While not as ribald as Rio’s Carnival, the Festival of John the Baptist is Portugal’s very own love-themed holiday that eventually evolved into an excuse for lavish feasts and dancing in the streets. It’s one of the most underrated street parties in Europe and, while it’s not well known outside of Portugal, that shouldn’t stop you from enjoying in the revelry.
For six centuries, the night of June 23rd (and well into the next morning) has been dedicated to this celebration of love, a nod to St. John and a re-creation of an ancient pagan courting ritual. The elements of sun and fire worship were likely appropriated from various pagan rites, paying tribute to the summer solstice. The origin of the tradition of beating the one you love with plastic hammers, leeks and cloves of garlic, however, is apparently unknown. The Festa de São João is recognized in Brazil, Quebec and Newfoundland, but it’s Porto that takes it to the next level.
Nearly every Portuguese town and village adopts one of the popular saints—António (Anthony), João (John) or Pedro (Peter)—whose days all fall in June (this was likely a Christian adaptation of pagan summer solstice celebrations). There remains a strong religious element to the festivals, but in an increasingly secular country, the church services and religious processions are often overshadowed by the party vibe.
Prepping Picturesque Porto
Preparations begin several days before, with each neighborhood displaying ornate models designed to represent religious figures, whole townscapes and other local iconography. Porto’s old city center, now a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is a picturesque speckling of tiered houses and churches clinging to the Douro River Valley. It’s said that there’s no Porto without Douro, and when you see it you’ll know why; it’s the perfect backdrop for a party. This gorgeous city is said to be the capital of fun in Portugal; while Lisbon works, Porto plays.
The scenery reaches a feverish peak on June 23rd, with every home in sight draped with bunting. Although all ages are welcome, the predominant activity is the flirtatious attacking of crushes and other objects of affection with either limp leeks or plastic hammers. Since this “attack” is done out of love (or at least lust), the strike is usually gentle (but some still put some force into it).
This charming yet Neanderthal-esque courting ritual is woven into an evening of partying that includes barbecues, all-night dances, the guzzling of copious amounts of wine and the release of numerous flame-propelled illuminated lanterns into the night sky. The tide of revelry flows downhill from São Bento station to the riverfront Cais da Ribeira, where Porto’s best bars and restaurants are to be found. Throughout this neighborhood and all others nearby, you’ll find myriad makeshift food and beer stalls, live stages and other impromptu portals of celebration.
The predominant activity is the flirtatious attacking of crushes and other objects of affection with either limp leeks or plastic hammers.
On the opposite side of the Douro, fireworks begin to explode across the night sky amidst illuminated balloons and the neon lights of wine lodges. Fireworks reach a peak at midnight, but the night rages on for the youth as partiers head west to the beach of Praia dos Ingleses at the Douro Estuary.
At the beach, several bonfires are lit in the name of São João, while a few brave souls dare each other to jump over the largest flames. The whole area transforms into one large beach party with dancing until the sun comes up. Revelers traditionally bathe in the ocean the next morning, nursing hangovers with a chill day at the beach roasting in the sunshine and daydreaming of lights and love. There is mass for the saint the next morning, and most spend a relaxing day watching the famous wooden boat competition, the barcos rebelos, on the Douro River.