyone hits everyone else on the head with a squeaky hammer as a sign of love and affection. They once used leeks, but squeaky hammers are easier to mass-produce. Avoid children. The concertina-like squeakers on the hammerheads are not hard, but the wooden handles are, and the average child's aim is not very precise.

We end up half-an-hour later in the Campo da Vinha. The six bearers carry the bier to a covered stage in one corner of the square, and read the Testamento over the sound system, changing round at each verse and coming at last to the cat's final wish. The bier is ceremonially deposited at the other end of the square, and the cat now deemed well and truly buried, for this year at least. There's just time to run to a café and buy some coffee before the hour-long midnight serenade. This is followed at 01:00 by a concert from the Tunas, musicians who keep up the tradition of the 16th and 17th Century student minstrels, in costume — cloaks and tricorn hats again — as well as in music. They seem to be popular. Every university has its own Tunas, and most of their CDs are available in Braga's main record shop.

So that was the Burial, on Friday. On Saturday, the "Monumentais Festas do Enterro da Gata' 98" continued with a motor-rally and a midnight pop-concert and disco in the park. This went on until 4 in the morning, and there were concerts every night for the rest of the week, many with big-name national bands. Students stay up all night, and can be found recovering over multiple cups of espresso when the cafes reopen. My friend José has an apartment that overlooks one such café, and was becoming irritated at being woken up every morning by the gathering crowd. Lectures are still timetabled, but many lecturers won't bother, knowing that anyone who does turn up will be incapable of understanding anything that's said. The student president has formally asked the city for its understanding during this week of noise and drunkenness, and no-one seems to mind too much — perhaps because the University contributes so much to the economy. Without it, Braga's six-screen cinema, art-house, and many of the cafés would probably not survive.

Wednesday sees the academic cortege. It's like a Rag Procession, but grander: each department constructs a float and drives it through the streets. The whole thing lasts for four hours and completely jams up Braga's main east-west street. Some of the floats are superbly constructed: galleons, dolphins, mermaids, a Dickensian Finance Minister grasping for fees to pour into Expo 98. The Informatics department has a huge cardboard computer terminal reading "Windows 98 — we crash more often". Each float is followed by the members of the department, and an odd thing is that they sign one another's T-shirts — all over, like writing on a plaster cast. All this costs a lot of money. I don't know how they raise it in Braga, but when I visited Coimbra and was about to tour its library, one student — an expert cartoonist — had positioned himself strategically by the main gate of the quad, dressed in his robes, and was accosting tourists in order to sell them postcards and caricatures he'd had printed. Some things never change.

And finally, on Friday, the students have organised a bull-run in the nearby town of Viana. Can you believe that? I know people in my Department who have actually taken part in previous years. Unfortunately, my dictionary doesn't translate the word "Garraiada", and I ignored it in the programme, believing it to be just another game of tennis or volleyball. So I missed the sight of those heaving flanks and muscular thighs pounding through the dust in Viana's Praça de Touros. The bulls were pretty impressive too, I heard.

24th May 2000