The festival of Sao Joao is celebrated in many cities in Portugal, and in a few countries throughout the world, but few places can match Porto for size, colour, and sheer abundance of their celebrations.
Sao Joao festival takes place every year on the night of 23 June and is one of the biggest events in the city’s cultural calendar. It is, however, relatively unknown outside the country, making it a prime choice for travellers looking to experience a taste of the “real Portugal” with an authentic national festival.
The Sao Joao festival has been celebrated in one form or other for more than six centuries; however, it was not until the 19th century that it became imprinted in Porto culture as the city’s most important gathering. Its roots are in an ancient pagan courtship ritual, granting it the nickname of the festival of lovers. True to its origins, it retains various courtship rituals today, including the practice of hitting each other ― supposedly those to whom one feels attracted to ― with a plastic or inflatable hammer or a garland of garlic flowers!
Nearly every town and village in Portugal celebrates the day of its patron saint in June, presumably dating back to the pagan rituals of the summer solstice. But while there is a religious element to Porto’s Sao Joao festival, this has diminished over the ages, with the more light-hearted rituals of costumed parades and plastic-hammered flirting taking centre stage instead.
The festival is a large-scale affair and preparations begin several days before the big day arrives. Each of the Bairros, or neighbourhoods, within the city is decorated with colourful displays, vying against each other to win the prize that is awarded for the best. Individual houses and commercial buildings are decorated, covered in bunting to within an inch of their lives. Colourful throughout the whole city, this is particular effective in the old town of Porto, where the narrow streets are densely populated with beautiful ancient buildings.
Festivities begin early in the day, but revellers know better than use all their energies too soon, as a long night of partying awaits. First the music begins, then the costumes appear, followed by a bevy of plastic hammers and the distinctive waft of fresh garlic, when you know the party is getting going for real.
From the afternoon onwards, the streets are awash with revellers, dancing to live music, eating freshly grilled sardines and meat treat,s from the barbecue and sipping ice cool bottles of local beer, washed down with the odd tipple of local port wine. While Porto’s many bars, clubs and restaurants throw their doors open to the partying public, there are also plenty of food and drink street stalls to satisfy the huge numbers who flock to join the celebrations each year.
The best places to enjoy the party, until midnight, at least, are in the narrow streets that run down the hill from the old town to the majestic Sao Bento station, and in the main square at the top of the hill, the Avenida dos Aliados, where many of the stalls and entertainment stages are located.
True to Portuguese style, the festivities culminate at midnight with a huge firework display. This is a sophisticated and big-budget affair, with myriad of rockets and colourful baubles exploding in the night sky in a blaze of colour, their effects magnified by their reflection in the twinkling waters of the Douro River.
One might expect the fireworks to signal the end of the party, but this is Portugal, the festival is Porto’s biggest, and the night is far from ending. Instead, the focus shifts from the streets of the city centre to the beaches that flank the city to the west. The Praia dos Ingleses, at the opening of the Douro Estuary, is where many of the revellers head to, taking a leisurely route through the rich parkland that forms the connection between the city centre and the beach.
Others head a little further afield, to Foz do Douro, Nevogilde and Matosinhos, all of which are awash with people until dawn. Once at the beach, a series of bonfires is lit and the youngsters indulge in a (perhaps ill-advised) ritual of challenging each other to jump over the highest flames. Only the rising sun can put an end to the festivities ― and even then the hardcore have been known to continue their party well into the next day.
One perhaps might not have the energy to celebrate like this every day, but for a once-a-year occasion ― or a once-in-a-lifetime treat for a lucky visitor to Porto ― the Sao Joao festival is certainly an event not to be missed.