Porto’s Festival of Saint John
Perhaps you recall my recent mentioning of fish heads? Or of fish-head hats? Of smoking sardines or curly green wigs? Of jubilant crowds to parades floating past while the beats and their throats formed the songs that were sung on the streets with some lyrics I could not work out but so ever enjoyed?
Does any of this ring a bell?
Quite serendipitously, I stumbled upon Lisbon’s Feast of Saint Anthony in late Spring of this year, to be precise. It was my first dabble into the Portuguese festival experience. And it was pretty bomb.
So when I learned — mid-way through our Rick Steves’ Heart of Portugal tour — that we’d be arriving in Porto the night of its patron-saint’s festivities, I could hardly believe my luck.
“You mean I get to partake in more merrymaking, à la portugais?” Sweet! But I didn’t believe Porto’s fête de Saint John could ever quite top Lisbon’s festal homage to its holiest Tony.
But then, it wouldn’t be the first time I was wrong.
Festa de São João do Porto
Porto’s Festival of Saint John is called Festa de São João do Porto in Portuguese. And, it was our tour guide, the one and only Cristina Duarte, who informed us a few days prior that our sexy tour bus would be rolling into town on time for Porto’s biggest bash of the year.
(Well, she didn’t use the word, sexy, per se, to describe the tour bus.)
Anyhow, once the day arrived, I was distracted. I’d been preoccupied — busy concentrating on other things. Such as Porto’s beauty. It’s charisma and charm. And my new-found desire to make Porto my home.
Arrival in Porto
We’d departed the terraced hills of the Douro Valley — Portugal’s most famous wine region — earlier that morning.
After getting to Porto, we packed A LOT in. For a brief rundown, here’s an excerpt of the the day’s tour description:
On arrival in this rustic Portuguese San Francisco, we’ll take a panoramic bus tour of Porto’s classy neighborhoods, dynamic downtown, and bustling port. After checking in to our hotel, a savvy guide will show us how to explore the city through our taste buds with a sampling of delicious local cuisine, teaching us about history, architecture, and culture along the way. We’ll end our day with a relaxing cruise on the Douro River (weather permitting).
So as scheduled, we partook in an epicurean tour led by Taste Porto (previously ordained in Parts Unknown by none other than St. Anthony Bourdaine).
We were split in two groups and sent off with a guide. Ricardo Brochado was the fearless culinary leader of my merry band of sightseeing eaters. Ricardo did not let us down, nor lead us astray. And, he was also the first to introduce us to “the hammer.”
Stop, Hammer Time!
Ricardo had brought with him a small, plastic, orange-and-green hammer (or was it yellow and blue?) that made a squeaking sound whenever you bopped it on something. But what was that something you were to bop it on? A nail, perhaps? Or maybe a wooden plank?
You were to bop it on other people’s heads.
After the pleasant satisfaction of putting Porto’s tasty food and drink into our bellies, Cristina continued our walking tour down to the waterfront, where we’d be boarding our next activity: a relaxing cruise on the Douro River. (Thankfully, weather permitted!)
As we gathered round, Cristina pointed out a huge cart, full to the brim, of hammers being swapped for a couple Euros a piece. It was a massive pile of brightly colored plastic hammers — like the one Ricardo playfully bopped on my head only hours earlier in a showman’s display of what was to come.
Along the Douro River
Cristina indicated that, if we wished, it might be a good idea to get our hammers now, as they could be in short supply later. And the tool, surely, would come in handy. I picked one up straight away! We boarded our Rabelo boat, hammers in tow.
The cruise was such a treat and only made me fall in love with Porto even more. Afterwards, once back at the dock on the banks of the river, we were set free! The rest of the evening was ours to spend as we wished!
Cristina asked if I wanted to join her and another local guide for the evening’s festivities, in order to experience first-hand how locals celebrate Festa de São João do Porto. Um, YES!
We arranged to meet later that evening, back at the hotel. And as planned, I was ready, hammer in hand. That’s when I met Margarida Falcão, a local Porto guide and friend of Cristina’s. She was incredibly welcoming and, like Cristina, so much fun, right off the bat!
Together, we walked to an area high atop an embankment overlooking the Douro. And when I say high up, I mean high up. Porto has been compared to San Francisco for a few reasons, one in particular being the hills — although I’m pretty sure Porto actually beats San Fran in elevation gain.
Porto’s Festive Foods
As we walked we could already smell the grilling of fish, the savory smoke wafting through the air. And we passed an extremely long line of people waiting to dine on sardines at a local eatery looking out on the river, with a view to Vila Nova de Gaia in the distance.
I should say right away that sardines are to the Festival of Saint John what turkey is to the holiday of Thanksgiving in the United States. Porto’s Saint John festivities and sardines go hand in hand — with grilled sardines and peppers as the festive meal of the day.
Did I mention that incredibly long line?
Well I was completely surprised when Cristina and Margarida led me straight past the queue of locals out front and directly into the restaurant, like magic. We walked up to a table at the end with a view. Margarida’s mother, father, and children were waiting there for us. Being retired folks, Margarida’s parents went to the restaurant quite early to reserve the spot until the rest could join, which is how we were able to bypass the line.
I was the only American at the table — and I felt like a guest of honor in a way! Really, I was just lucky to have been able to tag along for so much fun. We ate lots of Sardines with grilled peppers, potatoes, olives, and salad. All the food that’s traditionally consumed on the day of the festival. (Lucky for me, it’s all naturally gluten free! Score!)
Since I couldn’t partake in the glutenous beer, I ordered wine instead. And Margarida’s kids were practicing their English on me — quite shyly at first, but their reserve waning with time. And although Margarida’s parents hardly spoke a word of English, they made use of the expression or two that they did know and also communicated with smiles.
The whole family was so incredibly welcoming!
Then, our bellies satisfied, it was time to leave the restaurant and wander for a bit! People were out enjoying the lively atmosphere in the streets. And it didn’t feel crowded. There was space a-plenty in the streets of Porto.
Festival of Saint John by Night
We said our goodbyes to Margarida’s parents who were ready to call it an evening. The sun was on the verge of setting, and the vibes in the streets were just warming up. Cristina, Margarida, her daughter and I walked down a steep hill towards the waterfront. We’d been testing out our hammers, which were in good working order and ready for more use!
As we walked along the waterfront, Cristina and Margarida told me of another main aspect of the festival that unfortunately I was missing out on this year: the lanterns.
Apparently, it happens each year during Porto’s Festival of Saint John. A sea of lanterns is released into the night sky along the riverfront. But because of the deadly fires that had tragically struck earlier that week, the lanterns were banned at this year’s celebrations.
However, I found a lovely picture on Instagram showing the beautiful spectacle:
Getting Hammered in Porto!
It sounded like an orchestra of crickets. But, actually, it was hundreds of hammers being bopped on the heads of strangers or friends. (Mostly strangers!)
Apparently, this tradition of hammering has its roots in pagan courtship rituals. And, originally, participants used the bulbous ends of garlic flowers for the bopping. But Cristina told me that could actually be quite painful. And smelly. (Garlic flowers, y’all!) Thus the transition to the use of plastic hammers!
I have to tell you that this was an incredibly amusing experience! Completely delightful! And just plain joyous! Who knew there was a real-deal Portuguese festival with a tradition of getting hammered as a cornerstone feature? The Portuguese knew. But I certainly had no idea!
The merriment this induced is a little hard to describe, so I thought I’d share a video that encapsulates the energy of the evening! (It’s grainy footage, but worth watching until the end, in my opinion!)
So, in summary — just to hammer the point home some more — this is a festival worth checking out! It really hits the nail of gaiety on the head! And ultimately, at Porto’s Festival of Saint John, a smashing time is sure to be had by all!
Do you have any memorable festival experiences — whether at home or abroad — that you’d like to share? Please give us the scoop in the comments section!