Festival of Saint John, Porto, 23rd-24th June

Festival of Saint John, Porto, 23rd-24th June

Porto (788)

The Festa de São João (Festival of St John the Baptist) in Porto is not for the faint-hearted. It is loud, brash and slightly insane. Imagine New Year’s Eve after 10 double espressos. The São João celebrations are part of the Popular Saints celebrations that take place in various regions of Portugal in June: namely, the Festival of St Anthony, which is celebrated in Lisbon on 12th-13th June; the Festival of St John, which is celebrated in Porto and Braga on 23rd-24th June; and the Festival of St Peter, which is celebrated in various cities, such as Póvoa de Varzim, Sintra, Montijo and Évora on 28th-29th June. All the festivals have links to pagan summer solstice celebrations and certain customs from pagan times still exist, such as jumping over bonfires and giving friends, family or a girlfriend/boyfriend a plant. In Porto, the Festa de São João also has something unique to Porto, the tradition of hitting people on the head with a martelinho (a toy plastic hammer). Originally people would carry a tall plant called elephant garlic (also known as wild leek), which has a large flower, and hit people with that, but some enterprising businessman in the 1970s came up with the idea of introducing soft, squeaky, plastic hammers for the festival and the idea caught on.

The main celebrations are held on the evening of 23rd June, but São João events start occurring in the city over a month before, including concerts, street entertainment, and events for children. We were lucky enough to be in Porto in the week leading up to the big night and there was a sense of anticipation in the air. On every street there was bunting and other decorations. In shop windows, on café tables, and on market stalls were the ubiquitous manjericos, pots of bush basil with quadras, four-line verses, stuck in them. (The Porto-based newspaper, O Jornal de Notícias, holds an annual quadras-writing competition in June which is very popular and gets around 5000 entries.) Walking around the streets of Porto on our first day we came across a full-size rotating ball of martelinhos in Largo de São Domingos, part art installation, part fairground ride and very popular with young and old alike. One afternoon we came across a group of people in traditional costume who started playing traditional music and dancing on a street corner. The joy of it was they seemed to be performing for their own pleasure, not for applause or for money from the passers-by. We were also lucky enough to see the rusgas (revels), a singing and dancing parade performed by groups from various districts of Porto who compete against each other. They can choose their own theme, which should include references to the traditions of the city and they are judged on music, choreography, costume, props and scenery. As a friend from Porto told me, they are reminiscent of the Lisbon marchas populares, but are a lot less sophisticated. Wandering around the city we also came across what I initially thought was a large-scale nativity scene, but on closer inspection I realised that it was a scene of Porto with its distinctive buildings and small painted figures of people and animals added, including figures of the popular saints (St. John, St. Anthony and St. Peter). These scenes which represent Porto daily life in the past are known as cascatas and the tradition dates back to the nineteenth century when they starting appearing, based on the idea of the Christmas nativity scene but with the saints replacing the Holy Family. I later learnt that there are two figures that appear in most cascatas, which give it a touch of toilet humour: a milkmaid urinating into her milk pail and the ‘cagão’ (‘shitter’) who is a man caught defecating! Nowadays cascatas can be seen in various places around the city during the period of São João, including in the Mercado do Bolhão, and there is a prize for the best one

These small events are like appetizers before the main day, which starts early in the morning of the 23rd with people setting up martelinho stalls all over the city. Often the ‘stall’ is just a sheet on the ground with a random selection of plastic hammers on it. Along with the martelinho stalls are the plethora of Superbock stalls along the riverfront on both sides of the river. This is where everyone will be congregating later in the night to watch the fireworks and they will be in need of liquid refreshment in the form of one of Portugal’s most popular beers, Superbock, who, judging by the number of advertisements around the city, seem to have a monopoly on the event. Also along the riverfront, from lunchtime onwards, is the distinctive smell (and smoke) of sardines being grilled. Added to that are the stalls roasting meat on spits, others selling traditional cakes, biscuits and sweets, and others selling farturas and churros (fried dough snacks), candy floss and popcorn, and we realised that we didn’t need to worry about where to have dinner that evening. All this is accompanied by loud Portuguese party music dedicated to the popular saints. One song in particular, called São João Bonito (‘Lovely Saint John’), sung with gusto by Lenita Gentil, got stuck in my head, with its chorus:
Santo António já se acabou
O São Pedro está-se a acabar
São João, São João, São João
Dá cá um balão para eu brincar!’
(‘Saint Anthony is over
Saint Peter will soon be over
Saint John, Saint John, Saint John,
Give me a Chinese lantern to play with.’)

We discovered that São João is also an excellent day to go shopping, as many shops have a São João sale where everything is discounted. The shops, like everywhere else in Porto on this day, are very busy, but there is a wonderful holiday atmosphere wherever you go.

As complete novices to the São João hammer tradition we were a little unsure of what to do at first, until a little boy of about 6 hit me on the head with a hammer and then pointed to my hammer and then to his head. It seems that if you are hit you should return the hit. Once I’d gained my confidence I was able to hit strangers without waiting for them to hit me first. It was great fun, although Neil was getting a bit worried about my enthusiasm for this. Early in the evening the main people hitting with the hammers seemed to be children and tourists and I was beginning to wonder if the whole thing was a gimmick, but as the sun set the locals of all ages began hitting in earnest and the sound of squeaking filled the streets, along with the sound of whistles, which many of the hammers also contain. As well as the people wielding hammers were people carrying the stalks of elephant garlic, usually sadistic young men or equally sadistic old women, who took pleasure in thrusting the flower into people’s faces. Some women also carry a bunch of sweeter smelling lemon balm or lemon verbena which they push into the faces of passing men. It’s all part of the São João fun.

As evening turned into night the people continued to pour into the riverside area and the sense of expectation continued to rise. It is estimated that over 200,000 people attend the Festa de São João. Around us on the grass where we had chosen to sit to watch the fireworks families and groups of friends had set up picnic rugs and brought out bottles of wine and plastic cups. In the hours leading up to midnight, everywhere we looked were groups of people setting off Chinese lanterns. It seemed a dangerous combination of drunkenness, macho competitiveness, flimsy paper and fire in a very crowded environment. The hope was that the lit lantern would float gracefully up into the sky to join the others, but the reality was that many fell back into the crowd as a burning bundle of paper or even got caught in trees. No harm was done and it all seemed to fit in with the slightly anarchic São João atmosphere.

Finally, at midnight, the highlight of the whole Festa de São João kicked off: the firework display. It started with the opening riff from ‘Thunderstruck’ by AC/DC along with flashing lights on the Dom Luís 1 Bridge and on the words ‘Thunder’ fireworks exploded from the bridge. The rest of the 15-minute firework spectacular was choreographed against other rock standards, with fireworks coming from several boats in the middle of the River Douro as well as from the bridge. We had positioned ourselves on the Vila Nova de Gaia side of the river opposite one of the firework boats and from our position we got a memorable view of the fireworks against the backdrop of historic Porto, in particular the Cathedral and Archbishop’s Palace, the Torre dos Clérigos, São Francisco Church and the Cais da Ribeira. The last few minutes of the firework display was loud and frenetic, which seemed a fitting end to an excellent display, and was to ‘A Minha Casinha’ by Xutos & Pontapés, Portugal’s number one rock band. This track was a perfect segue into the next stage of our planned night, but we all know about the best laid plans of mice and men! Xutos & Pontapés were due to start playing a concert in Avenida dos Aliados in the historic centre of Porto at 1am. This meant that we would have to cross the only footbridge to get to the other side of the river. For safety reasons the police were only letting a certain number of people cross the bridge in one direction at a time. I will gloss over the next hour or so of the night and the drunken crush to get onto the bridge, but by the time we arrived on the Porto side it was nearly 2am and the desire to stand in another mass of people to see Xutos & Pontapés had gone.

Instead, we collapsed into bed at 2am, while outside our hotel window a party was in full swing and at full volume. There was to be no sleep in the city that night.

The following afternoon, once the city had started to come to life again, we joined a large number of people on the bank of the Ribeira to watch the final moments of the Regatta of the Barcos Rabelos. This is an annual event, organised by the Confraria do Vinho do Porto,  in which each of the main port houses races their barco rabelo  (a traditional flat-bottomed boat with a long oar at the stern that used to carry the port barrels from the upper Douro into Porto), from Cabedelo at the mouth of the River Douro to the House of Sandeman near the Dom Luís I Bridge. It seemed a fitting way to end our São João experience.

Bom São João!