Europe 4 – Festa do Sao Joao

Festa do Sao Joao (2)

The celebrations

Preparations for the party begin several days before June 23, with virtually every bairro (district) of Porto decorating its streets with coloured ribbons. You’ll also see cascatas – models representing everything from religious figures to workers to whole townscapes – which are constructed by various bairros, schools and businesses, with a prize given for the best one. The morning of June 23 sees a series of frantic preparations, involving not only

the council setting up stages and illuminations, but all the tripeiros, or tripe-eaters, as the residents of Porto are known. This really is a citywide party, as yirtually every household plays its part with its own decorations or improvised stalls on the street outside their homes.

Festivities are already under way by the late afternoon of June 23, with people of all ages promenading round town. Outdoor braziers are lit on virtually every residential street, and the smell of grilling peppers and sardines wafts through the warm June air. Everything is flung open – windows and doors of cafes, bars, houses and restaurants; tables, chairs and benches line every available space, as squares, cobbled alleys and the riverfront become one giant open-air cafe.

The early part of the evening sees old grannies tottering around with sticks, families pushing babies in prams, and small children asking passers-by for coins for Sao Joao, before the chanting male youths in replica Porto football shirts begin to get the upper hand. All night long, though, there’s a mixture of people and ages out on the streets – this is the one party that no one in Porto wants to miss.

By 8pm or so, the tripeiros are already in the party mood. A tide of whistle-blowing, hammer-wielding people begins to seep down the steep streets towards the river. No one seems to know the origin of the tradition of hitting people over the head on this day, but what was traditionally a rather harmless pat with a leek has evolved into a somewhat firmer clout with a plastic hammer that squeaks if hit with the correct force. You should know that everyone has a plastic hammer, and everyone wants to hit someone else with it – something that is done with remarkable restraint by even the most macho locals. (As a rule, if you are extremely attractive, expect to be the target for extra hits.)

People begin dancing to the live music by the Rio Douro while it’s still light, banging their hammers on metal cafe tables to the rhythm of the Latin and African sounds. Elsewhere, live music performances vary from pop and rock to traditional folk music and choral singing

basically, there’s something for everyone. As darkness falls, exploding fireworks begin to rumble through the night sky above the glowing neon of the port-wine lodges over the Douro. The makeshift riverfront stalls do a roaring trade, and the whole city becomes a frenzy of dancing, whistling, and singing people of all ages. By now, you may be in the mood to participate more fully by getting hold of your own plastic hammer from one of the many stalls selling them. Indeed, the periphery of Avenida dos Aliados becomes a night-time market, with stall after stall selling everything from fresh bread to flowers to illuminated balloons, which periodically drift eerily into the night sky.

Midnight sees the inevitable climax of fireworks and illuminations, but the night is far from over. As dawn approaches, the emphasis shifts west to the beach of Praia dos Ingleses in the suburb of Foz do Douro, at the end of the Douro estuary. Here there’s space to participate in the tradition of lighting bonfires for Sao Joao,

with youths challenging each other to jump over the largest flames (casualties are surprisingly rare). The whole area then becomes one big beach party, with revellers dancing to ghetto blasters round the roaring fires. Pace yourself and before you know it the crowds will start to thin slightly and the first signs of daylight will appear on the horizon. It is now St John’s Day.

The boat regatta

Luckily for everyone involved, June 24 (St John’s Day) is a public holiday.

A few people attend morning church services, but the streets generally remain deserted as revellers recover from the night before. The afternoon, however, sees somewhat more gentle action by the riverfront with a boat regatta, usually starting at around 3pm. This is a race for the barcos rabelos, the low, wooden boats

traditionally used to transport port wine from the mountainous Douro valley to the port lodges in Vila Nova de Gaia, opposite Porto. The best place to see the regatta is from Porto’s riverfront, Cais da Ribeira, an atmospheric strip where kids cool off by plunging into the filthy waters from the double-decker Ponte Luis I bridge. Alternatively, walk over the bridge (or take bus #32 from Avenida dos Aliados) to the riverfront at Vila Nova de Gaia, from where the dense Porto cityscape makes a dramatic backdrop to the boat race.

it the crowds will start to thin slightly and the first signs of daylight will appear on the horizon. It is now St John’s Day.

Insider info If you’re staying the night outside Porto’s central grid, familiarize yourself with the route back to your hotel on foot – taxis on the night of June 23 are virtually non-existent.

Where to have Fun at the Festa

Though most areas of Porto have some sort of celebration, there are three main places to head for: the central square made up of Avenida dos Aliados, the administrative heart of Porto, which during the festival becomes a traffic- free area of stalls and live-music stages; the precipitous warren of atmospheric, narrow alleys tumbling downhill from Sao Bento station to the riverfront, the earthiest and most historic part of town and, beyond here, the Douro riverfront, which is Porto’s liveliest area all year and is a further heaving focal point for the festivities, with another stage set up on Praga da Ribeira for live music.

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