porto: festa de são joão

Porto, Portugal, Festa de São João

Tonight’s the night!

What is often labeled as one of the best parties in Europe is about to take place & unfortunately I won’t be there… but I once was, back in 2010! Many of the cities I’ve visited recently have been preparing for their own festivities, reminding me of the fantastic time I had in Porto. In fact, the party is so important that it is broadcast to the entire nation:

Porto, Portugal, Festa de São João

Officially, the celebration commemorates the birth of St. John the Baptist. Tradition claims he was born six months before Jesus, so the festival became fixed on 23 June… oddly enough, not the day he was martyred but instead the day he was born. However, given the pagan nature of the party, perhaps the Catholic church felt obligated to transform the original festival into something more formal. With summer harvest complete, the date is a great moment to celebrate & two veggie components play an important part.

Porto, Portugal, Festa de São João, manjerico

First is the manjerico, a small basil plant sculpted into a sphere… wonderful to touch with the palm of your hand then sniff. A bit of popular verse is printed on a piece of paper which is inserted like a flag into the mini-basil. Guys traditionally give these to girls, as a cheesy valentine message:

Se eu me podesse afogar
Na tua pele perfumada
Poderia flutuar,
Viver sempre apaixonada.

If I could drown myself
In your perfumed skin
I would waft away,
Living passionately forever.

Next are the alhos-porros, or baby leeks, that you rub in the face of passersby. Can’t seem to pin down an exact reason for that particular tradition. And it’s impossible to escape the yummy aroma of grilled sardinhas filling the entire city. Bit by bit, leeks were replaced with squeaky, plastic hammers which were invented by a plastics industry man in 1963. For years they were outlawed, so maybe that’s why they’ve come back with a vengeance. Words can’t describe the fun of bonking someone over the head with one of these!

Porto, Portugal, Festa de São João, marteiro

Fire often becomes part of evening festivities. Several cities in Spain are known for burning immense paper sculptures —Las Fallas in Valencia being the most popular— while Porto chooses to celebrate with an amazing fireworks display. Accompanied by music, the show is always spectacular. Claim your seat a few hours early!

Porto, Portugal, Festa de São João, fireworks
Porto, Portugal, Festa de São João, fireworks
Porto, Portugal, Festa de São João, fireworks
Porto, Portugal, Festa de São João, fireworks

Paper hot air balloons are also lifted by heat from a burning candle, drifting randomly until extinguished. The look on everyone’s faces is priceless when it takes off:

Porto, Portugal, Festa de São João
Porto, Portugal, Festa de São João
Porto, Portugal, Festa de São João

Dancing takes place until all hours of the morning, & in less central neighborhoods the tradition of jumping over flames still takes place. After so much partying, most people head home at 04:00 while the die-hard revelers stay to watch the sun rise over the Duoro River. Religious services take place the next day for the more devout… & those who are still awake. Feliz São João!

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