Rush hour ended a couple of hours ago but traffic is at a standstill on the cobbled streets of downtown Lisbon and pedestrians are weaving between the vehicles. People are heading back into the city to celebrate the Feast of St Anthony.

This popular celebration might sound religious — indeed, its origins can be traced to the veneration of Anthony of Padua, the saint who was born here in the Portuguese capital back in 1195 — but for most people it’s simply an excuse to head out and party. A couple of men in T-shirts pass me wearing comic tonsure wigs. The mood is light and as dusk turns to night the crowd is swelling. Let’s see if it’s true that the night of 12-13 June is Lisbon’s equivalent of carnival.

Along the Avenida da Liberdade, the grand, tree-lined boulevard, people are already viewing the annual Marchas Populares de Lisboa, a costume parade involving groups representing the city’s districts. I squeeze through the spectators to lean on one of the aluminium barriers lining the route. People around me cheer on the parade’s dancing men and women and joke with bandsmen when they pause nearby.

A family next to me unpacks cinnamon-smelling farturas, sweet fingers of deep-fried dough sold from vans parked around the city. Eating and drinking is very much part of this festival.

I decide to visit the Alfama district for a supper of sardines grilled by residents on street-side, charcoal-fuelled barbecues. They’re served at the tables of temporary restaurants set up wherever space is available.

Passing the Praça da Figueira, the public square dominated by a mounted statue of King Joao I dressed in medieval armour, I see market stalls doing a brisk business in what appears to be multicoloured flowers.

Approaching, l realise the stalls are, in fact, selling pots of bush basil topped by gaudy paper flowers. Poems expressing affection are attached to toothpicks and poke out like small flags. People are buying them to give to their loved ones; it’s a tradition associated with the Feast of St Anthony.

“St Anthony liked bush basil. He planted it and made miracles,” a stallholder responds to my question about the origin of the custom. I wait for more, hoping to hear about underlying associations and symbolism, but nothing is forthcoming.

“Would you like to buy one?” she asks hopefully, but I decline, assuming it will be tricky to navigate the increasingly busy streets carrying a potted plant.

So many people are streaming towards Alfama that it looks as if a football stadium has just emptied. No one is going anywhere quickly — but there’s no need to hurry. Music blares from loudspeakers mounted on trucks and people dance holding plastic cups filled with beer or sangria. I join the party; everyone does, it seems.

At 3.30am, with the streets still packed, I decide it’s time for bed. Many people will keep going for hours longer. I’m starting to realise why 13 June is a holiday in Lisbon.

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