Porto – Bon São João

A long summer day could mean lemonade and an air conditioner if you are close to the equator or a day (or even a week) full of celebrations and frolic if you are closer to the Arctic Circle. Traditions, celebrations, names, and even the dates vary a bit across countries, but if you do end up in the right city at the right time, it is usually a lot of fun.

Seattle has a parade and a day-long fare in its Fremont district on the weekend closest to Summer Solstice (June 21st), making for one of the most known celebrations in the US. St. Petersburg takes it to the next level and celebrates 10 days of white nights when it is never completely dark. The big graduation parties often happen this time, though the actual week can vary significantly from May – July. The Nordic countries celebrate Midsummer (or Mid Sommer) on June 24th and it can often be a family event. The day is also celebrated as St John’s Day in Lithuania and various parts of Europe – notably Porto in Portugal. It is one of the least known celebrations and probably one of the most fun for a casual traveler who happens to be in Porto on the date.

Even the day before (on 22nd), when we landed in Porto, the preparations were on. A huge stage had been set up on the square in front of the grand Municipal building and there were festivities in the air. A quick walk across the Luis-1 bridge showed preparation for some fancy fireworks on the bridge and also on barges in the river. There were stores selling these plastic hammers that made a ‘peep’ sound when you hit someone with it – cute!!! It took us a little while to understand their cultural significance and use. The original tradition is a Pagan one that involves hitting each other on the head with garlic flowers, Alho Porro, as a wish for good luck. In the 60s it was decided to replace the garlic with plastic hammers presumably to reduce the wastage and foul smell.

The festival does seem to center around everyone just walking around with the hammer tapping everyone else on the heads and wishing Bon San Juan. But at a closer look, there is so much more to the festival than that. It was described by some journalists in 2004 as one of the best midsummer festivals in Europe which is still unknown outside Portugal – that fact hasn’t changed much to date. The festivities start in the early evening on the 23rd as everyone heads downtown and toward the Douro river to start eating and drinking. Every place is full and the streets are buzzing with energy. The concerts start as the sun sets and liquor bars are set up all across the city. Once it gets a little dark the hot air lanterns start showing up in the sky making a pretty city even better. There are hundreds of them that are launched from pretty much everywhere. It is a spectacular sight in the sky and also around town as people are busy lighting up these lamps in small groups.

There is a smell of grilled sardines everywhere as the traditional food for the evening is bar-be-cued on nearly every corner of the city. The party gets crazier till about midnight when everyone takes a break to watch the fireworks on the Douro river. Once they are over, the dancing and the drinking start again and continue until the Sun shows its first light. After that, the people go home leaving behind streets full of plastic glasses and plates for the cleaning crews to work on.

We walked across the Dom Luis bridge earlier in the evening to see the crews doing final checks on the firework being set up on the side. It was full of people passing by and tapping each fellow reveler with the toy hammer. It was a fantastic walk with a great view of the river and the party starting to pick up steam. The crowds around the river got really heavy and we moved further away from the area into the area around the Porto Cathedral. We spent a bulk of the time in the area around the Porto Cathedral – which offered a stunning view of the sunset and the first sights of hot air lanterns flying over the red-roofs of the Porto skyline. We had an early dinner in a restaurant servicing food on roadside tables. The food (obviously Sardines) was good, but just the energy of the area made it even more enjoyable. We hung around well past midnight to enjoy the liquor, music, colorful skies

The festival was super fun, probably one of the best I have been to, and the hammers that the hotel gave us became great souvenirs to keep. The music was mostly Portuguese but it was high-octane and foot-tapping and the energy in the crowd was infectious. Highly recommended for everyone!

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