There can’t be many countries in the world where it is possible to hit the prime minister on the head with a hammer, without any repurcussions. This is the festival of São João in Porto, where hitting strangers with plastic hammers is part of the fun.
São João is Porto’s biggest festival of the year. Whilst being a catholic celebration of the birth of St. John the Baptist, it also incorporates pagan elements and is held in conjunction with the summer solstice. Historically, leeks and garlic have been used to hit people on the head. This seems to have had fertility connotations but also to wish people good luck. In more recent times, the leeks and garlic have been mostly replaced with squeaking plastic hammers. When attending São João, expect to be enthusiastically tapped on the head numerous times. It’s all part of the fun.
Whilst celebrations take place in neighbourhoods across the city, the most popular party locations are in the historical centre of the city, around the Ribeira riverfront and Avenida Aliados. That’s where the crowds flock to and that’s where we wanted to experience our first São João in Porto. To get things started, we caught the Metro and rode across the Dom Luis I Bridge to Gaia, on the opposite bank of the river. There were many food outlets set up along the avenue, next to Jardim do Morro, and the crowds were already building before 10.00pm. Whilst there were several food options to choose from, I was tempted by the chourico and cheese inside bread, heated inside a wood-fired oven. Delicious!
We walked back across the Dom Luis Bridge, from where we could see the crowds starting to gather on both banks of the river below. Chinese-style lanterns were being launched from both sides of the river, rising up as a trail of glowing dots in the night sky. A couple of days ago, the government had warned that the lanterns might be banned this year due to the risk that they could start wild-fires. The final decision would be dependent upon weather conditions on the night. I can only assume that approval was given, based on the numbers of lanterns in the sky.
After crossing the bridge, we were in the vicinity of the cathedral when we saw a police-escorted motorcade arrive. Prime Minister Antonio Costa emerged, escorted by bodyguards, and began to walk through the crowd, Several people took the opportunity to have photos taken with Mr. Costa, whilst others were happy to hit him on the head with their hammers.
To get to the Ribeira waterfront, we had to walk down the narrow alleys from the cathedral. Some of the houses on the alleys had small parties taking place outside them, or were grilling sardines or selling beers. One of those parties welcomed us enthusiastically when I stopped to take photos. We were given free drinks and some grilled sardines on bread (a traditional food to eat on São João). Wonderful hospitality and typical of the friendliness of the people of Porto.
When we got down to the riverside, the crowds were streaming in and the plastic hammers were getting lots of use. It was a lovely, family friendly atmosphere with everyone out to have a good time. There were plenty of food and drink outlets to serve everyone – although a notable absence of toilet facilities.
One of the highlights of the evening was the fireworks display over the River Douro, a short distance downstream from the Dom Luis Bridge. We found a nice vantage point from where we could enjoy the show, that lasted almost 20 minutes.
After the fireworks, we became aware of the huge crowd that had descended on the waterfront. The Ribeira side was crowded, shoulder-to-shoulder with people, and we could also see large crowds on the opposite bank. And, with the fireworks over, many of the crowd began making their way off the waterfront and towards Aliados. It was slow progress, as we shuffled with the crowd.
By the time we made it to Sao Bento, it was 1.30am and we decided to call it a night, so we caught the Metro home. But the night was only just getting started for the more resilient party-goers. I understand that the music would be playing in Aliados for most of the night. And part of the tradition is to stay up all night and walk to the mouth of the Douro, at Foz. The more hardy will bathe in the Douro at sunrise and some will jump over bonfires on the beach! So, we only experienced a part of São João but we really enjoyed it. Perhaps next year we we’ll see more.