“ Every year, on the 24th June, the city of Porto, in the north of Portugal, becomes lively and seemingly crazy. Thousands of people come to the city centre and to the most traditional neighborhoods to pay a tribute to Saint John the Baptist, in a party that mixes sacred and profane traditions. „
Having lived and travelled extensively throughout Portugal I think I can safely say that the Portuguese people are a much quieter race than their Spanish neighbours except when it comes to two events - football and festivals. Their festivals are a bit like their national football team - hit and miss. Some festivals can take up two or three days in a week during the summer months and folks will be singing, dancing, drinking and eating all day and all night long. Generally, the longer the festival lasts the better it is and one day events like the carnival in Loule in the Algarve can sometimes lack lustre due to bad planning and terrible costume designs. My favourite festival of all has to be the one in Porto - Festas de Sao Joao.
The Festival of Saint John is celebrated throughout Portugal in the last week of June. Every town, city and village will celebrate this feast day but Porto is the city that really knows how to put on a show. Porto explodes into a riot of drunken revelry which is sometimes anarchic and a mixture of religious and pagan rituals which are often very entertaining, amusing and lots of fun. Remember, it is the summer solstice, also.
The streets of Porto on this day and night are very decorative with grandiose altars, colourful stalls and stages for live entertainment. The party actually begins on the day of the 23rd, St John's Eve, with a model making competition between the districts of Porto. The models are in religious forms. People exchange basil plants or scented herbs that represent a holy meaning. This giving of gifts is meant to bring health and luck in love and business.
Then comes the all night party when the entire town seem to be out in the streets, singing and dancing, drinking bucketfuls of Vinho Verde, eating Caldo Verde soup, sardines, roast cabrito (kid), lamb and aromatic potatoes. Visitors are always made welcome and invited to join in the local street parties.
Portuguese love fireworks and really don't have to have an excuse to have a party. Throughout the day you will see guys walking up and down the Ribeira, stopping at various spots to prepare the fireworks for the evening's display. Having been to lots of firework displays now I know the routine and usually manage to suss out the best viewing point. Here in Porto, the best places to view the extraordinary displays are on the Ribeira or on the beach at Foz do Douro. The light show that invades the sky over the river on this night is something else. Red and orange seem to always dominate the sky and standing on the Ribeira I remember feeling exhilarated with all the noise, smoke and intense colour. The huge pom pom explosions are really very beautiful but at the same time the noise is terrifying and I always ducked thinking they were about to fall on my head. Consequently, I spent most of the night shuddering and crouching down every time a firework was lit. One year we were stood on the beach rather than on the Ribeira and I saw such a bizarre sight - a stretch of golden sand full of young people on their knees praying.
However, the most bizarre aspect of the celebrations is people hitting each over the head with hammers; the inflatible and squeaky sort. Originally leeks were the weapon chosen to carry out this task. On a couple of visits I have seen leeks being used usually in the early hours of the morning when the antics become very, very silly.
Small paper hot-air balloons are released into the sky which is a ritual usually carried out by sun worshippers and the young Portuguese leap over bonfires. An odd number of jumps, but at least three, are meant to deviate and protect against any misfortune in the coming year. Really, I think it is more for fun and not always taken seriously.
On Saint John's Day itself, people sleep off their excesses, religious and devout go to church and in the afternoon there is the spectacular annual race of the ancient Barcos Rabelos boats. These are the famous boats with sails bearing emblems of port distributors that carry port up the Douro river. A very colourful sight that seems to cause a lot of excitement and enthusiasm.
If you want to visit Porto at this time then please do - but don't come to this fantastic and colourful city expecting it to be peaceful on Saint John's Day. Be prepared for excitement, frivolity and lots of madness.