O Galo de Barcelos – the Portuguese Rooster

Barcelos is a small town in northern Portugal, on the Portuguese Way path to Camino de Santiago.  Even before we visited Portugal, I had seen pictures of that little Barcelos rooster, usually a black one, and often wondered about the significance of the image.  As usual, it was on one of our travel adventures that we learned more about this little creature.

Portuguese Rooster

We had booked a ‘long-stay’ of three weeks in a lovely apartment hotel in the Algarve region through a popular travel organization in Vancouver.  It was a fantastic price, which included a return flight to Europe, a few days in Lisbon, then a coach transport to our destination in the Algarve.  It was lovely weather, nice and warm, even though it was November . . . pretty damp and chilly back in Vancouver.  The hotel was right on the beach, with its own pools, and with many shops and restaurants nearby. 

Portugal is well known for many things other than its famous Port wine.  They make lovely ceramics, pottery and a variety of ‘tourist’ ornaments.  While driving around the countryside, we drove through acres of ‘cork’ forests, huge trees with thick cork bark that are harvested in a special, sustainable way.  We visited local shops, gypsy markets and other fascinating spots, especially the ceramic shops with their famous blue and white azulejos tiles.  We selected special pieces to take home, both for souvenirs and to include in some of our redecoration projects.  We noticed that the beautiful little rooster figure, the Galo de Barcelos,was ubiquitous, available everywhere, in a variety of colours and decor, usually black or white, a large red comb on his head, with various decorations of flowers, hearts, etc. all over it.

I was intrigued by the figure, and knew there must be a story there, and started to ask questions.  I found several versions, very similar, based on the following tale.

Apparently many years ago, (fifteenth century) a pilgrim returning from his Pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela happened to pass through the village of Barcelos, just at the wrong time.  A local unsolved crime was immediately blamed on the stranger and he was sentenced to death.  He was brought before a judge, who happened to be eating his dinner of a roasted rooster.  The poor pilgrim pleaded with the judge and declared his innocence.  In an act of desperation and faith, he declared that to prove his innocence, the rooster would rise up and crow three times at the hour of his hanging.  The judge didn’t believe him, and by this time had lost his appetite and put aside his dinner.  The next day, as they brought the man to the gallows, just before he was hanged, the rooster jumped up in front of the crowd and crowed loudly.  Of course, this convinced the judge that he was mistaken and the man must be innocent and was released.

The pilgrim returned to the village at a later time and sculpted a cross in honour of the Virgin Mary and St. James, whom he felt was responsible for saving him.  The cross is referred to as the Cross of the Lord of the Rooster and is still there in the Archeological Museum of Barcelos.

Portuguese Rooster
Our Portuguese Rooster that we brought home

The moral of this story, if there is one, is to not take everything at face value . . . ask questions.  What appears to be normal for the locals, but seems curious to you, might have an interesting history.  What is the story, what is behind the legend?  It is little stories and legends like this that enhance our travels, adding authenticity and a little spice to our trips. 


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