Rooster of Barcelos

The Portuguese Rooster Symbol of Good Luck and Happiness

Rooster of Barcelos

Reading Time: 5 minutes

Perched on a plateau overlooking the River Cavado, in northern Portugal, is the charming medieval town of Barcelos. This is the Minho region of the country, known for its beautiful green hills, dense forests, meandering valleys, thriving vineyards, and picturesque villages.   

Barcelos is home to the largest open-air market in the country and one of the biggest in Europe. Every Thursday, people flock to Campo da Republica, an immense tree-lined public square in the middle of town to enjoy the day at Feira de Barcelos. Colorful tents dot the landscape with festive displays of regional foods and products, farm-fresh produce, flowers, eggs, live chickens, handicrafts, pottery, embroidery, and linens.   

The market manages to retain its rural roots in spite of its popularity with tourists and townsfolk from other parts of the country and beyond. Thursdays in Barcelos are a weekly tradition — a time to stock up on everything from sausages to farm equipment. 

Taking center stage throughout the market is a colorful character known as the Galo de Barcelos (Rooster of Barcelos). Some tables are stacked high with ceramic and metal statuettes in a variety of sizes, while others display his image on kitchen linens, placemats, coffee mugs, corkscrews, ceramic tiles, and a host of other household items and souvenirs.  

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Souvenirs in the town of Barcelos. Portuguese rooster (rooster of Barcelos) souvenirs are sold inside.

This happy rooster with a bright red comb, adorned with hearts and flowers, is the unofficial symbol of Portugal, representing honesty, integrity, trust, and honor. He is said to be the embodiment of the Portuguese people’s love of life.   

One might wonder how a barnyard bird managed to capture the hearts of so many villagers in Barcelos, and how widespread his likeness is throughout the country. It all began with a folktale from long ago in the 14th century. There are many versions of the story of the Portuguese rooster that continue to be embellished as time goes by. 

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Traditional Portuguese rooster In a Christmas Ornament

The Legend of the Galo de Barcelos 

One night in the village of Barcelos, a stranger lingered awhile at a local inn, hoping for a meal and a place to sleep. He said he was following the path to Santiago de Compostela in Spain — the culmination of the Camino de Santiago pilgrimage route. He was tired and hungry, hoping for a respite before traipsing on the next morning. 

Suddenly, word spread that a valuable piece of silver had been stolen during an elaborate banquet hosted by a wealthy property owner. A search began with men carrying torches, scouring the town for the culprit who did this dastardly deed. Suddenly, the lone stranger found himself accused of the crime, despite his pleas of innocence.   

No one believed the bearded man huddled in the darkness behind the inn; he was an obvious suspect and needed to appear before the judge who happened to be a guest at the banquet. Soon, without any discussion, it was declared the stranger was guilty. and sentenced to death by hanging. 

Hoping for a reprieve, the man cried out in desperation while pointing to a platter on the banquet table with a roasted rooster surrounded by potatoes and carrots, “It is as certain that I am innocent as that rooster will crow when they hang me.” 

The judge pushed aside his plate, declining to eat his meal, but otherwise ignored the stranger’s plea. Without delay, he ordered the sentence to be carried out, instructing his henchmen to proceed with the hanging. 

Just as the rope was placed around the stranger’s neck, the rooster sprang from the platter and crowed at the top of his lungs. A bit bewildered and obviously aware of his error, the judge ran to the gallows where he discovered the man had been saved from death, thanks to a poorly tied knot in the rope. He was immediately freed and sent off on his pilgrimage in peace. 

Years later, as the story unfolds, the man returned to Barcelos to sculpt the Calvary (Crucifix) to the Lord of the Rooster (Cruzeiro do Senhor do Galo) — a tribute to show his gratitude for his feathered friend. A stone sculpture still stands today in Barcelos at the open-air Archaeological Museum (Museu Arqueológico) that was built over the ruins of what was once the Palace of the Counts of Barcelos. 

A curious note — if this really is just a fable, who carved the crucifix with a rooster holding up a man on the cross? Evidently, someone in the village was inspired and compelled to chisel the likeness in stone. It seems the tall and narrow obelisk originated from Barcelinhos, one of the 60 parishes in town, where it was moved to the palace in the 18th century as a tribute to the Portuguese rooster and the stranger.  

All Around Town 

Souvenirs and a sacred stone aren’t the only images of the famous rooster in Barcelos. There are vibrantly painted murals on retaining walls and buildings in every neighborhood, and giant statues stand tall in parks and on street corners. The Museu de Olaria (Museum of Pottery) is showcasing a special exhibit, through December 2021 of the happy rooster with 9,000 pieces of art on display. It’s obvious the Galo do Barcelos is a prominent member of the community, reminding everyone that hope and happiness are achievable.  

“It’s a delight how the rooster has brought such notoriety to Barcelos,” says Goretti Medeiros, owner of Rooster Camisa, home of Portuguese-inspired products here in the United States, “He’s definitely a goodwill ambassador that brings a smile to everyone, whether visiting the city or ordering something online” 

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Goretti Medeiros

From an early age, Goretti grew up with enthusiasm for all things Portuguese. Her parents immigrated to California from the Azores, an archipelago of scenic islands west of mainland Portugal in the Atlantic Ocean. She speaks the language fluently and enjoys visiting her adopted country frequently. 

 In July 2019, Goretti felt like a kid in the candy store when she was invited to tour one of the certified factories in Barcelos that produce the rooster statues. The creation of the figurines is passed down from generation to generation — a proud art form that is taught with great care and pride. Imagine her surprise when introduced to one of the master painters at the factory, getting to sit by her side to paint whimsical red hearts on one of the statues. There’s a very informative video and more information about Goretti’s factory tour on her blog at the company website: roostercamisa.com    

Long live the Galo de Barcelos! He reminds us to keep smiling and remember that when one rises above the storm, there will be sunshine! 

Originally published in the December 2020/January 2021 issue of Backyard Poultry and regularly vetted for accuracy.

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