An attempt to beat the crowds at last year's international chocolate festival in Óbidos backfired on me. Having been warned that the town's narrow medieval streets would be teeming with families on Sunday afternoon, I decided to delay my visit until the following day, hoping things would be a bit calmer.
I arrived on Monday morning to find the town almost deserted except for gangs of cleaners busy removing sticky chocolate-smeared and cherry-stained rubbish from the gutters and overflowing bins. Had I bothered to check the official website, I would have discovered that the activities only run from Thursday to Sunday during the three-week event. This year, it's only from Fridays to Sundays.
Kicking myself for making such a stupid mistake, I stomped past the shuttered ticket booths and glowered at a vacant stall shaped like a giant cup cake. My bad mood quickly evaporated, however, when I noticed that one or two stands were still open for business offering chocolate-filled doughnuts and glistening, gooey cakes that oozed dark brown sauce. I hadn't missed out on all the chocolate, after all.
Óbidos is also famous for ginja, a rich cherry liqueur. I found it impossible run the gauntlet of the signs and stalls in the main tourist street without trying a shot of ginja in an edible cup which is made of, you guessed it, chocolate. The combination of slightly bitter dark chocolate and syrupy cherry is scrumptious.
Mounds of handmade truffles and pralines on display in one of the more permanent chocolate shops near the Santa Maria church lured me inside. Derek has been working there for ten years and since I was the only customer he was happy to chat while I deliberated over what to buy.
“The festival has changed over the years and I think they’ve lost the plot a bit,” he said when I explain how I missed it. "They used to give out tasters but now you have to pay for everything, and that’s on top of the €7 you pay to get in.”
“So what do you get for the €7, then?” I asked.
“Well, there’s entertainment, and the chocolate sculptures. They’re usually the best bit. Some of them are very impressive. This year the theme is the heritage of Óbidos so instead of the Taj Mahal, there’ll be models of the castle and churches and things. And they usually have some kind of fashion show with girls parading around in chocolate jewellery and clothes. Several people told me they didn’t think it was worth the entry fee this year.”
This made me feel a bit better about missing the event but judging by the photos, the chocolate sculptures are quite spectacular. Good enough to make me want to visit the chocolate festival myself to find out whether it's worth the entry fee, anyway. This year, the theme is Disneyland® so I just hope Mickey doesn't melt in the heat. Here's a taster of the sculptures for 2012.
This year, I've planned ahead, done my research and booked a hotel for a Sunday night so that I get the best of both worlds; a chocolate Sunday followed by the calm, clear streets of this gorgeous medieval city on the Monday. The many festivals hosted by Óbidos, such as the medieval fair in July, the opera festival in August and the Christmas fair in December are fun but I also like to have quiet time to roam the streets without hoards of people getting in my way.
It only takes about an hour to get here from Lisbon , making it a popular day trip. If you're travelling under your own steam, I'd recommend getting here in the morning, before the coaches, or late afternoon, after they've gone again.
For more information about the 2012 International Chocolate Festival, including times and prices of workshops and events, click here.
To find out more about other Óbidos events throughout the year, click here.