Here’s why you see swallows everywhere in Portugal

Ceramic birds symbolizing home are the country’s sweetest souvenir.

When André Apolinario was a child, his parents had an argument over a bird’s nest. The swallows' nest was a fixture on the facade of their house in Gaia, Portugal, had to be removed by workers who were making repairs. Once removed, the birds who had visited annually never returned.

Apolinario, who runs Taste Porto food tours, recalls the spring he realized they weren’t coming back.

“I remember crying and saying to my mom, ‘why are there no swallows this year?’ And my mom yelling at my dad, ‘Why did you take that down?’” he says. “I was so sad because I always knew spring was coming with the arrival of the swallows and their babies.”

The swallow (andorinha, in Portuguese) is a symbol of Portugal so subtly synonymous with the culture that travelers may not even notice it. Swallows hang out in Portugal for some of the same reasons humans do: warm weather and great food. When the chill sets in and insects begin to run thin, they head farther south.

While shops tout cork coasters and bottles of port, many tourists likely pass by what may be the country’s most sentimental memento: a ceramic swallow. Locals gift the pottery birds for weddings, anniversaries, housewarmings—and going-away presents.

(How Portugal lures travelers with storied cities, port, and magic.)

Farewells were on my mind when I met Apolinario in February 2020. At the time I was blissfully unaware of the turmoil and lockdowns that were around the corner, but well aware of my oldest child’s impending graduation and departure for university in a city far from home.

Ethan, my oldest child, has been away from me before. There have been camps and sleepovers and school trips, but each time I’ve rested easy in the knowledge of his imminent return. He would come home. He always comes home.

This time feels less certain.

Those emotions were at their peak as I followed Apolinario into a small shop that specialized in Portuguese mementos. I was aimlessly peering up at the shelves filled with vibrant notebooks, colorful tins of bacalao, and retro Alantoine hand creams from a bygone generation when I noticed the abundance of swallows.

Ties that bind

“The swallow is connected to a lot of things that are dear to us,” explains Ricardo Brochado, an archaeologist and the cofounder of bespoke Porto tour operator The City Tailors. The birds’ qualities—they mate for life and raise their chicks together—make it a shoo-in as a nostalgic symbol.

“They don’t leave the nest until all of the babies do,” Brochado says. “And they always return.”

That connection to “the nest”—to a home or a homeland—is so important in Portuguese culture that there is a word for it: saudade.

Brochado explains the concept is best described as that feeling of melancholic connection you get when you taste your grandmother’s cooking or smell a scent that takes you back to your childhood. The swallow is thought to be the embodiment of that feeling. When you have one in or on your home, it carries the saudade of the giver, that good memory, with it.

“When you’re giving this as a gift, you’re basically giving a part of yourself that stays there. You’re creating a connection,” he says.

A long history 

In 1896, Raphael Bordallo Pinheiro registered the patent for his original version of a ceramic swallow. The caricaturist/satirist and with his brother Feliciano were already prominent artists at the time. Travelers to Portugal likely have seen their ceramic dishes—still made using original molds in the town of Caldas da Rainha—shaped like the food they were meant to hold and celebrating things like cabbages, chickens, and fish. The items have found new life in recent years among millennials and Instagrammers, but the whimsy of these works is different than their solemn swallow.

Brochado tells me that the Pinheiro swallow marked a pivotal time in the country’s history. Portugal was moving away from romanticism in literature and art and into a time when realism was celebrated.

(How Portugal keeps an iconic 500-year-old art form alive.)

The Pinheiro swallows increased in popularity over the years. While you can still purchase an original Pinheiro, craftspeople across the country now offer their own takes on the iconic shape. Travelers will find options that range from well over a hundred euros to as little as 50 cents.

Cultural connection 

Swallows also serve as protective charms. In fact, some believe the symbol functions much like a Jewish mezuzah, the small, encased parchment scrolls affixed to doorposts in Jewish homes and temples. “There’s a common ground between the Jewish people and the Portuguese diaspora,” says Apolinario. “We’ve sailed the world and we’re immigrants, and we always feel saudade for our homeland. A lot of people want to come back. The swallow represents that there is a nest somewhere in Portugal, although people are living all over the world.”

(Try the coveted wine that made this Portuguese island famous.)

Back when Apolinario first told me the history of the bird, I knew I needed one. I don’t typically buy souvenirs, but being able to gift someone I love a meaningful piece of a place I love was an opportunity I couldn’t resist.

Because I feared for the life of a ceramic bird in my son’s new dorm life, I opted for a tiny magnetic interpretation instead. This past September, while standing at the door to his college dorm room and holding back tears, I handed him the envelope with the carefully wrapped swallow inside and a short note explaining its history.

His nest, I told him, remained with us, waiting for him should he ever need it.

A few days later, on a video call with him, I glimpsed the bird on his whiteboard. “I love it, Mom,” he said. “I put it where I’ll always see it, so I’ll always remember.”

Heather Greenwood Davis is a Toronto-based travel writer and National Geographic contributing editor. Follow her on Instagram.

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